Hand-watering meditations

Sunday, 03 November 2019

Drought-stricken countryside, inland NSW

A recent trip to drought-stricken inland NSW, with confronting images of sickeningly parched landscapes and dried-up dams on all the farms has given me a much-needed jolt of awareness of water usage in gardens. At the moment, Sydney is still only on level 1 watering restrictions, but our dam levels are continuing to fall, despite occasional showers of rain over the past few weeks.

Drip line in my garden

Since the Millennium Drought (1997-2009), when sprinklers and sprinkler systems were first banned, I have irrigated my garden using drip lines snaking throughout the borders. They kind of work, though it's hard to get a drip outlet near every plant that needs it and there is no way of delivering more or less water to any particular plant. I've tried to improve the effectiveness of the system by applying a thick layer of mulch to keep the soil cooler and reduce evaporation. Currently I am using partly decomposed compost for this purpose.

One of my rain-water tanks

In recent times, I have decided to start to hand-water some parts of my garden to see if this is more effective and will use less water overall. I am beginning by using water from my own two water tanks, hoping, of course, that we will get a bit more rain to refill these soon. These tanks have pumps on them to help deliver the water. I'm focusing on watering areas that seem to be particularly dry, generally where there is a lot of root competition.

So the early mornings now see me standing as if in a trance, hand-watering my garden. It seems best to water in the early morning or early evening, when evaporation of the water is minimised. I have found that using my own tank water gives me a different attitude to water and makes me so much more possessive about it - and wanting it to stay in the soil as long as possible. And I don't let a single drop of it fall on a path! I give each plant the amount of water it needs, and no more.

Alternanthera dentata and Euphorbia hypericifolia are two very drought-tolerant plants for Sydney gardens

A benefit of hand-watering is that it forces me to actually look long and hard at the plants as I stand there, something I rarely do otherwise. It's instructive to see how well plants are doing or not doing, and to decide if they need to be moved to a sunnier or shadier spot, or a drier or moister one in the garden. Certain plants raise the question of whether they in fact are suitable to Sydney's climate at all, if they aren't flourishing, or are demanding of too much of MY water! I'm becoming more inclined to replace these with something else that is more resilient and drought tolerant. We are so fortunate in Sydney to have a huge plant palette to choose from when making these changes.

The beautiful garden of Carolyn Hughes in Sydney is completely watered by hand

Hand-watering gives me time to survey whether a grouping of plants looks good together (and enjoy looking at them!) or whether there is something jarring in the mix, in terms of colour, form or texture. I evaluate whether clumps are overcrowded and in need of dividing, or if shrubby perennials are getting old and woody, and thus should be replaced by a cutting. Gaps in borders can be identified and I can ponder on what to fill them with. Weeds can be quickly plucked out with my spare hand, and pests and diseases noted. I've even found I can dislodge some pests with a quick spray of the hose!

Tillandsia usneoides in the former garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

Another benefit of hand-watering is that I have the chance to give some TLC to my epiphytic plants. I'm fascinated by plants that grow on other plants, but I haven't really looked after them very well, as they clearly don't get the benefit of my drip-line irrigation. I'm able to give them a shower of water as I hand-water the rest of the borders, and admire them while I do so! At the moment, Dendrobium nobile cultivars are delighting me with their cascades of pastel blooms. I also love the soft hanks of Tillandsia usneoides that adorn various trees and shrubs in my garden, with an other-worldly charm that first enchanted me when I first saw it on a colonnade in my sister's erstwhile garden many years ago. Many bromeliads are epiphytic, and they enjoy some water on them every so often.

Hand-watering can become a form of meditation, narrowing the mind's focus, forcing us to slow down, and providing a peaceful interlude in the day. It certainly is giving me a closer connection with my garden and providing me with the opportunity to enjoy my plants in an unhurried way. I don't want to give up on gardening because of the challenging conditions, so I need to keep thinking up more ways to help keep it alive. Harvesting water from the house (buckets from the shower, basins of washing up water) are simple strategies; using grey water from the laundry requires more planning. I hope to investigate a range of options. I'm interested to hear readers' experiences with different ways of using water in a more sustainable way.