February 25, 2020

A Gardener’s Obsession: Water

Vegetable garden with plastic mulch laid - June 2011

Janine Pineo Photo | Vegetable garden with plastic mulch laid - June 2011

• By Janine Pineo •

Every gardener obsesses about one thing.


Too much, too little, too often, too seldom – it’s enough to drive a person to, well, drink.

A visit to a gardening center or a perusal of a gardening supply catalog can confuse anyone looking for a simple way to keep plants happy and healthy. From soaker hoses to sprinklers to timing devices to self-watering containers, so many options are available that it takes years – and a large wallet – just to slog through the possibilities.

My first line of defense has always been mulch. That word covers a host of materials, all with one main goal: to retain moisture.

I mulch the vegetable garden, except the potato rows, with some form of plastic mulch. Not only does plastic mulch retain moisture, it also retards the growth of weeds.

The past two years the vegetable rows have been covered with Solar Mulch from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I prefer this kind of mulch because there are numerous holes that allow water to seep through the plastic. Scientifically, it’s said to block most of visible light while allowing near-infrared light to pass through, warming the soil and suppressing weeds.

It works, especially for my cucumbers, squash, peppers and melons. Harvest time is also much cleaner because the fruits aren’t in contact with soil.

My latest addition is rather garish, but oddly enough, it seems to work. Red plastic mulch is a bit much on the eyes, but the tomatoes adore it. The science of it is that the red part of the light spectrum tomatoes respond to is reflected back into the plant, triggering a plant protein that causes better growth and more fruit.

I hesitated for a couple of growing seasons before trying the red mulch last year, when I found that my crop of tomatoes seemed heavier.

Well, how is one to really know?

My only test last summer between tomatoes planted in black plastic and red plastic was a pair of cherry tomatoes. They were planted side by side, one in black and one in red. They were the same size when I planted them, but within a couple of weeks, the one in red plastic definitely was larger. The proof came at harvest time, and then it was obvious. The tomato in the red plastic mulch was dripping with cherry tomatoes while its neighbor in black plastic looked pathetic in comparison.

Again this year I have one striking row of red plastic mulch for the tomatoes. Once the plants are mature, however, the red mulch is nearly invisible, for which I can only be thankful, even as I reap the rewards.

I own that I do have reservations about using so much plastic. But when I think of the extra watering, the chemicals and all the other things I could use to make the plants grow better, I think this is the lesser evil.

Natural mulches are an alternative. I have read of hay-bale mulching, which is an art in itself. Straw may work well for many. I use bark mulches on all my flowerbeds, which can alter the pH of the garden but also provide organic matter as they decompose.

An informative Web site to visit on water conservation is that of Texas A&M University, which has researched gardening practices in drought conditions. Its main recommendation is to use some type of mulch wherever possible. It has found that soil without mulch may lose twice as much water to evaporation as soil with mulch.

Beyond mulch are dozens of other devices designed to deliver water. I’m trying a couple of new ones this year, including the AquaCone, a plastic cone that is buried in the dirt next to the thirsty plant. If it is used in the garden, you punch out the holes for either clay, loam or sand, fill the cone with sand, push it into the ground, then it stick into the top a 2-liter soda bottle with the bottom cut off. Fill with water and let it seep away.

I thought I’d try them with the plants on the high end of the garden where it is driest. My only wonder is how often I’ll have to fill them. I wouldn’t want to drown anything.

The AquaCones could be used in my containers as well, but I think that would be a bit unsightly. Instead, I decided to try a soil additive that is biodegradable and nontoxic. There are several varieties out there, including Moisture Mizer, Soil Moist and Terra-Sorb, and they all do one thing: absorb water – lots of water.

I know because I decided that it might be good to test in my raised beds as well as my containers. The raised beds require more water no matter how much humus and peat I add, so I tossed in a few of the crystals when I added manure and peat last month.

The very same day it rained. And rained. And rained.

By nightfall, it stopped, and I decided to walk around the yard. As I approached the raised beds, I thought something looked odd. The closer I got, the odder they looked.

As I leaned down, I first thought that my beds were covered with ice cubes. Then I thought it looked like a massive jellyfish.

Then I touched it and said, “Eeeeew.”

Yup, it was the Moisture Mizer, doing its duty. I never considered exactly how big something that absorbs 200 times its weight in water could get.

But may I say that the seeds have never sprouted faster.

Still, even with all the gadgets, devices and additives, there will be times when the plants need to be watered by hand, and for myself, that means avoiding using well water at all costs. There is a better way.

One of my fondest memories of my grandfather is him watering his geraniums with water from his rain barrel, tucked into a little nook by his shed.

How I loved that rain barrel. It was wooden and weathered and you had to dip into it to get the water. The water was always cool and in it floated pine sprills and reflections of me and the sky.

So I have my own rain barrel, plastic with attached gadgets. I bought two more this spring, though they look more like trash cans than barrels. They will serve their purpose, even if they are ugly.

What I really want, however, is a wooden barrel, and I found a Web site that sells wooden rain barrels (www.oak-barrel.com). They even have a barrel with an old-fashioned cast-iron pump attached. I nearly cried at that.

Sure, it’s in England and maybe they won’t ship to the United States.

But a girl can dream, you know.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2001.

2012 update: Tune in Saturday at Garden Maine for another chapter in rain collecting.