How to weather your watering woes in the garden

Tricks to maintain, rich, moist, healthy garden soil.

In Des Kennedy’s funny book called Crazy About Gardening, his chapter on water begins like this:  “A garden, chuckles the old joke, is a thing that dies if you don’t water it and rots if you do.”

Gardeners are an aquatic species, immersed in water, masters of sprinkling and spraying, mistresses of misting, splashing, soaking and saturating. As water seeks always its own level, the gardener seeks repeatedly to come to equilibrium with this transient element.

Water gadgets abound.  The garden shed is impassable with hose pipes and oscillating sprinklers, water wands, soaker hoses and sprayers, atomizers, misters and other claptrap. You spot the real zealots out there in the monsoons of March, squeezing soggy handfuls of soil to test if it’s dry enough yet for planting. Or standing in the desiccated debris of late summer, moaning like the prophet Ezekiel watering the scorched earth with his tears.

The rain can be a pain, and set us back on getting out in the garden and keeping up with the lawn, let alone those businesses that rely on good weather to keep their income flowing. It doesn’t help matters when it makes the weeds and grass grow as if on a steady dose of Red Bull. However, it has to really be pouring for me not to go out there and muck around, because I’ll just throw on my waterproof gear or just putz away seeding and weeding under a big, portable shade umbrella (which is also great for hot sunny days too). After all, I’m an old coastal kid and we were raised to boldly go out in it no matter what we were going to do!

Rain is however, an important part our natural spring cycle of weather that our soils and plants depend on for a good start for growing, and we should always be thankful for it. Just ask the Californians.

The rains that come aren’t always fun, but I’ll take them any day over trying to water my gardens. Our hillside property consists of a whole bunch of narrow, terraced gardens that are hard and sometimes impossible to reach and water properly. If I do attempt to give my plants a drink, the hoses never fail to get tangled up and the sprinklers never seem to sprinkle where I want them too.  I’d rather be doing other things besides cussing and fretting about thirsty plants, so I rely on three strategies to get me through the dry season. My first trick of the gardening trade is to have soils rich in humus, the dark organic material in soils produced by the decomposition of the litter layer (or our compost and mulch). It is essential to the fertility of the earth. It’s also a great natural sponge that holds a considerable amount of moisture that our plants depend on during dry times. If you don’t have much of it in your soils, then make or buy some and add as much as you can, especially if your soils tend to be sandy.

My second is to mulch. This simple task traps that moisture and provides the grub to keep the microbes and worms in the soil food web fed so they can keep making more of that great stuff in my garden beds. A good carbon/nitrogen blend of mulch will also – and I’ll keep saying this – provide a great, slow-release fertilizer and a protective cover from the rains and heat. First make sure the soil is moist well down into the garden beds (you may have to water to make sure), and check throughout the summer if it’s dried out underneath it if we have a long dry spell.

And lastly, I grow plants and flowers that can easily cope through the dry times and only need watering if they get seriously parched.  My veggie and fruit beds are close to water sources. They need a little more tending to, but otherwise I’m pretty well watering-free. To boot, my meter is rarely running and I don’t need to use microbe-killing chlorinated municipal water on my soils and plants.

Summers should be about spending time at your favorite water hole, not dealing with your watering woes, so try these simple water management techniques when the rains finally stop and the rainbow gives us the sign that the heat of the summer sun is just around the corner!

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