This year, spring has been fairly dry and apart form the occasional shower we have had quite a few dry days. The rapid warming of the atmosphere in the spring will inevitably bring more typical weather. In March and April, the weather can change rapidly and a warm, sunny day can quickly change as the garden is battered by sudden sharp showers. It’s no fun getting caught out in the rain, so I recently replaced my old, torn and leaky waterproofs for a brand new pair. Unfortunately, if there is anything that is guaranteed to bring about a spell of good weather, it is preparing for the worst (and vice versa).
Perversely, I hope that the rain does come at some point. Water is essential to life in the garden and a dry Spring could trigger that sanction most feared by British gardeners, a ‘hosepipe ban’. Whilst I can keep my seedlings and potted plants going with a watering can, keeping the newly planted shrubs from drying out will become an endless task. I recall being told, when i was training as a gardener that; ’watering a garden is like adding salt to soup, too little or too much and it is all ruined.’
Thankfully, in temperate climates like the UK, we know it is never long before we will see the rain again. Our green and pleasant land is only this way because of an abundance of water. In areas where rain is much more infrequent plants have to adapt to make the most of things whilst the going is good. The deserts of California have recently come alive as the rainstorms have triggered a rare ‘superbloom’ when everything tries to complete its life cycle of growing, flowering and setting seed before the valuable resources disappear once again.
The ‘Dew pond’ is central to the story of the estate where I work. Originally, the garden would have been part of the common, used by locals to graze their livestock. Dew ponds were constructed by digging a large hole and lining the bottom with puddled clay so the rainwater would collect and provide a place for the livestock to drink in the summer. There is still a chain of ponds across the common, and we are lucky enough to still have one in the garden, after which the house was named.
When the garden was re-planted, the pond had fallen into disrepair and had become little more than a swamp, over-run by vigorous plants and silted up from years of fallen leaves. The pond was cleared, relined and is now replanted with plants suited to the damp conditions like rodgersia, petasites japonica and rheum palmatum. The margins are now filled with reeds, flag irises and pontaderia, and the deep water has floating lily pads where the moorhens are often keen to build their raft-like nests. It is now home to a huge range of different wildlife. In addition to the pair of moorhens that call it home and a couple of mallards that make regular visits we have several species of newts breeding in the pond. In the summer, the air above it becomes filled with dogfights between the many different dragon and damselflies. The pond is possibly one of the most biologically diverse places in the garden as it provides so many different habitats, from bank to margin, to deep water in just a few meters.
Water can be gentle and graceful, able to fill whatever vessel it is placed in and when calm it exudes the essence of tranquility. It can also be incredibly powerful, able to carve huge gorges through the earth and rip chunks of coastline away from the mainland. This makes it one of the most powerful of the elements.
Water is so fundamental to life, it’s no surprise that almost every culture has celebrated it and personified it by creating hundreds of aquatic deities to worship. The reverence of water takes many forms, from the awesomely powerful Poseidon of greek mythology (Neptune in the roman) who was also responsible for earth quakes, the well-dressing of the peak district, or the beautiful mermaid-like ‘Selkies’ of Scots folklore who might decide to run off with your husband, or wife unless you discover their seal skin like coat. When I was growing up, we would often be warned away from stagnant, green water, for fear that ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, a river hag with green skin and sharp teeth might grab your ankle and drag you under. I think it was probably more to discourage us from playing in a dangerous place.
In his book ‘Waterlog’, the great nature writer, Roger Deakin, tried to travel the British isles, swimming our rivers, lakes and the sea as he went to discover more about our relationship with this element. One of the most poignant feelings I got from reading his book was just how disconnected we have become from the water that surrounds us. Throughout the book he describes how people were shocked when they found him doing something as perfectly natural as swimming in a river. His passionate writing inspired me to try swimming in more lakes and rivers myself. After years of swimming lanes in a bland municipal building, to be able to see the world from a ducks-eye view feels liberating, subversive and allows us to reconnect with this powerful element in a uniquely tactile way.