Urban Gardener: Water, water everywhere

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The Independent Online

I'm not quite sure where it's come from but an obsession with watering cans has bobbed to the surface. I only really acknowledged the fetish at the Hampton Court Flower Show recently when I bought two more cans from Pete and Zoe Walker of Garden Brocante who have provided five handsome vessels over the past two years, and props for my last two show gardens at Chelsea. It's an unlikely fascination, particularly as it started during the hose ban of 2006, when sloshing around at the allotment like the tortured Gerard Dépardieu in Jean de Florette was enough to put anyone off watering cans for life. My first three-gallon French pot, despite being a brute to lug around, reduced the amount of trips to the galvanized water tank by half. Now armed with two of these monsters, I'll be even more efficient. And the evenly distributed weight will be less strain on the back.

At an allotment, you can never have too many watering cans and most of ours to date have been plastic. They may be lighter and cheaper but they are less durable than metal and have no aesthetic appeal whatsoever making the whole process of watering more mundane than therapeutic. Metal cans simply look, sound and feel better. The shape of the old French pots are almost comical with their bloated roses and a handle that curves confidently from the back of the can to the spout. Two hands can be used to lift them, which is just as well as a full, three-gallon can weighs in around 35 pounds. A Haws can is more refined and, therefore, more beautiful. The design by John Haws in 1885, a triumph of function dictating form, revolutionised watering at the time and has changed very little since. The balance is perfect so there is less strain in using it and the raised neck allows the can to be angled sufficiently to ensure a good flow, stopping the water running across the face of the rose and dribbling out. The pleasure this gives, compared to an inferior can, sounds a touch arcane but (and this may be a male thing) an uninterrupted flow elevates the whole procedure to an almost sensuous experience.

Like secondhand tools, a used can carries a sense of history. These old cans blend well with the overall ramshackle nature of allotments, but the current wave of pilfering at ours might put my growing collection under threat so the best cans will stay at home for now. That said, I won't be able to resist taking my two latest acquisitions for some musical jousting with Rick Joseph this weekend. Rick is the sort of eccentric that makes allotments so interesting and has a habit of blowing on his watering can just for the hell of it. He's persuaded me, and tried to encourage fellow plot-holders, in the spirit of local distinctiveness, to purse lips and blast a note around midday on Sunday to signal the closing of the allotment shop. If it catches on I'm sure "The Horn of Hampton" will find its way into Common Ground's England in Particular except that so far only two of us are doing it and all we get are strange looks.

If the pilfering continues then a blast on a can might be just the thing to alert fellow plotters. In fact if everyone had the sort of collection I'm building we could send a range of messages depending on what type of can is being blown. The deep-throated hoot of a three-gallon French pot would be "The shop's about to shut!" A shrill toot on a two-gallon Haws greenhouse can: "The bastards have nicked all my soft-fruit again!" You could then use a range of smaller cans to distinguish exactly what vegetable has been plundered. If things get even worse and anarchy threatens, then the humble watering can, like the conch in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, could well be used to symbolise law and order and allotment committee members will only be allowed to speak if they're holding an antique Haws No. 4 greenhouse can. Not a bad idea. I might just moot it at the next AGM.

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