My Pile: Soaking It All In

A dry spell, classified as a moderate drought by the local weather service, draws me outside after a day at work in my office cubicle. I relish chasing the daylight with an evening walkabout in the backyard. My evening perambulations allow me to track how the various living things I tend to are developing from day to day.

It’s the time of year for such idle pursuits. I see the need to water the new tomato plants and salad seedlings in the vegetable garden and the tender transplants I’ve made among the perennial beds. My pile looks a bit thirsty, too.

Often this time of year, without much of a garden agenda and few pressing yardscape duties, I simply take a seat on one of the sizable rocks set along the perennial beds, or plop down on the shortest logs at the front end of my pile, and take in the remains of the day. One of the charms of southern New England in June is just how long the days are; sunset tonight is well after 8 pm. Better yet, with the lack of rain comes the bonus of enjoying the backyard at twilight without needing to mow the lawn yet again — or having to swat away any mosquitoes.

A favorite perch is a a bench set along the front of the tool shed. Made of a slab of burl wood a neighbor had retrieved from the dump, it was once perhaps a coffee table. It was stacked against the side of his house for several years before I borrowed it, setting in on two logs of paper birch. It makes a nice shady spot from which to consider my backyard. Across 10 feet of wood chips is my pile, directly in front is the vegetable garden, which is set in a corner cutout of my house, next to the patio that leads to the kitchen.

 

Pet projects: The dog and my pile, and plenty of places to sit and observe them both.

The dog, ever frisky, implores me play catch, sticking a tennis ball in my crotch. Aside from the panoramic view, the bench puts me in position to toss balls in two directions across the lawn, both of a distance that’s just right for my throwing arm and for the chasing dog to snag one-hoppers with an acrobatic leap.

In this well-watered section of southern New England, kept cooler still by the nearby Long Island Sound, normally I wouldn’t consider having to water my garden plantings and brittle brown spots of the grass lawn until the dog days of summer.

The storms that sweep up the Atlantic Seaboard or rake eastward from Thunder Alley of the Plain States deliver frequent dousings of water, whether (or weather) in the form of snowflakes, misty showers or full-on gully washers. Not to make gardeners in drier climes envious, but my backyard gets some 50 inches of precipitation a year, parceled out pretty evenly on a monthly basis, or about an inch of water a week.

Or not, as these past couple weeks has shown. The young plants are tender, and though a stretch of showers are predicted to arrive later in the week, I fret that if I don’t soon water the seedlings in the vegetable garden and the recent transplants among the perennial beds, all my care toward getting them going to this point in the season will be wasted. I take particular responsibility for an oakling that sprouted in the vegetable patch that I’ve moved to a spot in the wood-chip mulch  along the back fence. A soaking of water is the least I can do to help the oak succeed in putting down new roots, in its new home, one that I hope it will have for the next century — if it can last through the next few days.

Taking my leave from the backyard bench, I unspool the hose from its perch against the house and stretch its loopy coils out alongside the vegetable garden.

I enjoy hand-watering, the feel of a thumb growing numb with the gush of water, chilled by the buried pipes that deliver it from a reservoir 20 miles upstream. I’ve never considered going through the expense and hassle of an in-ground irrigation system.

Watering with the hose gives me control, a say in what grows. And in addition to being stingy, the strike of stream gives me direct feedback. I trace the spray of gushing around the perimeter of the oakling, trying to envision how the fluid will work its way into the ground that surrounds its fragile young roots. Am I helping give them purchase? Or drowning them?

The design of my backyard garden beds makes it easy to hand water, selectively hitting each plant in need as I stroll along with a hose.

The design of my backyard garden beds makes it easy to hand water, selectively hitting each plant in need as I stroll along the border with a hose.

I spritz the vegetable garden, feathering the water spray in my best imitation of a gentle, soaking rain. I also keep three old 5-gallon paint buckets near the back door, and fill them as well. For the dog, as well as spot watering, hauling a bucket or two in a spare moment over to the ferns I’ve resettled or a clump of perennials recently split from old root stock.

I stretch the hose over to the back corner of the yard and water the shade garden. Hard by my pile, it’s the lowest point on the property, to and through which all the water drains. I fancy it as my wetlands and have planted it as such, with an array of ferns and hostas and even a skunk cabbage brought home years ago from a nearby marsh that was being developed into new homes. The corner is always last on my route with the hose and I admit to spoiling it with extra water like a favored child.

I stick the hose into my pile, first along one of the log walls, then the other. I can’t see where and how the water flows into the mix, but figure the two flanking sides of my pile have been disturbed the least over the winter and early spring, and are likely still mostly a mix of leaves and proto compost pulled from the center during past excavations. Surely these sections can use a soaking of water, if only to help them catch up to the steaming mix of grass clippings and kitchen waste that are cooking away in the cauldron that is the center of my pile. I give the hose just a minute in either spot, vainly trying to calculate flow rates and minutes per gallon and such, then extract the hose to thumb the dried leaves across the top with a quick, cooling rinse.

