"PETER gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.

MR. McGREGOR came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the top of Peter; but Peter wriggled out just in time, leaving his jacket behind him.

AND rushed into the toolshed, and jumped into a can. It would have been a beautiful thing to hide in, if it had not had so much water in it."

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The watering can is both toy and tool, nostalgic yet practical and not yet obsolete. It carries water, and evokes thoughts of other gardens, other gardeners, other countries, indeed other eras. It is iconic and ubiquitous while still being rare in American culture.

It is evocative of the "perfect" garden, childhood innocence, nurture, growth, other times, and other places, domestic tranquility and expensive excess. More and more rare in the outdoor garden, where a garden hose is most commonly used to move water from point A to point B, one usually sees a functional watering can used to water indoor potted plants these days.

Iconic how?
Graphics of watering cans decorate stationary, children's stickers, prints on fabric, ink stamps, bookmarks, Hallmark cards, needle work patterns, church bazaar type crafts project with artificial flowers strategically hot glued and wallpaper. Miniature watering cans appear as all imaginable types of jewelry; charm bracelets, earring, pendants and and lapel pins. Refrigerator magnets come in the shape of watering cans. Watering can shapes are used as vases for floral arrangements for FTD (often featuring a stuffed bunny ala Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit fame) and appear on nick-nack shelves in various decorative porcelain shapes barely emulating the "real thing". Watering cans serve as containers for "gift basket" assortments of gardening related tidbits. Marginally functional watering cans fill childrens' commercially prepared Easter baskets and show up at the dollar stores along with sand buckets come summer or nearness to a beach town.

Expensive excess?
That takes a bit of history to explain. Prior to 1692 watering cans were called watering pails. A major paradigm shift occured in 1886 when founder "John Haws of Clapton, London obtained a patent for an improved watering pot. The first patent read: 'This new invention forms a watering pot that is much easier to carry and tip, and at the same time being much cleaner, and more adapted for use than any other put before the public.'" The famous Haws watering can brought us today's classic design of a pail, spout, rose and side handle instead of a handle on the top. It is analogous to a teapot, well balanced both when empty and when full of water. Between the materials used (galvanized steel cans with brass roses) and the craftsmanship these cans lasted a half a century or more. They were repaired by their owners when leaks sprung in their old age. Today, while they are still manufactured and while their design continues to improve they are quite expensive and often speak as much to the salary and the aesthetic tastes of the owner as the function of moving water from point A to point B.

Expensive excess is also represented by the very absence of the functional watering can in our modern outdoor gardens. We garden with full personal permission to use as much water as we please. Only a hose and nozzle or sprinkler and the "unlimited" potable water that our modern, culture provides allows this. Water is so abundant for us partially because we don't have to haul it. Garden hoses can be used in a more practical and economic way but they make waste very easy. Nozzles put out gallons at time "shaped into tight stream or a misting fog and everything in between". If we had to carry all those gallons of water from the spigot, let alone the well or creek, to irrigate our plants, we would think a bit more before spreading our hard labor around in areas that would only nurture weeds. We would also pick plants more suitable to our environment. We would be less likely to waste using a water can than a hose by spot watering only. Of course, in days of past the very rich had their orangeries and lush landscapes but they also had gardeners on staff to do the "tote and carry".

Watering cans lend a personal feel to the art of watering the garden. One author said the act of "dribbling water onto their little heads by hand feels like a silent ritual, prayer by action, to honor the spirit of life that makes flowers and people blossom, tomatoes and children grow and get big."

Considerations when choosing your watering can:

  • spout length
  • balance
  • size (carrying capacity, weight, one or two handed, physical dimensions)
  • shaped to minimize spills - the design controls the flow and ability to pour steadily
  • functional, useful, ergonomic, durable?
  • ability to measure the contents (useful when adding measured ratios of fertilizer)
  • construction materials (copper, galvanized steel, nickel plated, or plastic, zinc, glass, pottery)
  • cost
  • durability
  • flow control (stream or sprinkle)
  • ability to clean and/or change the "rose"
  • looks
  • if important to your needs consider the ability to lift high, or carry in narrow spaces

Resources tapped:
Google image search on "watering can"
Haws history
online date of the first use of the term watering "can"
source for Peter Rabbit quote
image of Renoir's "A Girl with a Watering Can"

Gritchka says: In Australia, where water usage is at all times extremely limited by law, what they sometimes allow is watering by hand-held hose only, i.e. no sprinklers. The watering can is as iconic and rare there as here. (from me...We sometimes have that water restriction applied by local jurisdictions as well)

doyle says: I LOVE my watering can (from me...Of course you do!)

FeltTips says Q? Is it just me or does it seem like the gardening area of e2 is undergrown and neglected? Where would you suggest I begin noding? (from me...Since you have a brand new garden and since Maylith asked for this in greenfingers how about with a "How To" make a landscape design.

DejaMorgana says Hey. I liked the watering can w/u, but i think it could use expansion on a couple of points in the last section. What do you look for in a watering can? Are there really cans with "flow control" and is this worth it if you have only a small garden? Are any materials commonly problematic? Do you have a favourite brand? Etc. (from me...Truthfully, I use a garden hose with flow control directly and plastic milk-jugs with lids (to exclude mosquitos) that I fill them with the hose when I've got it out anyway and leave them scattered about in strategic locations for later use. My garden is far from xeroscaped but I try to reduce water needs by using mulch and direct spot watering into little mud barriers errected around individual plants.

I do have a cute 3 gallon green plastic "Haws" type design watering can but it mostly sits decoratively on my front porch. It's too heavy for me to carry when full and the rose is poorly designed so the flow is sputtery.

I think the selection of a watering can is worth a good deal of thought but far too individual to make recommendations. Cost, aesthetics, type of gardening, personal strength...all play into it.

wertperch says: I love watering cans, they make me feel I'm *doing* something, rather than just turning on a hose :)(from me...Hugs, you are doing tons)

ianah0 says: I have been using a watering can on my container garden on the porch. so much fun. it pours just like rain. also...have you seen American Pie 2 where Finch is using a watering can and has a spiritual orgasm? (from me...not yet but I'll be looking for it now!)

Maylith says: I grew up on a farm. Watering cans weren't much help for fields of potatoes and corn, but it was my job (as a child) to water all the plants indoors and to see to that the plants in the formal garden got water when the summer grew hot and dry. There were no hoses that reached that far, so that garden had to be watered by hand. Just a few years ago, I finally bought my own watering can. It's just a little one, but it makes me smile every time I use it. Outside, I do use a hose, or in very dry times, I'll make self-waterers with recycled milk jugs; when it's bone dry, slow watering works best, I think. (from me...those milk jugs are so useful!)