Thirsty work

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Marian Temple explains how the Wanstead Community Gardeners responded to last month’s heatwave and urges us all to spare a drop of water for our communal gardens and young street trees

Well, we seem to be getting heatwaves every year, but the two days of extreme weather last month were more of a challenge than usual. First of all, our style of gardening is not the norm. It’s the old-fashioned, cottage garden style, with a procession of plants doing their stuff at their right time, flowering, making seeds and fading. This should not need a lot of water. 

We plant in autumn to give them time to develop a good root system. We try to use the right plants for the right place. At some times of the year, our patches are amazingly beautiful, but in a dry spell, they will look sorry for themselves. ‘Tis the nature of the thing and most people seem to accept that our patches are not all singing, all dancing all year. In times of drought, we choose carefully what we water. At the Corner House garden, late evening, we were using the hose; unusual for us. We are only watering phlox and hydrangeas. Water is a valuable commodity, so we think carefully about how we use it. Some patches we simply have to leave to their own devices. They might look miserable, but withered leaves are often a survival tactic to prevent the plant losing too much moisture and protect the roots. When the rain comes, many will bounce back. The ones that don’t? Well, c’est la vie. Gardens which are looking good in July and August (our sad period) have often been planted with annuals from the nurseries and will flower until the end of the year. They are water hungry. Not our style. 

People will often offer to water, but doing it is quite another matter. We have a small group of dedicated waterers who focus on one patch or on one group of vulnerable plants. Late in the evening, you will see them trolling around with their watering cans. Wanstead thanks them. We’re also thankful to Purbani, Little Bears Nursery and Kindred Nursery, who allow us to use their taps. Aware of their water bills, we try not to overuse.

Warned of this extreme weather, we protected some plants, building up a jacket of cut leaves and greenery around them to stop the water evaporating from the bare earth. The tree surround outside Barnardo’s, which we are trying so hard to get established this year, has a protective cover of green netting. 

When it comes to other street trees, the problem is the council plant new ones every year to replace those that have died. Often, they’re lost because they are vulnerable in their first couple of years. If no one keeps an eye on them in dry spells, they die, have to be replaced, and so the cycle continues. Good for the nurseries, not good for birds, insects and taxpayers. But the council do not make it obvious that help is needed from residents. Many would not think of watering a tree. There is a need to get the message out there, and hopefully this article will prompt a few more of us to fill up a watering can or two.

To contact the Wanstead Community Gardeners, visit wnstd.com/gardeners