Water Or Wither

THE REAL DIRT

July 12, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The alarm rings ridiculously early, at 5:30 a.m. But I spring out of bed as if late for work.

My wife yawns, frowns and yawns again.

"Whazzamadda?" she says.

"Gotta water the garden," I whisper, stumbling toward the door.

I don't wait for a response. Don't have to.

She thinks I'm nuts.

Maybe I am. But it hasn't rained for a week, the ground is awful dry, and my plants are thirsty. And dawn is the best time to feed them.

I adopt this routine during prolonged dry spells. It's like getting up to care for a baby, except that gardens don't fuss when they're hungry. They just wither and die.

I promised my vegetables that would never happen. I'll never be guilty of chard neglect.

Half-asleep, I stagger outside, turn on the spigot, untangle the hose and head for the garden, 200 feet from the house. At sunrise, the yard seems an obstacle course. I lug the hose over two wooden fences and around three trees. In my stupor, I even drag the hose over a doggie deposit. Twice. Ecch.

Eventually I reach the vegetable patch and raise the hose toward the parched-looking carrots. Ready, aim . . .

PTC Water dribbles down the nozzle and stops. Another problem. There's a kink in the hose, way back at the house.

I fix the hose and begin watering the carrots, moving up and down the bed with a gentle spray. Instantly, the lightly tanned earth turns a chocolately brown. Droplets cling to the carrots' feathery foliage like glistening Christmas ornaments.

Five minutes pass. The rest of the garden beckons, but I stay with the carrots, drenching the bed before moving on. It's better to water plants deeply than to tease them with a light sprinkle. A quick spritz does more harm than good, directing the plant's roots to do a U-turn and rush toward the surface for the moisture.

I soak the carrots and move toward the tomatoes, stopping only to douse a dusty young robin who seems not to mind the impromptu shower.

At this point, I realize I'm not wearing any pants, and run inside in my underwear. In my haste to water the garden, I forgot to get dressed. The plants don't mind my attire, but the neighbors might.

Typically, summer finds many gardens in peril. Gone are the spring rains that nourished the flowers and crops. Many gardeners expect Mother Nature to keep feeding their plants, but she turns off her spigot and turns on the oven instead.

Without moisture, even the best-mulched garden is doomed. Most vegetables contain at least 90 percent water, yet careless gardeners seem puzzled when their plants conk out.

Many crops, like tomatoes and squash, need 1 inch of water each week. Not 2 inches one week, and none the next. Plants have regular feeding schedules. Deny them these fluids repeatedly and plants will go into full arrest, at which point not even a life-support system -- the garden hose -- can save them.

My tomatoes draw water like a magnet. Last spring, I deliberately planted each seedling in a saucerlike depression in an effort to trap rainfall and avoid runoff. Now, water collects at the base of the plants and seeps into the ground where it is needed most.

Of course, I try not to wet the plants' foliage, which can trigger diseases like rust and mildew. Watering the garden at dusk creates similar problems.

That's why I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m.

Boring as it sounds, watering has its moments. I shift the hose from hand to hand. I squirt it behind my back. Sometimes I bend over, like a football center, and squirt the hose backward through my legs.

Once, while I was soaking the peppers, the water stopped. Another kink, I thought, but found none. Annoyed, I began to examine the nozzle. Whoosh! A blast of cold water hit me in the face. Then it stopped.

That's when I discovered our 10-year-old hiding behind a bush, holding the bent hose in her hand.

Her giggling gave her away.

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