6 DECEMBER 2003, Page 64

No worries, mate

Ursula Buchan

A week ago last Saturday, at 10 o'clock

n the morning, I stood in a wood in Northamptonshire, prey to a succession of dreadful anxieties. I was picking up on a shoot and waiting, with an excited yellow Labrador, for a drive to begin. But my thoughts were elsewhere — partly at home and partly half a world away. One tranche of anxieties you will have guessed already: would Steve Thompson find his jumpers, would Matt Dawson give fatal lip to the referee, was Mike Tindall a better bet than Mike Catt, could Stirling Mortlock, George Smith and Lote Tuqiri really be neutralised? England might be the better side but how could you ever count out a country whose very personality seems defined by Steve Waugh? On and on they went, one worry chasing another, like clouds scudding across a stormy sky.

The other anxieties concerned my garden. A few days earlier, I had planted tulip bulbs into ground completely dry two inches below the surface. So dry, in fact, that I had had to water the planting holes first before putting in the bulbs, a unique experience in mid-November, in my gardening lifetime at least.

This is the legacy of such a dry and hot season, of course. Between 1 March and 18 November, a mere 10.5 inches (262.5 mm) of rain fell on my garden, much of it useless to plant life because it almost immediately evaporated under the strong summer sun. In the same period, the year before, when summer temperatures were lower, mind, the figure was 19.7 inches (492.5 mm). Now that was a good growing year.

If the shortfall was not made up this winter, I worried, the effect, particularly on deciduous trees and shrubs, in the spring, would he serious indeed. They would come into growth, but there would be little moisture for the roots to draw on, yet they would still be losing water vapour heavily from the new leaves. Since plant nutrients must be dissolved before they can be taken up, not only would these woody plants thirst, they would hunger as well. Already, I knew I had to prepare myself for a disappointing spring for daffodils. They make their flower buds the autumn before and come up 'blind' if the soil is dry then. It was too late now to save them from that.

I have a clay soil, the worst sort in a drought, and the water table is too low for capillary action to work to the benefit of the upper levels of the soil. When water is scarce, surface tension holds what there is more tightly to clay particles than to any other kind, making it unavailable to plant roots. Moreover, water percolates only very slowly, so what rain does fall takes a long time to make its way through.

Water, the most basic of all life-giving commodities, creates atavistic fears when it seems to fail or fall short. A few weeks before, I had seen a newspaper photograph of the ruins of Mardale, the village flooded to make Haweswater reservoir in Cumbria in the 1930s, emerging out of the water once more. This struck fear into my heart not to mention, presumably, the hearts of all those Mancunians who depend on it when brushing their teeth.

As I stood in the wood, I tried to compute how much rain would have to fall in the next three months, in order to ensure that the trees in my garden would not be put under severe pressure in the spring. I had invested too much emotional and other capital in my `wood'; after ten years, the trees should have been safe from drought, yet I feared they were not. At a rough guess, we needed at least 120 per cent of our usual winter rainfall, I decided, before the beginning of March, i.e. about 13 inches. Last winter, admittedly considered a very dry one, only eight inches fell here.

Mercifully, there was one settler of nerves that morning. It was raining — steadily, vertically, out of a calm but leaden sky. And, as the cold water trickled down my neck, splashed off my waterproofs, and froze my hands, my heart lightened and my spirits rose. This was the start of the rain, surely, that might just save my trees from disaster.

And so it turned out. By the end of the day, almost an inch had fallen, with no sun to evaporate it or prevent its gradual percolation through the layers of soil. And the forecast was for more the next day, and the next week. Indeed, by the following Sunday, nearly two inches had fallen. Eleven to go. Long before that, however, I knew the result from the Telstra Stadium. So, no worries, mate — as the Aussies say — or not until the Six Nations in February, at least.