Whew! How d’you like this heat? Reminds me of my old archaeology days in Israel–the relentless sun, scorched earth, too-hot-to breathe air. Of course instead of digging in the dirt for eight hours every morning looking for prehistoric artifacts, I spend a stolen hour or so every morning digging in the garden hoping for the perfect tomato. And the rest of the day running around with my boys. You figure out which is more exhausting (hint: I spent evenings in Israel partying with my fellow diggers until all hours despite a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, while now I’m practically comatose by 10 p.m.)
Anyway, I did learn a few tricks from those days on how to beat the heat. The most important of these of course is to drink plenty of water. My first season co-directing a dig in Israel it was 115 degrees F in the shade and we had to take volunteers almost daily to the hospital for heat exhaustion. That got a little annoying so we initiated a policy of ‘water breaks’ EVERY TEN MINUTES whereby everyone had to stop and drink a cup of water. There was much grumbling among the staff but it stopped the ER visits. So keep drinking even if you don’t feel thirsty!
As hard as this weather is on us, it’s not any easier on our plants. Like us they need lots and lots of water when the temperatures soar. Unfortunately, like Israel, we are also experiencing a bit of a drought. My town has gone so far as to announce a water-shortage and to prehibit lawn watering, pool filling, and car washing. That is, for the 20% or so of homes that actually use the town water system. The rest of us have our own wells and can pretty much waste water any way we want. Legally, that is. But water truly is our most precious resource and we should all try to conserve it. With our typical Homo sapien ingenuity I can at least hope we will find viable alternatives to fossil fuels but there aren’t many alternates to fresh, potable water. Whether or not you believe global warming is a man-made phenomenon or not, we are clearly experiencing changes in weather patterns. In places like North Africa, Pakistan, the Middle East and the western US water shortages are already starting to be a major source of conflict. It might not be too long before we start to feel the effects of this even in the relatively wet Northeast. In the meantime, it’s probably not a bad idea to practise some water conservation techniques in the garden. Some that I have found not too difficult to adopt include:
1. Xeriscaping: This is just a fancy term for plantings that don’t need a lot of water. For instance, I planted several slopes around my house which receive full sun primarily with sedums, grasses and dianthus (pinks) which cover the ground and need very little water or other care. I did this mostly out of laziness since I hate watering but it gives me ‘green’ cred as well.
2. Soaker hoses: I use these exclusively in my veggie garden and again it’s partly for the water conservation (water goes directly to the roots and therefore less is lost to evaporation) and partly for ease of use. The inital set-up is a pain and the hoses tend to wear out after a few years, but once everything is planted and set in place all I need to do is turn on the faucet to water the entire garden at once and I don’t really have to worry much if I forget to turn it off at a certain time either (it takes a LONG time to over-water with soaker hoses.)
3. Rain barrels: When we renovated our house, I also insisted we direct the gutter pipes to two large former-whiskey barrels that have been retrofitted as rain barrels. Unfortunately, my hopes of hooking them up to the soaker hoses ended the first day I tried and realized there just wasn’t enough water pressure, despite the fact that the barrels are on risers and the garden is on a lower level than the house. But I do use them to spot water in the garden and to water containers, etc. But honestly, like solar panels on old houses versus adding more insulation, they are more ‘cool’ factor than common-sense conservation.
4. Mulching: Ok, maybe this won’t get you the admiration that the rain-barrels do, but mulching makes sense on so many levels: keeping down weeds, warming the soil in spring, preventing freeze-cracking in winter and also keeping in moisture. I am not a big believer in those red and black dyed wood chips though–their hideous, remind me of my grandmother’s wrapped-in-celophane sofa, and who wants to add more chemicals to their garden? I use black paper mulch when I set up my veggie garden each spring. It works well preventing weeds as long as it doesn’t break down too much and when it does at least it adds compost to the soil and there is no need to remove it every fall. Spots where it’s too hard to put down the paper I use some extra lawn clippings. For all other landscaping I like Sweet Peat–it looks good, works well and is all natural. It’s not cheap, however, which makes me want to get into the manure and wood chipping business. Not so long ago, people would pay you to cart that stuff away.
Now for the hypocrisy alert. Having discussed ways I try to conserve water I have to admit one of the biggest water-wasters of all–yes, I have a pool. Granted, unlike many pool-owners I actually swim every day, sometimes several times a day, as do my kids. And we try to have friends over often to share in our cooling retreat. But it’s still thousands of gallons of fresh water then poisoned with toxic chemicals. I know I should fill it in, or better yet, turn it into a cistern to catch rainwater for all our household washing needs. But it’s 90+ degrees outside and, well, I’m going for a dip. Call if you want to join me.