The summer water crisis is close to becoming an annual assault on the Middle English way of life. Pictures of parched reservoirs and shameless spokespeople for the water companies are as predictable a part of August television news bulletins as teenagers weeping theatrically over their A-level results. Looking back through my cuttings, I see that three years ago I was allotted a page in the Independent on Sunday Review to advise readers what to do faced with "the third successive dry summer", and there have been comparable alarms in the intervening years.
Seeing how regularly the threat of drought now arises, it is not surprising that non-gardeners deplore our insistence on diverting precious water into the soil, and find it hard to understand why we should resent having to go easy on it. They make the point that it is only a hobby. Why should the loss of a few pretty flowers and tasty vegetables matter, if as a consequence water can be saved for more critical purposes such as washing, drinking and doctoring cricket pitches?
That seemingly rational argument does not take into account the emotional, physical and financial investment we have made in our gardens. It began around Christmas when we pored over the alluring pictures in the seed catalogues and envisaged our plots as a riot of colour. Glossy magazines joined in the conspiracy to persuade us to undertake unimaginably ambitious planting schemes. Even those without a proper garden were urged to cultivate things in pots, boxes and superannuated sinks - all vessels that need copious watering in summer.
Our seeds were sown in the depth of winter, seedlings cosseted through a chilly spring until finally, and with trepidation, we introduced them to the rigours of an English summer. Some perished from the frost or the attentions of birds, rabbits or squirrels. The survivors are rewarding our patience by bursting into brilliant flower - and this is the moment when we are told that, for the greater good, we must abandon them to the elements and let them languish through thirst.
Guilt is a powerful weapon. Such is the prevailing atmosphere that even those of us in areas where restrictions have not yet been applied feel furtive as we turn on the sprinkler to stop the garden or allotment from turning into a dust bowl, braving the disapproving stares of good-citizen neighbours. Who will report the first instance of hose rage?
Moral pressure increases as water pressure falls. Authorities unwilling to suffer the opprobium of full-scale hosepipe bans instead "urge restraint" - the weasel words. It was inspiring to hear a Nottingham councillor on yesterday morning's Today programme say that he would certainly not take his water authority's hint and switch off the municipal sprinklers in advance of Monday's judging of the "Britain in Bloom" competition. We must keep a sense of proportion.
There is a larger issue here than saving water. The British have gardened since the Middle Ages. Most of us, when we chose to carry on the tradition, thought we were doing something that was not only satisfying but also environmentally sound. What could be more benign than encouraging life to flourish? Yet in recent years there has been a perceptible tendency to regard gardening as politically incorrect.
First we were told we were poisoning the earth and ourselves by using chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Then peat, easily the best growing medium, became unacceptable because its extraction destroys irreplaceable wildlife habitats. Electric lawn mowers and hedge clippers were denounced as wasteful of energy. From being in the vanguard of the green revolution we have become social pariahs, like smokers reduced to taking a puff on the baking pavements outside their smoke-free offices.
A new offence, described by the ugly new verb "to gardenise", has been introduced by the ecology police. In the spring, I went to see the marvellous garden that the late film director Derek Jarman created on the shingle at Dungeness, on the south-east coast. There Keith Collins, who now looks after it, told me that the environmental organisation English Nature had warned him against any further "gardenisation" of the shingle, because they want it conserved as nature intended.
We must not be cowed by all this, and my own watering strategy is straightforward. I shall abide by the law. Unless and until my London water authority imposes a ban, I shall outstare my neighbour and continue to use the hose on my garden and allotment. If a ban comes I shall honour it and carry water from the tap in a can.
Only when gardening itself is outlawed as environmentally unfriendly will I consider militant resistance. I am confident that all Middle England - and especially Nottingham - will rally to the cause and to my banner, a hosepipe rampant on a green field.Reuse content