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Soil, Plants, and Water

By Kerry Lake, Master Gardener

We have talked about soil health as the first step in creating a better garden.  Good soil is a soil full of living organisms to assist plants in capturing the nutrients needed for healthy growth. There is one other component to healthy soil and that is the ability of the soil structure to provide water for plant roots.  With last summer’s drought here in Western Massachusetts, we all want to know what to do in the future.  Our goal is to have our gardens be resilient and sustainable. Vincent Simeone in Grow More with Less; Sustainable Garden Methods with Less Water, Less Work, Less Money defines sustainable as “the capacity to endure. It is the belief that living systems can persevere and adapt no matter what the circumstances.”  We want our gardens to persevere and be able to adapt to our crazy New England weather, and to our changing global climate.

First let’s review good watering habits for your gardens:

  • Plants absorb water from their roots, not their leaves. Never just spray water onto the above-ground plant because you are wasting water and inviting foliar diseases to attack your plants.
  • Water your plants slowly at the soil level so that the water goes immediately into the soil and down to the roots.Drip irrigation or soaker hoses work well to bring the water to plants at soil level.
  • Water deeply but not so frequently that the roots are staying close to the surface of the soil.We want the plant roots to grow deep into the soil.Why? In time of drought the soil on the top is dry, but the deeper soil retains the moisture needed for our plants longer. We also want the roots to go deep to find the nutrients in the soil.

What more can we do to provide water for our gardens? Data has shown that we are receiving less and less snow and rain each year, along with hotter temperatures. Last summer’s drought was certainly a lesson from which to learn. Let’s prepare ourselves for this new reality of less and less water available for our gardens. David Bainbridge has written a book about his experiences growing plants in the dessert and the best methods to do so.

In Gardening With Less Water: Low-Tech, Low-Cost Techniques Use up to 90% Less Water in your Garden, Bainbridge outlines seven different types of super-efficient irrigation systems, some of which have been in use for thousands of years. He tells us that he “first read about buried clay pot irrigation in a book written 2,000 years ago by Fan Shengzhi.” Buried clay pots, pipes and porous capsules:

  • Place the water where it is most needed, deeper in the soil at the root level.
  • Buried clay pots reduce water usage and can produce better crop yield.
  • With less water on the soil surface, less weed seedlings can sprout, so less time is spent removing the unwanted growth.
rain barrel

Other types of super-efficient irrigation systems include deep pipes, wicks, porous hose, and tree shelters.  Tree shelters are a plastic bag-like tube that is positioned around young tree and set into the soil. Water is poured into this bag and is slowly released into the soil for the tree roots.  Concentrating the water at the trunk is good for the young tree.  You may have seen green bags around the trunks of young trees at the new rotary on Route 116 and Bay Road in South Amherst near Atkins Market.

Part 2 of David Bainbridge’s book is called “Taking it to the Next Level” where he dispenses water-wise gardening tips; rain harvesting into rain barrels, cisterns both in-ground and above ground; landscaping for water catchment; and developing a plan for our own landscape be it patio, garden or farm.

I will be trying the terra cotta pots at our community garden plot and at the WMMGA community service project at the Hospice of the Fisher Home this year. We will also use rain barrels.

Time for me to go and install my rain barrels for this summer. The forecast for tomorrow is rain, and I want to catch every drop.


Resources:

Grow More with Less, Sustainable Garden Methods: Less Water, Less Work, Less Money by Vincent Simeone, published by Cool Spring Press

Gardening With Less Water: Low-Tech, Low-Cost Techniques Use up to 90% Less Water in your Garden by David A. Bainbridge, published by Story Publishing

 
 

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