Friday, May 13, 2011

The Four W's of Gardening, Part 1

Everybody makes lists. Some people make lists that rhyme or are onomatopoeic. Some people make lists that are alliterative. I try to do all of that to one degree or another. Lists are great things to help us remember stuff that might otherwise get overlooked, missed or done out of order. The same is true for gardening lists. My list today (and for the next several days) is the Four W’s of Gardening. These are the four things you have to do after you plant your garden and before you can harvest from it.

The first one is water. The next is weed. Third is watch and the last one, the hardest, is wait. Water, Weed, Watch, and Wait. I’m going to discuss how these terms apply to the Stealth Farmer in this post and in the ones that follow.

The Four W's of Gardening, Part 1 
You have to make sure that your garden has a sufficient and consistent supply of water. I live in the desert so I cannot count on the rain to water my garden unless all I want to raise is dust. It just doesn’t rain here enough to support much of anything except cactus and the assorted desert plants. I don’t know about you, but I really haven’t developed a taste for munching on sagebrush and I don’t think I will any time soon. So I water.

I don’t have my watering system set up on a timer yet. I do this on purpose. It forces me to get out into my garden regularly. I know that it will die if I don’t do it so I must go to it to water. This gives me a chance to see what’s growing, how they are growing and the general condition of the garden. I don’t have to water everyday once the plants are established and I’m finding that with good mulching practices and good soil building with lots of organic materials, the soil will hold the water longer than it used to when it was just sand. I’ve never found that sand holds anything except my toes apart at the beach.

I have a watering wand on the end of a hose. This lets me walk along the garden and pick a weed here or look under a leaf there or squash an undesirable bug if I happen to see one. I get to see the changes in the garden every couple of days. When things are blossoming and flowering, I get to watch them unfold. I get to see and watch the bees and other pollinators as they do their work. I find that it is a peaceful activity, very calming and gentle.

I wondered why my sunflower plants had skeletonized leaves starting with the lower ones and then moving up. The whole leave wasn’t gone, just the parts between the veins. And only on the part next to the main stalk. I searched and searched for some kind of bug or egg capsule but to no avail. It was starting to make me mad. What was eating my sunflower leaves?

One morning while standing on the wall watering the plants, I happened to notice a finch fly by. We have wonderful finches here in the desert. Bright yellows and reds and greens. They are small and fast and you don’t see a bunch of them, but they are cool when you do see them. This little guy flew out of the ash tree nearby and landed on a lower leaf on the nearest sunflower. I thought, “Great, he’s going to eat some bug, maybe the bug that’s eating my leaves. My problem will be solved.”

Did I ever have it wrong! This little guy was the problem, not the solution. As I watched him, he sat on the stem of the leaf next to the stalk. As he sat there, he quickly pecked at the leaf. He pecked and pecked until he tore a piece off. Then he flew away. He came back a bit later and did it again and again. Next thing I knew, he had invited 30 or 40 of his closest friends to come join him. I just shook my head. But the point is, I never would have seen that had I not been out in the garden that morning watering by hand.

The water wand lets me imitate rain as it comes down on the plant. Sometimes I water on the top of the plant and let the water run down. Sometimes I water on the ground around the stem. Some plants get a little, others a lot depending on their needs. By doing it by hand, I can tailor the amount they need at the different stages of growth. I get to feel very connected to my garden because it makes me feel like I’m giving it something it needs, which I am. I feel responsible. I understand the term “husbandry” better since I garden than I did before. I feel like a steward and it’s a good feeling.

I like the sub-irrigated planters that I’m using and am looking forward to the day when I can convert all of my growing beds to this type of system. Here is why: I don’t have to water every day and my plants don’t get water stressed.

Yesterday, the temperatures got into the 90’s. Now in most places, that would be considered a hot day. Not here. To be hot here, you have to cross the dreaded 100-degree mark on the old mercury stick. That’s when you can get away with calling it hot. We haven’t hit that yet this season and I’m not looking forward to it when we do. (Why? You might ask. Well, because that’s hot.) With the temperatures that high, it would be easy to stress my tomatoes and end up with split fruit. That happens here when the dry air makes the skins of the fruits dry and harder and then the gardener tries to compensate by watering more. The plant takes up the extra water, but the damage has already been done and as the fruit grows and swells, the skins split.

By letting the plants have access to a reservoir of water so that they can take up water as they need it, rather than when you get around to watering them, you can avoid problems like splitting, wilting, flower drop, low fruit-setting rates, etc. The plants are healthier and grow faster, too.

There is also the little matter of the cost of water here in the desert. It’s a commodity that is metered and sold and the more you use, the more it costs. There are several thresholds where once you hit them, the cost per thousand gallons goes higher, very significantly, too. (I can't even supplement the water by saving rain water because as I said before, it doesn't rain here.) By watering on the ground, I am literally pouring money on the ground. The water sinks and what isn’t held by the soil or taken up immediately evaporates or sinks beyond the level of the roots and is lost to me. Then the water purveyors will pump it back up and sell it to me again.

With a sub-irrigated planter box, the water stays in the ground reservoir until the plants need it and then it is used. When properly mulched or covered, the evaporation rate is significantly reduced or eliminated. I have seen studies that have shown that water usage is reduced by 80 to 90 per cent in some cases. That means that I would only use about one-fifth the water I do now. Can you see why I want to convert my grow beds to sub-irrigated versions? I would recoup the costs in less time than it would take to grow a bed of lettuce.

None of this makes sense to folks in places where it rains sufficiently for farmers or when their irrigation system starts with a well, but for those of us on city water (and where wells are actually outlawed like they are here), something like this makes a great deal of sense. It becomes a very Stealth Farmer thing to do.

Tomorrow, we take up the subject of weeding.

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