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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Gauging the Rain

With all of the heavy rain we have had this past week, I finally remembered to get out my rain gauge and start keeping track of the water. It is important to measure the rainfall in your garden. As part of my philosophy of even, consistent plant growth, keeping track of the water is an integral part. You can’t control how much it rains, but you can control the impact it has on your plants.  
 
Find yourself a rain gauge (which can be purchased very inexpensively at the hardware store - Klingenberg’s has what you need for $2.99), and put it in a part of your garden that is unobstructed by overhanging bushes or trees. After a rain, check it out. Record your measurement on you calendar, and then pour out the water for the next measure.  Keep doing this all season.  The idea is to develop a sensibility of what moisture naturally avails itself to your garden and how you can help in trying to keep a certain consistency of ground moisture.
 
Of course the watering needs of a plant vary at different points in its growing cycle. For seed starting, whether it be inside or out, consistent moisture is necessary. This doesn’t need to be measured, it just needs to be damp. It can be quite a project, particularly if you have a full-time job, to maintain outside seed-starting moisture necessary for germination. It seems every time I turn around, I am standing over a bed with a watering can fretting. Then as those little plants develop, a slightly less degree of moisture is required, but you still have to keep a close eye.
 
When your plants are established in the garden, an inch of rain a week is the desired standard, give or take. This is where the importance of your rain gauge comes into play.  If you have an idea of what level of rain you have had, you know how much you have to supplement any shortfall. It is ideal is to never let the ground get bone dry. This can be a challenge in particularly droughty seasons, but it can be achieved. Bone dry dirt cannot absorb rainfall in an efficient way. The rain, which is dear in a drought season, tends to just run right off the top of the dirt and go wherever gravity carries it. And, if water does stay in the garden, the dryness of the soil will just wick that moisture away from the plants. It just doesn’t seem to understand that it needs to stay near the plants! If the soil maintains a certain moisture level, the rainfall will be absorbed nicely. It’s all about water management on a micro (my back yard) level.
 
What is the best way to supplement water? There are many methods. Some I have personally tried are sprinklers, soaker hoses, and of course, a garden hose with a good watering wand.
 
Sprinklers are the most interesting method of watering, at least for me. I like to collect old sprinklers. I have about seven or eight of them and they each have different water patterns. You never know how they are going to spray! I can never remember from one year to the next how each one is going to behave. That makes it exciting! One, in particular, is a real buster. A friend gave it to me. It’s very big compared to my other ones. It’s taller too. When I hooked this one up and started it, it put out a spray that was so big and wide, it completely overshot my yard and hit the neighbors'! It’s my favorite one, but I can’t use it because it completely misses my garden no matter where I put it. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll have a need for it.  
 
To measure the amount of water you are sprinkling, position your sprinkler in a central location and then place three or four coffee cans around the area you are targeting.  Run your sprinkler long enough to measure a one inch depth in the cans. This will give you a quantifiable level to offset the lack of rainfall if that is the case.
 
Actually, sprinklers aren’t the best way to water, in my opinion. Most plants, like tomatoes, don’t do well with excessive moisture on their foliage. It tends to provide a too hospitable environment for blights or funguses. The time of day you water can offset some of this problem, generally early morning or late afternoon. On a contradictory side to this, some insects don’t like the extra water and can be controlled somewhat. Spider mites come to mind.
 
My favorite method of watering is with soaker hoses. There are also several elaborate irrigation setups you can purchase, but I have no first-hand experience with those.  Soaker hoses work in the same way, I believe.  
 
When you have set out your plants, or when your seedlings have sprouted and achieved an established size, lay a soaker hose along side the base of the plants. You can get an interconnected network going with a little thought. One thing though, do not connect more that two long hoses together. There will not be enough water pressure to be efficient for the entire length of the hose. Then, cover your walkways and the hoses with a mulch. I use straw. Straw is inexpensive and will add to the organic matter in your soil. The instructions that come with your soaker hose will tell you how long to run your water to achieve a comparable measure of rainfall. A couple of years ago, when we had a serious dry spell, I ran my hoses an hour or so every night. I alternated two different networks. This maintained a reasonably consistent moisture level and my plants did fine.
 
A garden hose with a watering head is effective, but it takes a lot of time. You have to make sure that each plant is getting its one inch per week. This can be achieved by simply standing there with the hose, or laying it on the ground next to the plant. If you have a reasonably large garden, this can be a real commitment. I try to time it for about two or three minutes on each plant. I still use this method for parts of my garden. It’s fine as a supplement for isolated plants that can’t be reached by the sprinkler or soaker hose options.
 
Watering is a very important element of successful gardening. With a little planning, the chore can be much easier and yield a more satisfying harvest. Definitely give thought to this. After all of the work you put into your garden up to this point, you don’t want to let it all “go to hell in a hand basket” because watering has become too oppressive.  Take it from someone who knows. I’ve made every mistake in the book. In gardening, experience is the best teacher.
 
 
The River City News is proud to produce this regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]