Many folk are (quite rightly) trying their hand at gardening at the moment, and many are also finding out it’s not quite as straightforward as they thought. I’ve also had to learn that growing food is an art. We often focus far too much on water, and far too little on soil. Here’s the latest how-to from the regenerative gardening expert Kristen Krash, who co-runs the Sueño de Vida nature reserve in Ecuador. As you will see, oodles of water is not always a good thing, because as usual it’s about the entire web of life, not just one aspect of it.
Water and the Web of Life (by Kristen Krash)
Last week, a friend of mine in the US sent me pictures of some plants growing in his first garden. “Look at these cayenne peppers!” he texted, obviously proud as a new parent. Lordy, I thought, look at those peppers. Are you trying to grow pool noodles? But I tactfully asked, “Have you been getting a lot of rain?” “Here and there,” he replied, “the usual summer storms.” A pause. Then, the confession: “I’ve been keeping on the watering, probably erring on the side of too much if I’m being honest.”
Throwing tact out of the window, I typed, “Those peppers look bloated. They can’t develop any flavour if you over-water them.” “Well, that explains a lot,” admitted my novice gardener friend. He proceeded to tell me about the other plants he was literally watering to death. I was about to dish up a lesson on plants and roots and soil and water and--wait a minute! I thought. All the new post-Covid gardeners out there need to know this too. I’ll write a post
Newbie gardeners aren’t the only ones confused about how much water? While desertification looms large around the globe, too much water can also wreak havoc. In recent years, wheat and corn farmers in the American prairie have suffered devastating crop losses to flooding and the pummelling of heavy rain.
When we began planting saplings here in Ecuador’s cloud forest, where it rains an average of 4,500mm per year (nearly 200 inches), I watched with dismay as rust spots blighted their leaves and black fungus corroded their trunks. All this water is killing my trees, I thought. I was confounded with the philosophical acceptance the locals expressed at the pounding relentless rains. “El agua es la vida,” they would say with genuine gratitude. Water is life.
I really started to think when we visited some mature agro-forestry farms in our area. They were getting the same amount of rain as we were, but their plants and trees were healthy, lush, and productive. Was too much water really the problem, or was it something else?
Walking through a mixed plantation of cacao and hundreds of other plant species, I could sense something different through the soles of my feet. In the deforested land Juan and I were attempting to regenerate, the ground was clay hardpan in the dry season, and a boggy mudslide in the wet. In the cacao forest the ground felt yielding and absorbent. It’s like a sponge, I realised, the soil is holding the water like a sponge. The plants can sip from it as needed. To confirm, a banana leaf unfurled above me, showering me in fine spray of water.
Nearly all land-based ecosystems, whether wet or dry, have two things in common: earth and water. The earth can be sand, clay, loam, or rock. The water can be plentiful or scant. The intrinsic balance of an ecosystem depends on the ability of the earth to catch, conserve, and filter the available water to maintain life.
The overwatered backyard garden, the flooded prairie farm, and the degraded tropical forest all have the same problem. It’s not too much water causing the peppers to bloat, the cornfields to flood, the saplings to drown, it’s the inability of the soil to absorb, hold, and filtrate the water that is present.
Suburban lots are stripped of topsoil that is then trucked out, sterilised, and sold. Monoculture grain farms are subject to constant tillage, herbicide, insecticide, and chemical fertilisers, which kill soil life, and turn soil into dust. When tropical forests are cleared, heavy rains quickly leach the soil of nutrients. In all three scenarios, the result is the same: soil so damaged it can no longer maintain the precise level of moisture needed to sustain the life of the ecosystem literally grounded in it.
Water isn’t life all by itself, but rather a crucial strand in the web. Water needs the living sponge of the soil and the plants growing in it just as much as they need the water. If any part of the cycle is broken, the cycle collapses. Each element, each strand of the web, exists in a delicate balance, held up by the other strands of the web.
Where do we as humans fit in the web? What lessons can we learn from nature to catch, conserve, and use water optimally in our gardens and farms?
The best place to conserve water is in the soil.
Soil may appear to be heavy, dense stuff. But like most matter, soil consists of more space than solids. Healthy soil is not uniform in its texture, but has clods called aggregates. These aggregates enable the soil to swell and hold vast amounts of water—and nutrients—in the spaces between the solids. Plant roots sense the nutrient-laced water and direct root growth towards it.
