During drought, gardens soak up time and energy


There is nothing like a drought to really test a gardener's green thumb.

For instance, my garden would have fried recently during a horrid dry spell, were it not for the thumb I kept pressed to the garden hose.

Every day of the drought, I spent an hour watering thirsty plants -- 30 minutes each morning and 30 more at night. The personal sacrifices were enormous. I didn't watch "Jeopardy!" for a month.

During a drought, mornings become monotonous: I stagger outside at dawn and haul the hose to another part of the garden, 100 feet from the house. Half asleep, I seldom watch where I am going. Sometimes I drag the hose over -- ugh -- a doggie deposit from the night before.

The rest of my routine remains constant. I trudge back to the house, turn on the spigot and trudge back to the garden. Then I grasp the hose by its trigger, a $1.29 gadget capable of spraying water at two speeds: a mist that blows back in your face, or a jet stream that would have dispersed protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

When I press the trigger, however, nothing happens. "#*%!!," I whisper, and trudge back toward the house looking for kinks in the vinyl hose. A cheap vinyl hose is prone to kinks. Give me a good rubber hose any time but, at $1 per foot, give me the money to buy it as well.

Eventually I untangle the hose and begin watering. I don't know what other gardeners think about at such times, but I suppose they commune with nature. I've never seen a gardener wearing a Sony Walkman.

Watering during a drought is a vital task. Moisture transports oxygen and nutrients deep into the soil to feed plant roots. Sometimes while I am watering the garden, I imagine these trace elements coasting toward their destination as if they were on the giant water slide at an amusement park. Does boron go "WHEEEEEE!" as it zips through the earth?

Most vegetables are 90 percent water and demand at least 1 inch of rain each week. They prefer long, thorough soakings that penetrate to their roots. While 1 inch of rain may not seem like much, it is the equivalent of spraying 65 gallons of water over a 10-by-10-foot plot -- a one-hour chore for most gardeners.

City folks are weaned on sprinklers, which save their time but waste their water, as much as 40 percent of which is lost to evaporation and runoff. Country gardeners have wells and cannot afford the luxury of sprinklers.

Soaker hoses, which drip water from tiny holes in their surface, are gaining in popularity. However, some soaker hoses lack flexibility and fungal resistance. Other gardeners rave about the underground irrigation systems they have buried in their plots. But these kits are expensive and interfere with cultivation of crops and flowers.

So I stand at garden's edge, watering the squash and tomatoes with my vinyl hose, always aiming at the base of the plants in an effort to conserve water. Spraying the foliage, especially at dusk, risks disease. Also, experienced gardeners try to situate their plants in slight depressions, or basins, to minimize runoff.

Despite the drought, I fight the urge to give every plant a quick sip each day. Shallow waterings weaken plants and turn them into water addicts, drawing their roots toward the surface for a TC daily fix. The longer you water a row of beans, the longer it can go between gulps.

Note: Excessive moisture can also damage plants, flushing nutrients out of their reach and displacing oxygen from the soil. The ground becomes compact. Crops may produce more foliage than fruit.

How can you tell if plants need water? Pretend the garden is a cake baking in the oven, and slip a knife 2 inches into the soil. If the knife comes out clean, it's time to water.

Never water at midday, however, when a jolt of cold water may damage a plant's leaves and fruits. Remember, it is not uncommon for cucumbers and squash to wilt in the hot sun. The plants perk up later on.

Pressed for time? For fast results, buy a hose with a 3/4 -inch diameter: It releases three times as much water as a 1/2 -inch hose in the same amount of time. I have such a hose and I still spent 28 hours watering the garden last month. It could have been worse.

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