The Practical Gardener

Whenever I look at video coverage of the Middle East, I am reminded of man’s effect on the environment. Today, much of Iran, Iraq and southern Turkey is barren country. But it wasn’t always that way: Ten thousand years ago, the region between and near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was a fertile land of plenty.

At that time, the swampy lowlands (left after the retreat of the last great ice sheets) had finally dried up to create great forests and broad grasslands. Into this land came people who hunted gazelles and gathered a sizable variety of wild grains, fruits and tubers. By 5000 B.C., organized villages were scattered throughout the region; farming and the domestication of animals was firmly established (though the hunting of gazelles would provide a vital food source for several thousand more years); and the foundation for Western Civilization had been firmly established.

Within another thousand years, the land would become overgrazed and deforested. But by then, irrigation, from the two great rivers of the region, had become a way of life that would sustain various complex civilizations as they rose up to flourish for hundreds of years, before being replaced by others.

It was irrigation that sustained cultures of many hundreds of thousands of people. It was irrigation that maintained the splendor of one of the great wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was irrigation that kept the great civilizations vibrant in that general region known as the Fertile Crescent.

But the land isn’t fertile any more.

I grew up in Colorado, where irrigation is a way of life. The local meandering creek that had run through our neighborhood near the foothills west of Denver had been channelized into a ditch about 15 years before I began playing in it in the early 1960s; people desperate to utilize every bit of water in an arid environment don’t allow such a precious commodity to meander. In the late 1960s, my folks had a cabin in South Park, Colo., where the ranchers were selling water rights for millions, simply to allow the water allotted them to continue downstream to be squandered by people in Denver and all along the Front Range, by people who wanted to water their lawns and wash their cars on Sunday afternoons.

Along with ditches and irrigation comes the legal matter of water rights. Some of the oldest legal documents on record, showing up on cuneiform clay tablets found in the seat of Western Civilization near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, concern disputes over water rights.

The past couple weeks have shown some pretty impressive rain showers here in WNC. And we were in desperate need of them, to be sure. Gardens that I have been keeping my eyes on, while driving to work, have blasted off with the addition of rainwater. But this has simply been a reprieve of sorts in a summer that has seen too little rain and is apt to see less and less. It is with this in mind that I offer some information about water systems and about getting the most for your garden from the water that you have.

Some of the best gardeners I know use drip hoses with little one-eighth inch plastic emitter hoses that allow the gardener to take a tiny hose right up to the root zone of plants. I’ve looked at such systems pretty closely because they are so highly recommended by so many people, but I have never taken the plunge.

Watering by hand will get the job done in an effective manner; it’s also a darn good way to allow yourself the luxury of daydreaming.

If you have less time to daydream, and you don’t want to waste enormous percentages of water (via evaporation) through the use of sprinklers, you should think about investing in soaker hoses. These hoses are generally made out of recycled tires and are pretty reasonably priced. Some folks buy a couple lengths of soaker hose and drag them down the row they want to water. The problem is that dragging soaker hose around the base of plants can damage well-established plants.

Fortunately, soaker hoses are cheap enough and will last long enough, when protected from the sun by mulch, that you can outfit your whole garden by investing a little bit each year. And you can customize your soaker hoses to fit the size of your beds by cutting them to length and shutting off the far end by folding it over on itself and binding it with duct tape. The business end (where water from your feeder hose enters the soaker hose) can be set up with female hose ends that you buy in the hose department at the local home center or hardware store.

If you are truly anal-retentive, you can spend too much money on various swell gizmos in the plumbing department and come home with bags full of various connectors that will allow you to connect sections of regular hose to soaker hoses and rig the whole apparatus so it snakes around the garden with military precision in a labyrinth of hydro-technical splendor. I myself have done this on several occasions and found the actual assembly of the watering system to be far more enjoyable than the actual use of it.

I was at the home of my gardening pals Caine and Molly last week. They had placed next to their tomato plants half-gallon juice bottles with holes in the bottoms. Each bottle, after being filled from a hose, then drips into the ground. It’s a great way to get water to the roots for a slow soaking watering, and it also allows liquid seaweed and fish emulsion to be added to help fertilize plants.

But regardless of what sort of watering system you use, here are some tips worth thinking about.

* Mulching is your best all-around opportunity for salvaging water for your plants. It cools the soil and significantly reduces evaporation.

* The best time to water your plants is in the morning, before the sun comes out and evaporates the water. Watering at night encourages fungal diseases.

* Water seeds morning and night to get plants off to a good start, but wean your plants from this, and acclimatize them to deep weekly waterings to encourage deep root growth.

* Plants can only absorb food if it is in a solution. Side dressing with fertilizer isn’t going to help your veggies if they don’t have adequate water as well.

* The recommended one-inch of water a week can be guaranteed using your soaker hoses if you monitor your watering by digging down into the bed you are watering. You will have reached an inch of water if you find five inches of wet soil.

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