A great sustainable way to collect water for use in your garden and flower beds is to use a rain barrel. Placed beneath a down spout, these barrels will collect free water every time that it rains. We have one 45-gallon barrel placed in the front of our home and a 60-gallon barrel in the back. It is amazing how quickly they can fill up. A watering can left beside each one makes it easy to water flower beds, window boxes, and the vegetable garden. Okay, the last one may take a bit more effort but consider it free strength-conditioning! The barrels come in many different styles and sizes including a collapsible version which makes for easy winter storage.
Vegetable gardens need a consistent supply of water in order to achieve their full potential, generally 1” per week. Since Connecticut’s average rainfall is 3-4” per month it would seem that rainfall alone would be sufficient. However, sunny days with temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s and warm nights will increase the demand as will sandy soils that drain more quickly than clay soils. It isn’t easy to gauge the amount that is actually available to the plant roots.
Unless you are using soaker hoses or drip irrigation, it can be difficult to direct water to the roots of a plant. So much tends to run off to where you don’t need it. Last year I tried a new method of delivering water to the tomato plants using purchased disposable aluminum angel food/bundt cake pans.
With an awl or a large nail, punch holes through the flat bottom of the pan and also through the center core. Do not put any holes in the outer sides as you want the water to be directed in and down. When planting, dig a hole that is the width of the pan but not quite as deep. You will also need to dig an area in the center of this hole into which the seedling will sit. Holding the seedling in one hand gently thread the stem and leaves up and through the center cone of the pan. Place the seedling and pan into the prepared hole filling in with soil under the pan if necessary. Press down gently to seat the pan. The rim should still be about ½”above the soil line.
Water is poured directly into the pan where it then seeps into the soil. It makes it very easy to see how much water is being supplied and fertilizer supplements can be put into the pan where they will be released. As the plants are surrounded by foil it may decrease the amount of soil-borne pathogens that might splash up onto the plants. The results of this project were good enough to do it again this year.
My second experiment at target watering was directed at the cucurbits in the garden. We all know that squash, cucumbers and zucchini are often planted in hills. Every year I get the mounds nicely set, with lovely little plants growing forth, but it seems that every watering erodes the hills until there is nothing left. And most of the water applied just seems to trickle down the sides. I punched holes into the bottom and sides of empty soup cans and pushed one into the center of each hill. Seeds were planted around the cans with the hope that the water would reach the roots. It worked to some extent but the hills still tended to erode.
This year, as I was hanging some wire-framed coco fiber-lined baskets, a thought occurred to me. Why not invert the basket and let the liner and frame hold the squash hill in place? I cut a 3” hole from the base of the coco liner, filled the basket with garden soil, and inverted it directly on the spot in the garden. I then planted the seeds in the hole which was now at the ‘top’ of the basket.
All watering is done directly into the center hole and the coco fibers prevent the soil from drying out. The wire frame of the basket also makes a great support for plant stakes that keep the vines up off the ground. So far this year the results of these innovations have been good and the plants are thriving.
There isn’t anything as delicious as tomatoes, squash and zucchini fresh from the garden! Here’s a recipe to try that makes use of these ingredients: Slice them into ½” rounds, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill until cooked through.
Starting with a base of fresh or grilled polenta, stack the vegetables alternately with rounds of fresh mozzarella and pesto. Enjoy!