March 23, 2012 9:22 pm

Pipe down

Why do golf courses get plenty of water while vegetables are left to wither?

After a heavenly, often mild winter, gardeners in southern England are confronted with a ban on hosepipes. It is worth examining the small print of the various companies’ prohibitions. Some of them are banning sprinklers but not irrigation systems, which drip. One or two of them also ban the washing of cars. None of them has yet banned prodigal car washes at commercial garages.

Poor old gardeners, why are they always targeted as a first resort? Not many of us are so insensitive as to use sprinklers all day on our lawns to keep them green. But why is it forbidden to water strawberries, or blackcurrants, or all the excellent vegetables that we grow for flavour and satisfaction? Nobody will be stopping the supermarkets’ suppliers from turning water cannons on to their field crops of peas and beans. By growing their own food, gardeners save polluting petrol-driven visits to supermarkets and remind themselves what a carrot should really taste like. By mid-May I will be longing to hose this season’s celeriac and help its roots to swell. If I fill a watering can from a tap and cart it down to each individual row, am I defying the hose ban?

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Robin Lane Fox

I am prepared to live with dead brown grass. Some of it will be on my Oxford college lawns where we will not water, but there will be the usual requests from the College scientists and economists to “irrigate” and save the grass. It is remarkable how brown grass regains its fresh green when rains resume, and I am a veteran of 1976. After more than six months of drought and heat, lawns looked as dead as a desert. Only on south-facing slopes did the roots of the grass die out. Elsewhere the green returned, admittedly with more rough rye grass than usual. In those days nobody was fussing about global warming either.

Lawns deserve sympathy, nonetheless. I will bet all the bluster of Boris Johnson that every blade of grass near the Olympic opening ceremony will be green and watered, if only by systems used at night. There will be not a hint of brown at Wimbledon. Royal Ascot will be chucking water every night on to the track for its six-furlong sprint. Lords cricket ground will be luscious while the RHS regards its new fascination with “science” to be justified by this crisis to “sustainability”. Above all, I resent the conspiracy of silence about golf.

Golf courses have been the proliferating pest of the past 30 years. They waste water in Egypt or Spain, wherever a hotel can plead a “leisure complex”. Are greens truly the only fair way? Before gardeners are told not to water their lawns, why cannot golfers be told to go back to their origins and become sustainable all over again?

My non-golfing understanding of the game’s origin is that it began among sand dunes in the Netherlands. I am prepared to believe that at first it was called “gjoolf”. Enthusiastic Dutchmen, equipped with clubs, used to chip balls around the beach and never demanded artificial watering to make their sport possible. Grass never came into it. Modern bunkers are a last faint echo of this sustainable sandy phase when “buinkers” were natural sand dunes and every valiant Dutchman was hacking around in the rough. It is time that golfers were told to come off it and stop trying to transfer their game to water-guzzling greens. Water use in Surrey would collapse. Golf would regain its dusty hazards and become as ecological as its origins. I am not sure who first turned beach golf into a green luxury. I suspect they were visitors from rainy Scotland. In Scottish care, golf gained pretensions to green grandeur. The rest of the globe followed Scottish snobbery and abandoned the Dutch beach.

A postcard of golfing on the beach from c1910©Heritage Images

A postcard of golfing on the beach from c1910

We gardeners will accept the ban, of course, but only if golf courses are promptly disconnected from the mains. While golfers relearn the Dutch for “niblick”, we gardeners will be loyally following “best practice” without any need for Wisley to boss and scare us. As the soil is not yet very dry, it should be mulched with layers of rotted leaves or compost in order to preserve the moisture that is still in it. When planting anything, even an alpine, gardeners should dig enough of a hole and then fill it with water from a permitted tap-filled bucket. Wait until the water has all drained down through the hole and then plant the new plant on top of this accessible reservoir. The trick has saved many new plants’ lives.

If you really fear a summer drought, maximise drought-resistant plants in a new garden. There is no magic here that “research” is going to reveal. The categories are already well known. Plants with fleshy tap-roots are good in dry seasons, plants like blue-flowered Campanula lactiflora or all the many Day Lilies, our catalogues’ hemerocallis. Salvias flourish and so does almost anything with silvered leaves. The silvering is usually their protection against rapid evaporation of water. Annuals like poppies or gazanias will be excellent but cool lobelias will struggle. It might be a great year for rudbeckias at home on the prairie, but it will not be much of a year for sweet peas.

Above all, use water-retaining polymers with names like Swell Gel in any soil in which you plant new things. They are invaluable in pots and window boxes, cutting the need for water to as little as twice a week. They are also invaluable around and beneath newly-planted roses or shrubs. The “crystals” expand when watered and then hold water on their surface area, preventing it from sinking or draining out of the reach of a plant’s young roots.

Lawn sprinklers, we are being told, “use as much water in an hour as a family of four uses in a day”. Could the family not be left to choose its priorities? If they all peed collectively into the same WC and emptied it only once a day they could surely be allowed to water their own spinach-plants from hosepipes. They would end up using less water than their flushing neighbours. If they re-routed the water in their washbasins into their lavatory cisterns and used it to flush them out, they could turn a sprinkler on the sweet peas and still save fluid. Gardeners are being used as indiscriminate scapegoats. Bans have become the traditional warning that terrorises the public into action. They cannot stop gardeners from wondering how much water is leaking from their water-company’s pipework underground.

Contrarians will expect this summer to be as wet as recent predecessors and will plan on the principle that early warnings are wrong. Others may prefer the advice of a distinguished professor of physics whom I asked for water-saving advice: “Shower with a friend,” he replied, with a knowing smile. In order to save the vegetables there may be a pleasure in reducing the uses of domestic water.

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