Now sprinklers are frowned on, the humble watering can is coming back into its own. Our panel finds the best way to tackle drought by hand
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Given the invention of high-tech irrigation systems, the humble watering can may strike some gardeners as primitive and others as gender- biased. ("They are really part of the battery of ladies' gardening equipment," opined one horticultural expert, who subsequently declined to be named in print.) But changes in climatic conditions are bringing watering cans back to the fore. A Royal Horticultural Society leaflet, "The Water Friendly Garden", discourages the use of wasteful sprinklers, advising instead on selective watering with rainwater collected in water butts - which is exactly how we tested the range of cans featured in our trial. These illustrate how far the design of watering cans has come since the first terracotta watering pots of the early seventeenth century, or their variant, the thumb pots which required the user to hold his thumb over a large filling hole to force water through sprinkling holes. Now discerning gardeners can choose between a plethora of metal and plastic cans, each with advantages of practicality or aesthetics.


We assembled a group of professional and amateur gardeners, at all levels of experience: Claire Blezard, adviser to a London garden centre; Mort Hudson, full-time allotment gardener; Robert Farrant, an antiques collector with traditional views on what may be seen in his garden; Gabriella Cortazzi, a gardenless devotee of house plants; and Margo Onslow, compiler of an annual garden catalogue for retailers, who gave advice about cans in general.


As with tea pots, you can never know how well a watering can will pour until you try it, and few shops or garden centres have facilities to allow this. Most of the panellists already owned several watering cans, some of which they brought along to the trial in order to make odious comparisons. Margo Onslow warned: "Cheap, imported watering cans are not designed to accept UK-made accessories. This often causes problems when customers want to change the rose or use a sprinkle bar." Another general observation was that you have to tip the worst examples so steeply to pour from the spout, that the water slops out of the top, all over your feet. Experiences such as this caused us to grow more lenient over price; from scorning lightweight cans as "a rather over-priced piece of plastic" we came to appreciate subtleties such as balance and handle design.


Blue plastic, pounds 6.97

This smart, navy blue plastic can has all the design features of old- fashioned metal ones - separate top and side handles, a round rose and an undulating middle - but without the weight.

It holds exactly a gallon, so while Mort Hudson sniffed that it was a "ladies' can", Gabriella Cortazzi said she liked the idea that "her labours were circumscribed on each trip" (from the waterbutt). The Ward Traditional is also available in a more capacious two-gallon size for pounds 11.02.

Round roses are in fact not favoured by professional gardeners, according to Margo Onslow, "because the oval rose forces the water up at a more acute angle, making it fall gently", but we weren't dissatisfied with this one.


Green plastic, pounds 9.75

Haws is the biggest supplier of watering cans in this country, and the most talked about in gardening circles - deservedly so, it seems, for its cans are universally well made, and were appreciated by our panel of testers. This reasonably priced plastic version in British racing green comes complete with a fine, brass-faced oval rose and downspout attachments, which fit thoughtfully on parking points when not in use.

"It has good balance and a wide-ish spray through the rose, though it is not as gentle as the metal version - that is, the Haws Professional," observed Robert Farrant. This was the one that testers went back to time and time again - it is really comfortable to use.


Red plastic, pounds 6.69

This product struck all the panellists as being extremely ugly. "But then, of course, a weed is ugly, so its colour compliments its function," remarked Robert Farrant pragmatically.

All gardeners insist it is sensible to use a separate can for weedkillers, and although this one has a rose which pops annoyingly out of its port when stored, it does the job. Most importantly, it was the only can that we tested which had calibrations for measuring the proportion of weedkiller or fertiliser, and its colour, though perhaps aesthetically unpleasing, did allow the testers to see the liquid level within; green cans are hopelessly opaque, which can mean resorting to guesswork.


Metal, pounds 43.60; brass sprinkler pounds 16

This silvery, galvanised metal can with its oval brass rose was quickly voted overall winner. It is, as Claire Blezard noted, "a thing to behold" - not because it looks pretty as it stands on your lawn, but because, as you pour, the water comes out in a spray so fine it might be a mist. It's perfect for seedlings and delicate or exotic plants, but also has a very long reach to water deep beds from the edge or Gabriella Cortazzi's hanging baskets. "Usually you have to throw the can to get to the furthest plants," she said.

You can buy a brass sprinkle bar attachment (most are plastic) for further fascination with the firework-like effects. It is heavy, but so soothing to watch you want to use it anyway.


Blue metal, pounds 19.50

A triumph of style over function, this French metal can for indoor use has a super-long spout and looks, according to one pamellist, like "a catering-size can of tomatoes painted blue". It would be fetching, but "The balance is wrong, so water bursts out of the spout on the floor as you walk," commented Mort Hudson, adding that he had "never seen anything quite so daft." The rest of our testers hankered after this can's designer looks but were all agreed that it is fairly expensive for what you get.


Chrome, pounds 78

Spied amidst horticultural bric-a-brac in the window of a chic interior design store, this shiny chrome can has a brass plaque proclaiming it the "prince of garderners", a wide, acutely angled downspout and a little lid with brass knob. Robert Farrant soon spotted that the design is in fact a reproduction of the sort of can used to carry hot water up to bedrooms. Hence the wide spout, no doubt, which causes a gushing action rather too heavy for any delicate plants.

"But you can water under the leaves, and I'm sure that it can't be worse than the milk bottle I normally use," enthused Gabriella Cortazzi, who couldn't take her eyes off it. Even Mort Hudson admired the hand beaten metal round the rim. "Yes, it's lovely, I'd use it to put dried flowers in," said Claire Blezard.


The Haws range is available from independent garden centres, good department stores and hardware shops around the country; Geeco and Ward watering cans from independent garden centres nationwide; Conran Shop cans from its branch in Sloane Avenue, London SW3; and Le Prince Jardinier from Nina Campbell at 9 Walton Street, London SW3. !