Sandy’s Garden ... The Science of Watering

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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I seem to recall that, in years gone by, it was seldom necessary to spend any amount of time watering the garden.

Yes, of course, pot plants and hanging baskets needed an eye kept on them during the height of the summer. But I don’t remember doing much in the way of watering the grass during my formative years, nor do I recall seeing fields being watered by these high-powered sprays which seem to be in everyday use nowadays.

However, I am the first to concede that my memories of the ‘good old days’ are sometimes rose-tinted; and I have to admit that the passage of time makes my memory ever-less reliable.

It was with some interest, then, that I found this passage in The Scots Gard’ner by John Reid, originally published in Edinburgh in 1685, a facsimile edition of which was published in 2015 by the Library of Innerpeffray, a book to which I have referred before. I have taken the liberty of modernising the spelling, principally to remove the ‘long s’ … the letter that looks like an ‘f’ … and to remove what our eyes see as superfluous capital letters. “If you fear dry weather,” John Reid wrote, “defer not too long, but water whilst your ground is yet moist; defer not, if you mind to water at all. These that root deepest, water most; and also when you do begin, continue it so long as you find occasion. In watering trees and greater plants, stir and waken the earth a little about their roots with a fork, so as it may drink the more evenlier, minding to tread firm again.” (I do like that wonderful word ‘evenlier’.)

John Reid, writing in the 1680s, offers a splendid tip when one is watering one’s trees; so perhaps the need to water well-established plants does indeed go further back in time than I had thought. And similarly, the author goes on to recommend creating a shallow dip around green vegetables to form a basin that will discourage the water’s tendency to spread and concentrating it in the areas where it will be of greatest benefit. He also advocates watering pots by placing them in tubs of water to let the soil take up water through what are more usually drainage holes; and he writes of watering by capillary action, placing one end of a strip of woollen cloth in a raised tub of water and the other on the soil which the gardener wishes to keep moist. Today, we would be encouraged to buy special capillary matting and strips to achieve this, but a strip of woollen cloth will do the job just as well.

And there’s yet more sound advice about being very sparing with water during cold weather; about not watering in the heat of a summer day; and about not using stagnant or stale water – this last piece of advice being less relevant to us who, nowadays, usually enjoy as much fresh water as we require through the mains. Even so, restrictions on watering one’s garden are occurring much more often than they used to in Britain … especially in the more southern counties of England … and who really knows what climate change will bring about. Perhaps, in years to come, the gardener will need to arrange for water from the roof of the shed or greenhouse to drain into the largest water butt he or she can accommodate during the winter in order to have usable water in store when the baking days of summer arrive!

The Royal Horticultural Society’s website starts its advice on watering with these words. “It is better to water the garden before drought really sets in, to keep the soil moisture levels even. … Try to water in the cool of the evening or the very early morning.” The same advice as John Reid gave, But not one of today’s websites gives so much good guidance in so few words; and most of today’s plethora of garden watering advice sites don’t even mention some of Reid’s most valuable guidance. Aye, indeed, it can be very hard to beat the old ways!