I think it’s a shame that gardening is so often thought of as outdoor tidying up – a sort of never-ending chore you are obliged to do for fear of your neighbours judging you. So here’s the reality: if you don’t like an aspect of gardening the chances are that, with the right design, you can ditch it. And in many cases it can give you better results. Probably nowhere is this more the case than with watering.
To me, this is by far the most time-consuming summer activity in the garden, particularly on veg patches, containers and lawns. It’s an activity that can be as much of a burden on the environment as it is to you, with a hose using around 1,000 litres of water per hour. However, in almost all gardens the vast majority of this irrigation is not only unnecessary, it may actually be counterproductive.
For example, if you are a big fan of growing your own fruit and veg, you may be doing this to get the kind of flavour and variety that you can’t find in supermarkets. Well, the flavour compounds in most crops are inversely correlated with irrigation. Loads of water in tomatoes, for example, will flush their cells with moisture, literally diluting their contents. In fact, many specialist growers of high-end tomatoes that are sold with flavour as their unique selling point will intentionally stress their plants by underwatering them as the fruit ripens.
Plants stressed by lower levels of moisture are often more resistant to pests and diseases, too, as this can trigger and concentrate their defence compounds. This same stress can also stimulate deeper roots, allowing them to access more nutrients, be more able to withstand the winds and, of course, have more resilience to drought. You will get lower yields, of course, but an astonishing uptick in taste.
Sure, newly planted specimens do require a little spoiling with the hose to make sure they have a chance to establish properly, but once they get a foothold don’t be shy about slowly tapering off the irrigation to toughen them up. A simple way to make them less reliant on watering is to forgo pots and plant everything in the ground. The high surface to volume ratio of containers means they dry out quickly. That’s why hanging baskets can need watering once or even twice a day in high summer, whereas the same plants in the ground require it only once a month.
Finally, a note on lawns: unless you are a groundkeeper at Wimbledon, don’t bother. Grasses are astonishingly drought-tolerant and will quickly recover even if their top growth is dried to a crisp, which on most of this blustery island will rarely happen. Not watering a lawn makes it more resistant to trampling, and means it will need less mowing.
So free yourself from the slavish devotion to the hose and use the time to enjoy something you really love – whether that’s gathering harvests or just relaxing on a deckchair and marvelling at it all.