"Hand-watering meditations"

What are the benefits?
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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

 Reader Comments

1/11  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

A Sydney pal and I have become quite obsessive doing our bit about conserving water. We have become bucketers! early morning cold runoff into buckets, one mini bucket in bathroom sink for hand washing during the day!! She even keeps last machine rinse to bucket out to her precious garden, she is totally blind! & living alone! It may not help Sydney restrictions greatly, but has raised our level of awareness and doing our little bit. Deirdre handwatering is a calming meditation I agree merci! That sounds great what you are doing. Deirdre

2/11  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

I quite like handwatering too. It does make you inspect the garden in a way you mightn"t normally. It also takes little physical effort so can be a nice rest after weeding etc. But it can take a lot of time in summer, and I am never sure how deep the water is going, and whether I am in fact largely wasting water and time. I always imagine a time when my garden is so well established with drought tolerant plants that I never need to water; rather like the native bush I suppose. I understand your concerns as it certainly is time-consuming to hand-water. I think it"s important to do a few things to help the water be absorbed in the first place (eg applying a soil-wetting agent to the soil in spring) and stay in as long as possible by having lots of compost incorporated into the soil, which acts as a kind of sponge) and a thick surface mulch on top of the soil to keep it cooler and reduce evaporation. I also think we need to reconsider our plant choices and choose those that can cope better with less water, as you mention. Deirdre

3/11  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

I"ve found a wonderful mulch that"s made a huge difference to my garden. It"s called Drought Master & is a mix of forest fines & water crystals. I"ve also discovered some stunning drought tolerant plants with beautiful water Lily like blooms, Epiphyllums. They do best in a pot but they are incredibly hardy. There is even a Facebook group called EPIPHYLLUM BUY SELL SWAP AUSTRALIA where you can get cuttings that strike really easily rooted cuttings, advice & share info & photos. That mulch sounds great. And yes, finding more drought-proof plants is key. The Epiphyllums are looking wonderful at the moment. Deirdre

4/11  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

Your blog on watering the garden is very timely. I try to ensure my garden is well mulched, closely planted, and every so often, I water with a soil wetting agent. I have tanks, as well, and use the water on surrounding plants and my pots. For years I have collected water from the kitchen sink and shower, as the hot water seems to take ages to turn from cold to hot. I enjoy hand watering - it gives a chance to think, to observe plants and generally enjoy the garden, unhurriedly. Thanks, Margaret. You are doing a huge amount to conserve water. Deirdre

5/11  Maree - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

I live in an apartment complex and have no choice but to water by hand as I"m never sure if the drip system is working properly. At the moment plants that need water I do twice a week and others once. I find it very relaxing and yes you do take more notice of the whats happening in the garden. It is certainly good to have that chance to really study our plants as we water, and give each one the amount of moisture it actually needs. Deirdre

6/11  Georgia - 4107 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 04 November 2019

Enjoyed reading the blog on watering, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and suggestions. Many of your comments resonated with me especially the frustration with drip irrigation, and the precious tank water resource. A former Sydney resident, I now live in Brisbane and my inspiration for my garden has come from frequent visits to Roma St Parkland and Mt Cootha Botanical Gardens as well as some open garden visits. I am a convert to handwatering since planting a rainforest garden. Thanks, Georgia. Those gardens are terrific to visit. Deirdre

7/11  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

Always have been and still am a hand waterer. I like the process, except in winter on level 1 restrictions. Have squished quite a few grasshoppers this way as they jump out of a plant when the water hits. I was glad of the rain on Sunday but on weeding today found it didn"t go too far. Hope the farmers got better than we did, so awful for them and their stock. I also have a bucket in the shower and use the water from the dryer, though I think it may have some residue but so far its ok. Yes it is good to be able to tackle pests or remove weeds and deadheads with the free hand whilst watering! Good that some areas got some decent rain but awful for those that missed out. Deirdre

8/11  Noeline - 2081 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 November 2019

I have found my great love of succulents and cacti help with water conservation also I am slowly turning my garden into a native habitat and they have thrived this year on the dry weather...i have a lot of bromeliads and clivea and they only need a hand water when it is very dry.....My greatest advice is mulch mulch mulch and I enjoy the hand watering trance that descends on me when I do it. That all sounds great, Noeline. Mulch is very important as is plant selection, as you say. Deirdre

9/11  Judy - 2770 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 05 November 2019

Lovely piece Diedre! We live in the country near Richmond, NSW and are on tank water. I water my perennial gardens 7-10 days in summer and 2-3 weeks in winter. I really enjoy the process. I listen to podcasts or audio books as I do so with a glove on my left hand for weeding as I go. What a great idea to listen to something as you hand-water! Deirdre

10/11  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 05 November 2019

Loved this post and especially the first two lines of the finale which expresses the benefits of hand watering so aptly. Thank you, Maureen; I appreciate your feedback. Deirdre

11/11  Janna - UK Thursday, 14 November 2019

I"ll be extremely interested to find out how much water you use versus irrigation (will it be easy to tell??). I definitely think hand watering is better for plants and wastage, but I"m not sure I"m quite as patient as you are with it; I"m always wanting to get on and actually "garden"! I guess I can look at the water bills, though I am using some water from my tanks, so that confounds it a bit. It is an exercise in patience to handwater but I am finding I get lots of ideas as I stand there and I am observing more, I think. It has been too hot to do much gardening though we did have a cooler day today. Deirdre

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