This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The supply of a sufficiency of wholesome water to our large towns has become one of the most important questions of the day. In many instances the supply of water is insufficient in quantity and deficient in quality. Although of much less importance from a national point of view, the same facts which apply to towns apply with equal force to many gardens, and in numerous cases the water supply of gardens has become the most pressing question of the day with the gardeners who superintend them; and the experience of the last few summers, as well as the fact that our springs in many districts are yet unaffected by the rains of winter and spring, is not at all calculated to cheer many gardeners, nor to assure them that they will not have to pass through the lamentable struggle with drought which, in many cases that we could name, rendered satisfactory results out of the question. That a good supply of soft water is one of the chief elements towards successful cultivation, no one can for a moment question; yet it is quite evident that in the selection of garden sites the supply of water has never, in many instances, received that amount of consideration which its great importance demands.
The disadvantages arising from this are now felt more than ever, because the number of plants which require a daily artificial supply of water has been multiplied fourfold within the last twenty-five years.
There is no denying the fact that the gardener who has at his command a plentiful supply of good water, has a power at his back, in the matter of cultivation and cleanliness, which gives him great advantages over those who are dependent on either the stagnant water of a pond, or cold hard spring water that has to be pumped from the bowels of the earth. Of course many gardens are so situated as to locality that a supply of water from a lake or unpolluted stream is simply an impossibility; but, on the other hand, there are gardens where the gardener has to use water from springs of an unfavourable character, and from muddy ponds, while a little ingenuity and outlay would in most cases place at his command an abundant supply of the very best water for horticultural purposes. We have ourselves been, in more than one instance, compelled to use slimy water, with which no plant could be syringed, or else to fall back, as an alternative, on pump-water, which was not only attended with immense labour, but with certain death to some plants on account of mineral deposit; this, too, while an abundant supply of rainwater was allowed to run off the roofs of hothouses and other buildings into the nearest ditches.
While we know perfectly well that instances of this sort are common enough, we are under the impression that there are few questions connected with horticulture which require to be more urgently brought before the owners of all gardens so situated. We are aware that it is a most difficult task to convince the inexperienced of the almost magical effects that the different kinds of water have on the health and growth of plants; in fact, we ourselves could hardly credit the importance of one kind of water over another, if we had not experienced in various localities the different effects produced by the opposite extremes to which reference has been made; therefore we unhesitatingly say that we know of no single appliance which can be of so much advantage to gardeners and their employers as an abundant supply of soft water.
Where gardens are not sufficiently near to an unpolluted stream or lake from which to draw a supply, the next best thing is to store in large tanks the rain-water which runs from the roofs of hothouses and all other buildings connected with or near the garden. In this way a supply sufficient for the most important, if not for all purposes, can be secured. It is a matter of astonishment, when it is thought of at all, that an element of the very best character, and one of such first-rate importance, should be so frequently allowed to run to waste, while at the same time water of positively the worst description is made use of, at considerable cost and labour. We have known employers scrupulous to a point that no cinders should go to waste in ash-heaps, while a tenfold more injurious waste in connection with the water supply was never thought of.
But there is another point in connection with this important question to which we desire to call attention. There are gardens where the supply of lake and river water is at its source of such an amount and in such a position as sends a superabundant supply by gravitation to the garden; but the distribution of it and the means of supplying it are so antiquated and inefficient, that it is not half so useful as it is capable of being made. Too often it is brought into a tank or two in or near the garden, and every ounce of water which has to be applied, both out doors and in, has to be lifted and carried and passed through watering-pots, when at least three-fourths of all that is required might be applied with a tenth of the labour. This is what might be described as a splendid supply bungled in its application. If, instead of constructing expensive tanks, main-pipes were laid on along the sides of paths and walls, to which gutta-percha pipes and hose could be attached, not only could every ground crop be watered when required, but - and it is an operation of great importance - every tree and bush could be vigorously syringed without ever handling a water-pot, engine, or syringe.
The same method of applying it is applicable to all inside watering and syringing of such as Vines and Peaches; and it can be applied in the same way especially to large plants in pots, and to all such as masses of bedding plants in pits and frames. A boy can thus in may instances administer as much water as half-a-dozen men on the old principle of carrying water in pots - a work of drudgery well known by all gardeners.
With such means and appliances as this, gardeners would frequently apply water with great benefit to many crops, to the sufferings of which they are obliged to shut their eyes, because they cannot afford the labour necessary to supply sufficient water by sheer force of bone and muscle. How often would Cauliflower and Celery, Lettuce and Spinach, be kept from running to seed, Peas from being destroyed by mildew, and Cabbage from becoming tough and unpalatable ! how frequently would wall fruit-trees and bushes have green-fly and spider washed off them, and how much annoyance from red-spider and shrivelling would often be prevented in Vines, were the manner of applying water in gardens equal even to that by which dust is laid with it on the streets of towns!
Turning to flower-gardens, how often does one not meet with newly-planted things all but perishing, after being planted, for lack of a decent supply of water? and all the while the rain from the roof of the mansion and stables close by is running away through the sewers, instead of being stored to meet emergencies, to say nothing of daily wants. The water supply of many gardens is simply ridiculous, and we know of nothing so much in need of improvement.