Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Water Wisely

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting with gardeners as they watered their plants. The sound of trickling water accompanied us as they tended prized flowers, herbs, and vegetables. There is something soothing about the subtle melody of trickling water. For me that sound is intrinsically bound with the idea of being in the moment, of stewardship, of meditative attention. It is a sound I seek, in nature near burbling creeks, in my own garden as an escape from other more stressful parts of life, and in the company of other gardeners.

One gardening neighbor from when I was about 12, taught me something valuable about water, plants, and attention. It was a very concise lesson but one I will never forget. Opal was an elderly disabled woman who barely got around with her walker and who could barely hang on to the hose with her gnarled hands. One day I suggested that it might be easier for her to do the watering with a sprinkler. And she told me that easier was not always better.

The thing about sprinklers, according to Opal, was that you could forget about them and over water your plants. The soil, the plant roots, and the earthworms all need air. Too much water was just as harmful as too little. “Besides,” she went on, “I like to pay attention to my plants, and I think they like it too. When I water by hand I notice all kinds of things, I really get to know my plants. I can see if they are being bothered by pests, if they are crowding each other, if their mulch is thick enough. It makes me a better gardener, besides, I just like spending this time with them.”

Thirty-eight years later, I still find attentive time in the garden soothing, and like Opal, I think my plants like the attention too. However, watering by hand doesn’t work well for everyone, for every plant, or for every type of soil. The important thing is to pay attention to your plants, whatever your watering strategy. Here are a few tips that will keep your garden in tip top shape and keep your water bill down.

Layer your garden or landscape. Having a mix of tall, medium, and low growing plants actually reduces evaporation and heat stress. Reducing heat stress reduces plants needs for water, and it makes things cooler for the gardener too!

Cover all bare soil. Bare soil heats up quickly – causing heat stress to plants. Moisture rapidly evaporates from bare soil increasing need for irrigation. Mulch, ground covers, cover crops, and mown or cropped weeds will all reduce your plants need for supplemental water. If you missed the article on organic matter visit: http://harvestsgardeningsecrets.blogspot.com and search on “Nurture Your Soil.”

Resist the urge to make the soil completely level. Level soil actually encourages run off. In nature, soils’ surface irregularities slow the movement of water over the grounds’ surface enabling more water to sink in and less to run off. Watering basins, raised rows, furrows, and just plain uneven ground will reduce run off, erosion, and wasted water.

Water early or late, and only if needed. Evaporation is much slower in the cooler parts of the day, so more of your water will actually reach the plants roots. Also, some tender plants can be burned when the suns rays are magnified by water droplets resting on their leaves. Try to ignore squash or melon plants that look droopy in the middle of the day when you know the soil is moist. They will bounce back when the sun goes behind the mountain.

Apply water gently near the base of your plants, if possible. If you must use sprinklers try to do so in the early parts of the day. Plants that have moisture on their leaves overnight are sometimes subject to mildew and disease. Sprinklers are the least water efficient way to irrigate. Much of the water you are paying for escapes into the air as mist. When your sprinklers where out, consider investing in a soaker hose or two.

Trees and shrubs may need deep watered once a month. If your prized specimens’ leaves begin to brown prematurely, or if your favorite tree or shrub looks wilted even in the early morning hours it may need a deep drink. Most plants sink their roots into the ground at least as deep as they are tall. Occasionally leaving the hose on a very slow drip and moving it every few hours may save trees and shrubs from death by drought.

Set your mower blades on the highest setting you can stand, and let the thatch build up. Longer grass actually needs less water than short cropped grass. Longer grass does a better job of shading the soil, there by reducing evaporation and heat stress to the grass and other nearby plants. And the thatch that builds up acts as a mulch, conserving moisture and shading the soil. If you must remove the thatch, do it in the fall.

Choose drought tolerant and native plants when possible, and do any major planting in the fall. Plants always need more water while getting established. Let Mother Nature supply that water whenever possible. Here is a source of more information on drought tolerant plants: http://www.uri.edu/ce/factsheets/sheets/droughttolerant.html

Consider growing a “dry garden.” Many Native vegetables are suited to dry gardening. Most must be planted during the spring rains so they can sink their roots down into the water table before summer sets in. In the American southwest there are varieties of corn, melons, squash, and other more exotic traditional foods that are grown without any irrigation. If you would like to experiment with dry gardening you can find more information and order seeds from Native Seeds/ SEARCH: http://www.nativeseeds.org/v2/default.php

Before doing any major landscape renovation you might want to get some information on the following practices to reduce water use:
Drip irrigation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drip_irrigation
Permaculture: http://www.permacultureactivist.net/
Xerascaping http://pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/pubcd/B1073.htm
Most libraries have public use computers and staff that can help folks with little Internet experience (including Hoopa). If you are not comfortable with computers you can ask for book recommendations at your local bookstore or library.

Next week we will be talking about your friends and mine, the dastardly aphids. Until then you can probably find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, July 11, 2006. Posted here with permission.