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The Water Saving Garden: Protecting a scarce resource

by | 29 May 24 | Garden Design, Long Reads, Sustainability | 0 comments

The Water Saving Garden Chelsea

It was whilst frantically watering her plants in 40-degree heat that Sam Proctor had the idea for a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Her pots were drying out quickly and she was having to use copious amounts of tap water to keep them alive.

“I thought it was mad to be using drinking water to water them, when we know that London and the southeast are actually quite water stressed and that we are overusing resources.” Where the garden designer is based in the Chiltern Hills, drinking water comes from the chalk aquifer that serves the area. “It bubbles up naturally in springs and runs through the Chilterns in chalk streams, which are quite an iconic part of this landscape – but they’re in danger of drying up. Then there’d be no habitat for wildlife and no enjoyment for people who love seeing that natural landscape. It’s a big part of my life here.”

Sam Proctor

Sam Proctor. Credit: Kat Weatherill

So, Proctor started collecting water from showers and washing vegetables, for instance, and using that to water her plants instead. But she was keen to spread the message a little further afield. That’s where Chelsea comes in. Proctor got in touch with her local water company Affinity Water, which has its own Save Our Streams campaign, to see if they would be interested in sponsoring a garden on that theme.

“They serve 1.49 million households who they’re trying to engage with about the pristine nature of the chalk streams; this area has 80% of the world’s chalk streams, a natural habitat that’s as unique as the coral reefs, so they’re something to be valued and nurtured.”

“A growing population is putting pressure on resources though”, says Proctor. London could run out of water in 25 years, warns the Environment Agency. “We expect to be able to turn on a tap and have as much clean fresh water as we want, but we need to be more mindful that this resource is shared amongst all of us, and also with nature. And if we save water, we save money as well.”

The Water Saving Garden Chelsea

The Water Saving Garden. Credit: Kat Weatherill

Plants prefer rainwater too, says Proctor. “It generally has a lower pH, whereas tap water can have a higher alkalinity due to the minerals that are found in it; that affects plants’ ability to take up nutrients, especially acid-loving plants in an ericaceous compost. Minerals in tap water inhibit plants such as camelias and rhododendrons, but all plants generally prefer rainwater.”

Collecting rainwater and avoiding misusing it could change the way planting palettes are impacted as a result of climate change, says Proctor. “It’s not just about having plants that adapt to hot, dry settings, because some of those plants might not do so well in UK gardens – especially in winter, when it gets very cold and wet. As the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent, our planting palette might be more limited; but in certain situations, if we’re able and prepared to give plants the resources that they need, then we might not be as limited as we thought we might be.”

The Water Saving Garden Chelsea

The Water Saving Garden. Credit: Kat Weatherill

In Proctor’s The Water Saving Garden at Chelsea last week, stylish water butts collected rainwater from an imagined roof, from which it trickles down via rain chains to make it “as decorative as possible”. This is then guided into interconnected reservoirs (from Livingreen Design) inside the planters, for the plants to take up water right at the roots, as and when they need it.

Whilst in a typical design, water saving methods such as water butts, rainwater sensors and rain chains would be hidden, Proctor put them on display at the show so that visitors could see how these systems might work and showcased the reservoirs themselves – which are placed inside the planters, just at the roots of the plants – to the visitors too.

Now that the show has closed, the garden is being offered by Affinity Water as a competition prize. Any community or public space that would benefit from the garden, that is based in the Affinity Water region, can enter to win it. Proctor will join a judging panel to decide the winner, alongside Lee Castle, whose company built The Water Saving Garden and will be relocating the majority of it to the chosen site.

The only elements not included in the prize are ‘Neptune Waters’, a sculpture by Jonathan Hateley, and lighting from Landscapeplus, as these were on loan just for the show. Otherwise, all elements – including bamboo decking from Wallbarn, gravel from Country Supplies, the plants, tree, water feature and water butts – will be gifted to the legacy project.

It’s a chance for a community space to not only take away a valuable piece of Chelsea but also to continue to share the message behind the garden and encourage both the public and the horticulture industry to consider ways that they can reduce water usage and reuse rainwater in a garden. “If we all started collecting more rainwater and being less reliant on tap water for irrigation, then collectively it will have quite a big impact in terms of water saving.” Ahead of what could be another scorching summer, The Water Saving Garden is a timely reminder of what more could be done to save this scarce resource.


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