The dry sky Posted on July 26, 2010

It begins to grind you down when gardening is reduced to one question: where to carry the can or lug the hose to next. We’ve had the best of the weather here, alright, in the infuriating phrase the forecasters use, for the past four months. The rainfall figures are: April, 7millimetres, May, 28, June, 17, July (with five days to go),7. Total 70 millimetres, or nearly three inches. The same period last year, reckoned dry at the time, gave us 140.

It is cold comfort to know that Cambridge had a downpour. Week after week the promises are broken. Up the road, perhaps a shower. Down the road, a nice little soak. Across the valley, rain last night. Here, on this sand-coloured grass, zilch.

There has been no question of planting anything since April; no new plant has a hope of putting roots beyond the circumference of its pot. Most plants, in fact, have simply stopped. They must be transpiring, in emergency mode, and their root hairs finding moisture somewhere in the dust, but new growth, or anything but a tiny travesty of a flowerhead, is simply put on hold. What surprises me is how few plants are obviously losing turgidity in their veins and wilting.

I am taking a can to this year’s new trees (luckily there are only half a dozen) daily. I might as well be pouring it into a hole in the ground: it all disappears as fast as I can pour it. I mentally map the rootscape underground: the soil must be full of tiny roots from big trees competing for moisture. What happens when they meet? Does the big horse chestnut challenge the cedar of Lebanon for the last remaining drops? Are some roothairs bigger bullies? Miraculously they seem to get by without destroying each other.

There is one clue, though, to what is going on out of sight. With the grass merely ticking over the deeper-rooted lawn weeds come into their own. And trees prone to suckering send up a forest of sprouts. We haven’t had to mow for weeks; instead I hand-pick the succulent shoots of acacias, cherries, the wingnut and above all the prolific cedrela, Toona sinensis, before it obliterates the grass under a groovy toona grove.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

Friends of Trad

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary