September 29, 2015

Watering with an Eyedropper

My street, with a corner of the garden
My street got a long-awaited repaving last week. In three days, town crews efficiently took off the top two inches of asphalt and laid down a like amount of new blacktop along a three-mile course.  I was impressed with both the speed and attention to environmental conservation, with the old macadam bring instantly whisked away for reprocessing.
Like many of my neighbors, I came out to watch as the paving crew went by.  As they worked in front of my house, Highway Department Foreman Bobby Kennedy paused to look over our still-abuilding landscape.
“Neal,” he said.  “I don’t think I want to know how you’re keeping all those plants so green.”
Medfield, like virtually every town in eastern Massachusetts, is under tight water restrictions this year.  Even including that mountain of snow that fell between January and March, the region has had less than 25 inches of precipitation so far this year against an average of nearly 33 in the first nine months.  It just didn’t rain this summer.  We are in a drought.
We thought we had our watering needs taken care of when we installed four 55-gallon rain barrels across the back of our house.  As little as a quarter of an inch of rainfall will fill those four barrels to overflowing.  The trick to a rain barrel, however, is to first get the rain and, second, to get the rain to fall evenly over time.  As the chart nearby shows so starkly, September produced less than half the normal amount of rainfall and it all fell in a six day period in the middle of the month.
Too little rain, and not spread out
sufficiently to make rain barrels
a useful tool for conservation
And so, to keep our new plants alive and growing while adhering to both the letter and spirit of water bans, we have resorted to an eyedropper approach to watering.  Or, to be more accurate, we employ a flotilla of cat litter containers.
Here’s a statistic:  if you have a 3,000 square-foot lawn – that’s 100 feet by 30 feet – and you turn on your sprinkler system long enough to put a half an inch of water on that lawn, you will use a thousand gallons of water.
We don’t have a lawn and, if we did, we wouldn’t water it.  Lawns go dormant in the heat of summer and recover nicely when cooler weather returns.  But we have eight newly planted trees, roughly 60 shrubs, and nearly 200 perennials, all in the ground three months or less.  If the roots of those trees and plants don’t have access to water, they die.
Our secret weapon:  an
armada of cat litter
containers, shown next to
our empty rain barrels
We also have a massive number of three-gallon containers that originally held cat litter.  Today, they have been re-purposed to hold water.  Our original plan was to use the containers as ‘overflow’ for all the water being produced by our rain barrels; the equivalent of a fifth or sixth barrel.  But in the absence of rainfall, the water in those containers comes out of a faucet.
When we water, each tree gets two containers, or six gallons, of water.  Each shrub gets between one and 1.5 gallons of water.  Depending on size, each perennials gets from a quart and half a gallon of water.  The water is applied directly to the base of the plant where we wisely created a mulch berm around everything we planted.
So, how much water do we use?  I started counting the number of times I re-filled those containers.  Amazingly, we are watering our entire garden using less than 180 gallons. 
There’s just one minor downside to this otherwise ingenious, water-efficient method of keeping our plants properly hydrated… someone has to carry that water from plant to plant and fill those jugs. 
Every tree, shrub, and
perennial we've planted
incorporates a mulch
ring to hold water
Betty and I share that activity, which we typically perform just after dawn on those days we water.  I fill twenty or so jugs and then pre-position them where experience says they will do the most good.  Betty does the actual watering and leaves the empty containers where I can collect them.  I re-fill the jugs and return them to where I think they’ll be needed.  All this is done at breakneck speed with jugs being placed and collected up to 150 feet from where I fill them.  A physician would say I’m getting a good upper cardio workout.  The neighbors have concluded we’re nuts.
You may ask yourself, ‘why not just use a hose?’  That’s a good question; a sign of a nimble mind at work.
The answer is twofold: first, we can water with containers in a fraction of the time it takes to do so with a hose.  Our watering record is 20 minutes.  I can fill a three-gallon container in ten seconds.  Try pushing that much water through a hose without blasting the soil off the roots of a plant in the process.  Also, hose watering is, at minimum, a two-person process.  One person points the hose.  The others performs a continuous mambo to keep the trailing part of the hose – and we’re talking a hundred feet of hose here – from crushing or being dragged over unsuspecting plants.  I might also add that dragged hoses have a way of ‘reconfiguring’ bark mulch beds and gravel paths, and disassembling stone walls.
Garden hoses have a tendency to
disassemble rock walls
The second answer is that there is no waste with containers: every drop gets on the plants that need it. Moreover, those containers are continually being filled not only with water drawn specifically for watering, but for other household activities as well.  We collect the water other people let flow down their drains – shower water awaiting that perfect temperature, for example, or water used to wash vegetables.  Trust me, the plants don’t mind.

The downside is the abandonment of any attempt at dignity. At 6:30 a.m., our neighbors can look out their windows and see the Sanders flying around the garden carrying those dumb containers.  I cannot help but notice that we are now getting a contingent of dog walkers who have adjusted their schedules to better enjoy the spectacle.  I know we’re good for a laugh.