“The average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30 percent of which is devoted to outdoor uses,” I read on the EPA’s WaterSense website. “More than half of that outdoor water is used for watering lawns and gardens.”

And, yes, I do feel rather foolish about watering a pile of old rotting leaves, but so be it. I’ve also pondered the amount of space and resources given over to lawns, and weighed all that a nicely green patch of turfgrass gives to me and my pile against its cost. I like grass, but when it comes to watering it, I am all about tough love.

“Lawns consume massive amounts of water, I read on scienceline.org. “In a study published in Environmental Management in 2005, researchers estimated there are 40 million acres of turf grass in the U.S., covering 1.9 percent of the land. If all that is kept well watered, it could use 60 million acre-feet of water a year (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot). That’s more water than is used to grow all the corn, rice, alfalfa in the country, as well as to irrigate every orchard and vineyard.

“The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one third of all water from public sources, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons a day, goes toward landscaping—most of it on grass. In addition, some experts estimate that as much as 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems.”

How best to irrigate a suburban property while minimizing the waste of water is a tricky subject. The answer depends. Adrian Higgins, a garden writer for The Washington Post, tackles it in a thoughtful way:

“When the weather turns dry, readers urge me to commend arid-zone gardening, with tap-rooted succulents and wildflowers that endure drought. The problem, however, is that Washington isn’t Colorado or California. We get blizzards and tropical storms and plain old spring gully washers that soak the clay soil and dictate a range of plants that grow lush but need a fair amount of soil moisture. We don’t typically suffer the water deficiencies found in the Southwest, though we can in some years.

But access to water, and a valid need to water the type of plants we must grow here, doesn’t mean we should squander it. Driveways and sidewalks don’t need sprinkling, though this reality is clearly lost on many.

Automatic vs. hand watering

Automatic irrigation systems can work effectively, but there is something about them that I find distasteful. You wonder if they have been installed to remove the owner from actually having to fuss with the vegetation. They also work against plants, including trees that decline in constantly soggy conditions. And as a gardener friend pointed out, a sprinkler head in May might do its job. By July, a burly perennial like a big hosta may have smothered the thing, luxuriating while its neighbors are gasping.

Hand watering takes time but permits you to see what needs water the most. A wand attachment delivers a lot of water, but softly. A hose-end sprayer is a disaster. Having a riot of color in your flower beds is one thing; turning a water cannon on the poor things is quite another. The water delivers force but not volume, so the flowers are beaten up while remaining dry.

Experienced gardeners just put their thumbs over the end of an open hose to deliver water near and far, sparingly or by the gallon, but in a controlled and relatively gentle fashion.

What needs a soak?

Diligent watering is nowhere more important than in the vegetable garden. Plants grown for their fruit will be grudging and sick if drought stressed. Peppers and tomatoes develop a disease called blossom end rot if yanked by dryness. Deep, amended garden beds that are mulched need to be soaked only twice a week to support healthy plants, though seedlings and transplants will need watering more often.”

 

Toppin off my pile with a brief soak of water on a June evening.

Topping off my pile with a brief soak of water on a June evening.

During the dry days of late summer, I will set out a rainbow-arc sprinkler to keep the lawn from becoming thoroughly brown and crunchy dry. I enjoy the art of adjusting the sprinkler so the individual streams wave back and forth, reaching the edge of the lawn just so. A lawn that is lush enough to appeal both the eye and bare foot is worthwhile. Plus, when my son was younger, he and the neighborhood kids delighted in running through the sprinkler on a hot summer day, the bravest among them sticking their face or butt directly on top of it.

I don’t recall who got the idea, but at some point we set the arcing sprinkler directly under the trampoline so that its spray shot up through the black webbing. The kids loved bouncing on top their splash pad, and I let the water soak deep into the ground and drift into and along the hosta beds behind the trampoline.

Hand-watering vs. an in-ground sprinkler system? I see it as akin to the argument of using a rake versus a leaf blower. I own the infernal contraption and use it for certain tasks, like blowing grass clippings off the gravel driveway or leaves from the street into a pile.

I’m no Luddite, and see the value and ingenuity of, say, using up a high-tech drip system in a more arid garden — and the impracticality of setting up the requisite network of pipes and valves in this hardscrabble yet well-watered clime. Mostly I prefer the simple, hand-crafted mode of gardening, and using a rake, water hose or rainbow sprinkler when I can. It’s more peaceful, more sustainable. The backyard, and my pile, is a refuge from the remote and abstract technology and material consumption that now define our lives, and my manual labor in the garden keeps me in touch with a more natural, hand’s-on state of being.