Dealing with Drought

When I began to restore the overgrown Jardin du Curé, some years ago,  the fast-flowing ruisseau du Val Chaud provided music while I worked. The cold spring water tumbled noisily over stones and boulders until it reached the larger river in the middle of the village. When it rained, natural springs provided the irrigation for the garden, running along stone channels to fill the small, oval cisterns built at one side of the plot. 

Traditionally, the gardener watered the plants by tying a broom handle to an old shallow cooking pan then standing over the pool of water to scoop out a little for throwing towards the needy plants. If a watering can could be afforded, it was filled from the pool to carefully ration the spring water to newly-planted vegetables and herbs. This antique irrigation system can still be found in old potagers in the south of France where a large stone cistern resembling its Roman forebear fills a shady corner of the garden. 

Saving rain water in a hot climate has been a gardener’s preoccupation for thousands of years. But global warming has brought this need to everyone’s attention – even in rainy Britain news programmes now feature the dry cracked earth of reservoirs every summer.    

My local gardening centres in Oxford sell tall plastic water holders with a convenient tap for fitting to a rain gutter. And some new houses in the Ardèche are built with a large underground cistern for storing rainwater under the terrace. Water conservation is taken seriously in a Mediterranean climate.

I have started to place flat stones on the ground around newly planted trees and shrubs;  there is a double advantage – by providing water retention in the soil but also weed suppression. 

From my Devon friends in the local gardening club, I learnt a useful lesson from the champion growers of runner beans. Always dig a large hole or trough then line it with several copies of newspaper before filling with good compost and sowing seeds or planting shrubs. I have even used a cardboard box to hold an oleander or a tree sapling before lowering it into a large hole in the stony ground of my Saint Montan garden. The cardboard box acts as a water reservoir for a few weeks then gradually rots into the ground. 

One of the casualties of water shortage is the loss of handsome terracotta pots in the garden – I still have some I made when I was a potter. A friend paints the inside of a clay pot with waterproof varnish or paint but these days I line large terracotta pots with thick plastic sheeting or a cut-down compost bag. Make a few drainage holes and still add crocks or gravel in the base of the bag to provide a drainage.

One popular solution to the increasingly common summer droughts is to grow small rock-garden plants or others that require little water, then cover the ground around them with landscape fabric and a layer of gravel or stones. 

But I still love the thirsty plants that I’ve always grown in France so I conserve water whenever possible – almost every bowl of water in the kitchen sink from preparing vegetables to handwashing is poured into my army of watering cans on the kitchen terrace. 

An unwelcome omen of the future caused great concern in the village a few years ago when the source des fièvres, the nearby spring with legendary healing powers, ceased to flow one summer. Nobody in the village could remember such an event. The winter rain restored the spring but it’s another indication of the lower water table in the region. 

When we last lifted the huge round cover on our garden well here that once provided all the water needs of the household there were only a few lizards and scorpions and no water at all. So, sadly, in recognition of the end of our well’s useful days, we paved over the top but retained a photograph of its passing.