Water, water near-nowhere,
and all the plants did shrink;
water, water, near-nowhere,
and dwindling taps to drink.
After losing a brother to wildfire, mining engineer P.A. Yeomans inherited a vast (and lethal) tract of land and there developed his agriculturally-revolutionary Keyline Plan to observe and manage the flow of water through the landscape – catching and storing it at the high points, and using swales, roads, and ponds to slow, spread and sink it so that it might be available when and where it was needed (1). To quench fire and enspirit earth. His design methodology and cultivation practises were game-changing, and have rippled worldwide anywhere water is a scarce commodity.
But this is Cheshire. Potato-basket of England. Grumbling land of the soggy sausage, whence the land floweth with milk and water. Departure-point for Iberian sunshine sojourns…
We’ve now reached 8 weeks with baked-blue skies and evaporating memories of rain – excepting one glorious 30 minute downpour at the start of June. In almost 20 years of cheshire-based smalltalk about the prevailing dampness, Iona and I have never known such drought. It has a different feel to fondly remembered British summers, with their characteristic 2 weeks of frantic outdoorsing, beers in the park, sudden neighbourliness, and rumours of hosepipe bans somewhere to the south-east. We passed those checkpoints long ago. The moisture in the northern air has long since dried up; the ground puckers and the stones cook. Our vegetables hang on for dear life, and die.
This is how the world ends. With suntans and summer cotton, G&Ts and tennis.
In the wet winter of yesteryear, I naively considered and dismissed Yeoman-style large-scale irrigation systems as salutary but superfluous. Our friends at Mere Farm had different reasons for rolling out kilometres of reticulated swales and ponds – controlling the flooding of their steep and sandy land. In the sandy loam flats and decent topsoil of Beech Hill I instead banked on a good, thick mulch of water-retentive organic matter, encouraging plants to root deeply through the rare dry periods, and topping up where necessary with a hosepipe. And in fairness, the herb garden with its deeper, woodier mulches and predominantly perennial plants, and also the hugelbed of buried rotting logs, have proved much more resilient than this year’s field beds with only 10-15cm of municipal waste organic compost and young annuals.
Why the humble, handheld hose you ask? Because sprinklers are so inefficient – watering pathways and plants alike, using unholy amounts of water to get any kind of soil penetration, and wetting leaves which exposes them to fungal infection (2; 3). Similarly drip irrigation doesn’t allow for the hose’s flexibility in water delivery, the emitters can be blocked by sediment and salt, and there is a question about the zonal flushing of water-soluble nutrients. Plus a hosepipe necessitates a daily interaction with and observation of the individual plants themselves, which has actually been very meditative when it hasn’t been soul-desroying. However the plot is simply too big for me to comfortably get around day-in, day-out: our seedlings have been popping up joyously into the unrelenting yellow gaze of the sun – beneath which there is no umbrella, no SPF30, and all-too-infrequent rehydration – and stagnating or dying. It seems readily-available water at this early stage, before they’ve had a chance to establish searching root systems, is crucial – we have been noticing 2nd and sometimes 3rd sowings of lettuce, radish and chard (in a now-futile attempt to stagger harvests) overtaking the 1st ones, depending on how their life cycle interacted with the weather and my haphazard hosing. Yet another learning for the agri-idiots: water is life… who knew?
Life’s tenacity is remarkable – tiny plants withdrawing strength, curling up against the heat, biding their time for weeks on end. But as we stare down the leaky barrel of a hosepipe ban (!?) even established trees are starting to show signs of water stress. Recently a gigantic Beech’s branch, itself the size of a respectable tree, was shrugged off by the main trunk, blocking our farm track and taking out some power lines in the process. The still night air rent by splitting wood. Apparently such ‘limb shedding’ remains something of a mystery in terms of why it happens, but subsequent crashes heard in the midnight woodland at the edge of our fields mean that I will wait for rain before returning to my nocturnal hammock.
Meanwhile, almost 2 months of me (and sometimes Jill) spending hours a day with a hosepipe is finally being succeeded by some semi-automation. No longer the optimistic checking of weather apps (“SURELY tomorrow? this week? next week!?”), we are installing an emergency dripline system to tide our annual beds over until the water cycle (hopefully) resumes its usual flow. Murphy’s law states that this will coincide with either a full-blown hosepipe ban, or the summer floods, but even so it will be a hugely time-saving emergency infrastructure for any future dry periods. And the forecast is increasingly uncertain.
(1) P.A. Yeomans, Water for every farm (Netley: Griffin Press Ltd, 1993)
(2) C. Dowding, No dig organic home & garden: grow, cook, use & store your harvest (Permanent Publications, 2017)
(3) J. Larkcom, Grow your own vegetables (London: Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2002)