Inch by Inch: Water, water everywhere?

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 in Features

Inch by Inch: Water, water everywhere?

It's still a week or two away from the Big Day, depending on what part of Maine you live in. It's time to consider your plants' water needs.

Scientifically, plants are autotrophs, which means they are capable of manufacturing their own simple sugars and starches using just a few things: inorganic materials that might be found in the soil, such as nitrogen, and water, in the presence of sunlight. The process is called photosynthesis. Sunlight is absorbed by a green pigment called chlorophyll within cell structures called chloroplasts, and this is where the plant manufactures its sugars and starches. Plants have rigid cell walls, which, when suffused with moisture, keeps them strong. Without enough water, the cell walls shrink. For the external plant, this leads to some obvious signs of distress. The plants experience wilt; leaves curl, stems bend. Plants may flower early to set fruit. If water continues to be withheld, the leaves, which are constantly releasing moisture in a process called transpiration from openings called stoma on their undersides, dry out and fall off. Photosynthesis ceases, and the plant dies. 

We've already discussed soil, and to a lesser extent, the sunshine needs of your plants, but we haven't yet talked about how much water your plants need and how they're going to get it.

This year in Maine, at least until Monday's drenching rainstorm, Maine was experiencing a minor drought. Farmers and gardeners were nervous about the dryness; many of us were concerned about young trees and vines planted only last year, and even the spring bulbs were somewhat stunted this year, lacking enough rain to produce tall, strong stems. As unpleasant as Monday was, the rain was a good thing for our gardens, but it may have been a short respite from what is expected to be a drier-than-normal year.  The warm, dry spring followed a warmer and less snowy winter, too, which may affect the water table. Since a good percentage of the state obtains its drinking (and gardening!) water from private wells, this state of affairs is alarming.

Maine is warming and drying. In southern and midcoastal Maine, we've moved from the USDA hardiness map from a 5b to 6a, which adds things we can grow in our regions as our growing season expands, to include different peppers, tomatoes, and melons, over the last 30 years. Unfortunately, this happy circumstance also leads to a general drying of the climate, and a subsequent need to water more. What we must do is take a page from our western gardening friends, and start to husband our water as carefully as we tend our plants.

There are things gardeners can do to lessen the effects of a drying climate. One easy solution is to put in rain barrels to hang onto rainfall that would otherwise enter our basements and use it later for gardens. Rain barrels are making a comeback in sustainable gardens; until very recent years, the humble rain barrel hadn't been seen in half a century. Commercial rain barrels have openings on the top to hold water from downspouts or roof runoff. The tops can be covered in dry weather to keep water from evaporating and to prevent the growth of mosquito larva. The modern rain barrel also has a spigot at the bottom to which a hose can be attached, and gravity feeds the water through the spigot when opened.

You don't need a gutter and downspout to use a rain barrel, but you should give a great deal of thought to where it should go. The next time it rains, step outdoors and watch where the majority of rain comes down from the roof. The investment is small — rain barrels cost less than $100 in most places — but they can save you their cost in city water charges in the first year. Many towns offer composters and rain barrels as part of their annual encouragement to save water and landfill space. Call your town's public works department to find out if there is any program in place. Otherwise, they can be purchased in farm and garden stores, larger hardware stores, or in home-improvement stores.

Another option is to use your home's gray water for sprinkling on plants. Gray water is water that has been used ... or more likely, wasted ... as part of regular household activities. Rinse water from laundry, for instance, is a good source of gray water. When it is time for your washer to go into the drain-and-spin cycle, pull the rubber draining pipe out of the standpipe and put it into a large bucket. If you wash dishes by hand, pour the water into a bucket and take it outside. Or keep a small bucket in your shower.  It will fill up with water as you wash your hair, water that would have otherwise been wasted. Save the water in which you boil pasta and corn ... corn water is especially good for plants. Dump dirty water from your dog and cat dishes into a bucket before you refill the bowls. Pour water from some mop buckets (when you are using biodegradable substances such as Murphy's Oil Soap) onto your shrubs. 

There are also ways to decrease the amount of fresh water you use. Most plants don't want water on their leaves (there are exceptions); in general, water on the leaves on a hot day functions like a magnifying glass, burning the leaves and stems. So using a soaking hose will keep water down where the plants can use it — in the roots — and will protect the upper plant. Water early in the day, before the sun is hot, or in the evening, when it is cooling down, not in the middle of the day. Not only will this protect the plants, it will keep the water from evaporating quickly. Unless a young, tender plant needs misting, instead use a stronger stream, which is more likely to get down into the soil quickly. 

Fancy irrigation systems aren't really necessary for gardeners in Maine. However, you have to be available to water every single day during the growing season. If you can't be ... when you're on vacation, for instance ... find someone who is willing to water in exchange for fresh produce or a place to stay for a week or two. The waterer doesn't have to be a gardener, he or she just has to follow two rules: Water daily, and do it early or late. 

Next week: Compost

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