Whether you are working with an arid or rainy climate, the way to build healthy soil is the same: add organic matter. Really, I cannot emphasise it enough. Soil rich in organic matter holds moisture, boosts fertility, stores nutrients, cultivates soil life, and sequesters carbon. Practical and effective ways to add organic matter include compost, biochar, manure, and deep mulches.
How can you tell if your soil needs more organic matter? Use your senses.
1. Look at it. Is it reddish brown or grey?
2. Touch it, rub it between your fingers. Does it feel dry and powdery or wet and slimy?
3. Smell it? Does it smell rank like ammonia? Or does it have no smell at all?
Healthy soil is dark brown to black in colour, slightly moist to touch, and emits a rich earthy smell. If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you need to add organic matter.
Water so the soil can dry out.
I read this maxim years ago in a book called Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. I still recall it often today. What does it mean? Well, plants, even moist climate ones, don’t thrive in perfectly consistent conditions. Nature is variable, even erratic at times, so plants have adapted accordingly.
The roots of plants are not like straws stuck in the ground. They are also living, dying, decomposing things that surge and wither with fluctuations of water in the soil. When it rains—or you water your garden—tiny hairs on the ends of roots drown and die. The plant opens its leaves to expire moisture above ground. As the soil dries out, the roots surge with growth below, and new root hairs plunge into the soil to suction the receding water. Intricate exchanges of sugars and enzymes funnel the nutrients from the soil up to the stem, foliage and fruit of the plant.
Once you understand how this miraculous mechanism works, you can better sense when to water your plants and when to let them be. Until your senses develop, you can always do the “finger test.” Stick your index finger in the soil to just past the first knuckle. Even if the soil is dry on top, if the tip of your finger feels moisture, DO NOT WATER. There is plenty of water in the soil for the plants to take as they need.
Learn the water needs of your plants. Annual plants have tidy little root balls that sit comfortably in your garden’s topsoil. Perennials have spreading clumps or strong tap roots that can bust through even tough clay to create pockets of space in the soil.
Water accordingly. Water annuals more often but with less water. Water perennials deeply but less frequently.
Water the soil, not the plant. When you water your garden, don’t hose your plants down like you’d wash a car. Habitually drenching plants encourages stem rot, mould formation, and dreaded powdery mildew. Water plants in a six-inch to one-foot radius around their base, depending on their size.
Cultivate diversity with an emphasis on native plants.
Always plant a diversity of annuals and perennials in the garden. If all the plants’ roots are sitting at the same level in the soil, you’ve created a competition. Encourage cooperation by planting diverse species with different water needs and root types.
Choose plants native to your area OR to a similar climate to optimise their ability to thrive with minimal intervention. For example, we grow many species from the equatorial Pacific Islands here in Ecuador’s cloud forest. Mediterranean plants are a good choice for a Southern California garden. Cultivating plants that thrive in a similar climate expands your choices without compromising excess resources.
Use groundcover plants and mulches.
In rainy climates, creeping groundcover plants and mulches protect topsoil by keeping it in place and preventing run-off.
In dry climates, groundcovers and mulches conserve moisture in the soil by shading it from the sun and preventing evaporation. Gravel and stone mulches are particularly helpful in arid areas that receive little rainfall. When temperatures drop in the evening, moisture condenses on stones and then flows slowly into the ground. If you have chosen your plants wisely, this should be all the moisture they need.
Plant trees and support land regeneration projects.
Finally, healthy soil can do a great deal to solve our plant problems, yield robust crops, and shelter the vast subterranean kingdom of essential life forms. But even healthy soil needs another strand in the web to keep it in balance: trees and forests. The interwoven branches of the canopy above and the interwoven roots of trees below are the ultimate guardians of the soil. The canopy is like a porous roof that softens the impact of raindrops, allowing water to infiltrate slowly and deeply. The roots form giant storage, filtration and communication systems, the support structures of all terrestrial life.
Forests and trees are the great granddaddies of our farms and crops, gardens and plants. We need to increase their number more than ever to sustain the web of life, including our own.
Kristen has an extremely thorough and useful catalogue of regenerative gardening articles on her website. You can find them all here:
You can learn more about the Sueño de Vida nature reserve in Ecuador here: https://www.suenodevida.org/
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