What follows is a collection of stories submitted by readers in response to the theme of “water.”
The vegetable garden that borders the meadow was mostly under water from the latest storm, a temporary pond shining in the sunlight. From my studio window I could just make out the tops of the high rows I had hoed up, tall partly in preparation for slow-draining waters such as these but mostly to aid arthritic hips and knees that made it so difficult to get down to ground level and get back up again.
I had been feeling admittedly smug as I watched the sunflowers sprout on the mountaintop rows, surviving the greedy crows and spring rains. I pictured that end of the garden a riot of blooms in a few months, full of delirious and diligent bees and armfuls of sunny faces to include in the roadside stand. What I hadn’t pictured were the mallards.
Yet there they were, a pair of them, floating effortlessly through the flood waters and dining on young, leggy sprouts. It could have been an old-school video game, or one of those booths at the carnival with rubber ducks bobbing about on a watery table where no one ever seems to win a prize. The water level in the garden allowed the mallards to swim alongside the tops of the rows and easily nibble on a seedling with no weeds to get in the way. Down one side, around the end, and back up the other side they cruised in a leisurely promenade through the floating salad bar. They swam and fed for ages before toddling onto the lawn and flying away to the neighbor’s lovely watering hole. Our own spring-fed pond had little room for ducks, only turtles who sunned themselves on the fallen pines and poplars that crisscrossed the surface from many winter storms. How to clear a pond when you could barely plant some seeds?
I could have run the ducks off, but there was no point. By the next day most of the water had drained and the muddy mire welcomed no one but gasping worms. Months later, the soil was cracked and powdery as I metered out miserly amounts of water for the entire garden. The sunflowers stared down the drought, thanking me each morning with a thousand steadfast suns.
I have been growing tomatoes in heavy clay soil on my certified organic farm in northern New York for 17 years. For the first few years I made sure to thoroughly water in the sets. Then, during the summer dry season, applying the rule that vegetables need an inch of rain a week, I ran the drip irrigation each week when there was no rain. My tomatoes grew and ripened well but needed to be picked slightly unripe lest they split and rot on the vine. Moreover, once picked they had a limited shelf-life.
Around the third year I allocated one garden row for a friend’s use. He planted the row with tomato sets, watered them in and then ignored them. As the weeks passed and his tomatoes grew and ripened despite the absence of watering (and harvesting), I noticed that once they turned red they remained viable on the vine for literally weeks. Once picked, they also had an extended shelf life. Meanwhile, my coddled tomatoes continued to split on the vine and decay soon after harvest. When I pondered this contrast, I realized that my friend’s lack of watering resulted in a much better outcome than my frequent watering. Tomatoes, after all, come from a Mediterranean climate where there is little precipitation during the summer growing season.
Humbled by this insight, in subsequent seasons I refrained from watering my tomatoes after the initial planting with much more favorable results. (If you have sandy loam you might have to water a little if your plants start to droop. Mine never do. Also, once the soil warms, I mulch around my tomatoes, which helps hold moisture in the ground.) When a rain is anticipated I pick all of the fruits with even a hint of color and allow them to ripen indoors at room temperature to avoid subjecting them to a dose of water, which would lead to cracking on the vine and a poor shelf life once harvested. These dual techniques (abstaining from watering and harvesting before a rain) have served me well for the past 13 years! When it comes to tomatoes and water, I have learned less is more.
Wellesley Island, New York
Our 46 rolling acres were once well loved. But today the barns are sagging and the fields are overgrown. One small building has a hole in the roof and hasn’t been used for years. It has a power pole that is now only attached to the dilapidated wooden fence. Both fence and pole support wild grape vines, which are thick enough to encourage nesting grackles. The structure looks much like a few others in our neighborhood: small places on small farms, not far from the roadside power lines which, these days, pass them by.
Inside this pump house there’s a 6-inch-wide hole in the ground, with water. The depth varies according to the water table, but even at the driest times there is always water. The well is not listed on any authority website, so it’s either illegal or very old, or both.
Now that we’ve shored up the barns and had a couple of summers of hay to store in them, it’s time that we ensured a water supply for the goats and chickens. During the winter we acquired a 24-volt submersible pump, a long rope, two 12-volt lithium ion batteries, electrical wires to connect 24 volts of battery power, a charge controller, and two 100-watt solar panels. This summer we’ll set up a solar-powered water supply for the animals and as emergency backup for us. The roof faces south, so we’ll put the panels up there, clear of the snow. Then they’ll be ready for us to one day develop a winter water supply. Maybe not having to carry water from the house all winter will be next year’s project. But this year we’ll do our best to guarantee a simple summer solar water supply.
