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A Barrelful of Water Wisdom

July 15, 2008

PHILADELPHIA _ Unlike most people, gardeners love rain. It’s no spoiler _ just the opposite.

Rain is life-giving. It’s also welcome relief from a chore most of us dislike only slightly less than weeding: Hose-dragging is truly a drag.

There are other reasons Jeff Player, Jackie Umphlet and Rachelle Aquilla try to conserve water in their gardens:

They want to save money, and the planet.

But saving water rarely hits the popular radar without a dry spell or drought. “And with the next heavy rainfall, everyone thinks it’s all taken care of. People have a short attention span,” says Nicholas Polanin, agricultural agent with the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension.

These three gardeners take a longer view.

Jeff Player jokes that when it comes to gardening, he’s a “damned fine amateur.” Actually, he’s a master gardener and semiretired master builder and engineer who applies all those talents in his Sicklerville, N.J., garden.

“My goal is to take water that comes from the sky and use it well. You have to work with your slopes,” says Player, whose property is 75 feet by 150 feet and, by design, not flat.

“Gardens shouldn’t be raked smooth. They should be humpy,” he says.

Out back, the apples and peaches, grapes, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, tomatoes, squash, peppers and herbs are planted in low spots so rain just rolls down into them. Player waters by hand only if it hasn’t rained in a week, and then he uses hoses with wands and valves on the end.

That way, the spray is gentle and targeted. “Why water the weeds?” he asks.

He counts out 10 to 20 seconds per plant. Once every few weeks, he waters deeply, always in the morning so the sun dries the leaves. And he generally avoids sprinklers.

“They’re not a good idea. Most of the water evaporates,” he says.

Player channels rain from house gutter to downspout to shallow brick pit, which he fashioned to help water seep slowly into the ground. He has also built a gravel walkway with a water-absorbing trench underneath that slopes away from the house. And he’s sunk a lidded barrel into the ground, ringed it with gravel, and added a small pump to disperse the collected water.

“Just like a sump pump in the basement,” he says.

Player uses shredded-newspaper mulch. And one more thing: “Compost, compost, compost.” He makes his own, to help with drainage and water retention.

“These are baby steps, very easy,” he says, “but all these things, to me, are very important.”

Jackie Umphlet’s water-saving strategy can be summed up in one word: Reemay.

Using clothespins, she attaches this airy white “garden blanket” to wire support hoops every few feet in her North Wales, Pa., vegetable garden. This shields her rows of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, squash and beans from the daytime sun. She removes the fabric at night.

Easily obtained and used extensively by growers, Reemay and other woven row covers let in light, air and moisture while deterring dive-bombing birds and undesirable insects such as leaf miner. When supplemented this year with a couple of beach umbrellas, the fabric drape also kept Umphlet’s heat-sensitive lettuces green and healthy into July and allowed her to dramatically cut back watering.

She used to water every third day. Now, it’s once a week or less.

Two days before our visit, she watered her 40-by-20-foot vegetable garden for only two minutes. On this particular day, despite a broiling sun overhead, the soil under the fabric is still damp. A tiny patch, left uncovered for comparison’s sake, is dry and cracked.

“Draping the garden saves money and conserves water. What’s not to like?” says Umphlet, a retired secretary, who with husband Larry also grows blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and grapes, okra, onions, peas and beets.

“Water’s plentiful and we can certainly afford to pay for it, but our natural resources are not unending,” she says. “And I’m cheap.”

Rachelle Aquilla of Philadelphia’s East Mount Airy section has converted two-thirds of her rowhouse front lawn to a perennial garden, which needs far less water than grass or annuals.

She has planted drought-tolerant zoysia grass in the remaining lawn.

In the garden portion, she keeps watering to a minimum with slow-release soaker hoses, free city compost, and moisture-holding shredded-bark mulch. She also has containers that can be moved from sun to shade if they get too dry.

“Historically, everyone has loved lawns, but people do what they’re taught to do. They need to be educated,” says Aquilla, who grew up on a 10-acre truck farm in Pottstown, Pa.

Her water-wise education began years ago with a memorable HGTV show on the subject. She’s a special-ed teacher at Northeast High School, and often touches on environmental issues with her students. And talk of global warming has her worried about dwindling resources and future generations.

“You can have all the land and all the money you want, but unless you have water to drink and to grow plants, you’re done,” says Aquilla, a community gardener at Awbury Arboretum.

Her lawn now is but one feature of a yard defined more by a wavy flower bed outlined in cobblestones. Aguilla has planted yuccas, hostas, lamb’s ears, iris and ivy, daylilies, daffodils and azaleas.

With a smaller lawn, she says, “I save time and energy, and I water about one-third as much as I used to.”

Sometimes less. As Aquilla chats with a visitor on the porch, darkened skies suddenly let loose with a hard rain. It lasts only five minutes _ not much, but enough to make two gardeners very happy.

At least … for five minutes.

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(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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