The building will need major repairs, or even replacing. It’s small enough to not need planning permission. Maybe we’ll run a pipe underground to supply running water to a barn in the depths of winter, or build a duck pond or a drip irrigation system for the vegetables. It’s easy to get carried away with the possibilities.
It feels good to walk in the footsteps of the people who cleared the fields, built the stone walls, made the barns and ensured everyone had water. I’d like to imagine them looking over our shoulders, smiling at our efforts, impressed by the power of sunshine to help bring the love and care back to this farm and all its inhabitants.
When we moved to Virginia 22 years ago, we had no idea that the entire state was in a drought that had been ongoing for a couple of years. In order to help water the garden we wanted to grow, we decided to construct rain barrels. We had seen master gardeners demonstrate how to put them together.
To begin, we bought four 55-gallon barrel for $10 apiece. The faucets and pool filters added another $15, bringing the total to $25 a barrel (as opposed to $75 to $100 each fully equipped from a company). When we modified our barrels a few years later to no longer use pool filters, we had to add the cost of screening and bungee cords, which made for a total of $30 a barrel.
In outfitting the barrels, we cut circular holes in the top of each and fitted them with pool filters to catch debris and give access for cleaning out the barrels in the fall. About 5 inches from the bottom of the barrels we cut holes just large enough to insert the faucets and rings. To help seal this entrance, we used caulking compound. We modified the downspout of the rain gutter to arc over the pool filter to catch rain. The remaining barrels sat adjacent to the first barrel, and each was attached to the other with a short piece of PVC pipe that was inserted from one barrel to the next so the water would flow, filling each barrel. The last barrel has an overflow spout at the top pointing to the ground so once it was filled, the rain water could dribble to the ground.
As we added more barrels, we changed from cutting holes in the top of the barrels to cutting the entire top off and covering them with a plastic screen and using a bungee cord. Fortunately, the top of each barrel has a lip so the bungee cord fits snugly around the barrel, holding the screen securely in place. Our thinking was this would make cleaning the barrels much easier. It is. To keep mosquito larvae to a minimum, we put a mosquito donut into each barrel. The screening also protects the birds, which was my initial concern when we decided to cut the tops of entirely.
All the barrels sit on benches that we constructed so that the water is gravity-fed to the garden through a number of hoses. Over the past years, we’ve added more barrels for a total of 11 rain barrels containing 55 gallons each. That’s a total of 605 gallons of water collected from the metal-roofed house and garage. Some years we’ve emptied them twice over the growing season, with alternating rain and warm sunshine.
When we built our house there was a spring that came up out of the ground about 50 feet from the site. Not having the money to have a well drilled, we bought a few cement well tiles, dug a hole in the ground where the spring was, as deep as we could go to ledge, and set two tiles in there. Water filled in almost to ground level. We built a wooden platform atop the tiles, found a deep well manual pump at a yard sale, and set it on the platform with its iron pipe reaching into the spring water. We hand-pumped and carried water to the house daily for our needs.
In the early ‘90s there were a few droughty years. First the spring dried up for a couple weeks, then a month; the third year it was a couple months. We bit the bullet and decided to drill a well.
Our neighbor, old Perley Edwards, told us when we bought the land that “there’s plenty o’ water there!” When asked where he thought we should drill a well, he suggested we get a guy over in Hodgdon, a water witcher, to come and find the best place. We knew the skill as dowsing, a term that had replaced witching — due to complicated associations with the root word “witch” — but dowsing had not yet reached our part of Maine. Anyway, this old fellow was eager to come and show us his skill.
Edwards chose to walk a scrubby field below the house. He broke off a small branch from a tree; trimmed it with his pocket knife into a Y shape; took hold of a short end of the Y in each hand with the tail pointing outward in front of him; and commenced to slowly wander around. His focus was intense — his body and mind seemed one with the branch as he walked. The branch quivered and then abruptly pointed straight down. “There’s water here,’” he said. We marked the spot and continued on, identifying a couple more water locations. Then he looked at me and said, “I think you might have the gift. Give it a try.” He put the dowsing rod in my hands and, standing behind me, put his arms around mine and his hands on my hands. We walked around. Me trying not to trip on shrubs and pay attention to the point of the dowsing rod. All of a sudden the stick forcefully pointed straight down to the ground. I was amazed. I hadn’t moved a muscle, and as far as I could tell neither had he.
Time came and we hired a well driller. We told him our story and asked where he thought we should drill the well. “Wherever you want,” he replied. He had no magic for locating water, just drill ’til he hit water, and we pay by the foot. After some discussion of terrain, slope and distance to lay pipe between well and house, we drilled a new spot about 10 feet from the house. So much for dowsing. We hit a good vein of water at 60 feet and never lacked water thereafter for home or garden.
These stories were published in the summer 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, MOFGA’s quarterly publication.