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In the know about H2o

“I chose water as the central element of the story because of its continuous nature: it is always changing, but never disappears. It can revive or destroy, and it is something much older and more powerful than humans. I felt it was a potent metaphor for many things, and in the course of the writing process I began to think of it as a living being, one of the main characters of the book.”

— Emmi Itäranta, during an interview about her novel, “Memory of Water,” 2014

In her debut novel set in a dystopian world where freshwater is scarce, Finnish author Emmi Itäranta writes about a young woman, Noria, who is learning the art of preparing tea from her father. Noria’s family uses a hidden spring to practice the sacred ritual of tea masters, but they would be severely punished by the military if the spring and their activities were discovered.

Itäranta’s interviewer, Mary Woodbury, maintains a website that features works of eco-fiction from around the world (https://dragonfly.eco). About “Memory of Water,” Woodbury writes: “When reading, you just want to drink a glass of cold water and revel in it as if it is the last great thing you will ingest. One could never take water for granted again after reading this novel.”

I learned just how much I have taken easily accessible water for granted when Jerry and I started camping on our property in Bandon, which does not yet have running water. We use water that’s delivered and stored onsite in a 1,000-gallon tank. We know exactly how much water we use every day because we have to empty the graywater from the camper’s sink and shower.

Having water delivered is expensive, so we use captured rainwater for irrigation during the dry summer. When the rainwater runs out, we have no choice but to allow the pasture grass to die off until the rain returns in September. I feel powerless as I watch the lush, green pasture turn dusty and brown, and I have no water to quench its thirst.

The lack of running water in Bandon has made me more aware of the water we use in Medford, particularly for irrigation. Our automatic sprinkler system uses approximately 1,080 gallons of water each week (at 12 gallons per minute of watering), and our raised vegetable beds (128 square feet) require another 80 gallons of water a week, even more during extremely hot weather.

It’s a jolting realization that the amount of water we use in Medford, just for our yard and garden, would empty our 1,000-gallon tank in Bandon in less than one week.

Water makes up 80%-95% of a plant’s weight (compared to 60 percent of a human’s weight), so it makes sense that plants need lots of water to thrive, particularly plants that are grown for food. However, it’s important to use practices that will maximize the potential of all the water our gardens and yards are consuming. Here are three things I’ve learned about wise watering:

Water deeply and less frequently. Our irrigation system is set to run for 45 minutes twice a week. In our growing space, this amount of time permits water to soak deeply into the soil without pooling on the surface. Plants are healthier when their roots reach farther down into the soil to absorb moisture and nutrients, rather than the roots having to make use of shallow watering by staying close to the surface, where they are more susceptible to heat and other environmental stressors.

Container plants should be watered until the water begins draining out from the bottom holes. However, when the soil in plant containers dries out, the soil becomes hydrophobic, meaning it repels, rather than absorbs, water. The water runs quickly through the dry soil without benefit.

To prevent wasteful runoff, keep the soil in container plants consistently moist but not wet. If the soil does dry out, water small areas of the soil slowly at first, or place the bottom of the container in water for a few hours to allow the plant roots to draw water up through the soil. Some gardeners say watering with warm water also helps to relieve hydrophobic soils.

Know your soil’s water-retention capacity. Texture and porosity exert a lot of influence on how water moves through soil. Sandy soil, like we have in Bandon, has large pores so water drains quickly without spreading very far. Soils with high clay content, like our soil in Medford, drain more slowly and water spreads out farther. The upshot of this difference in soil porosity is that it’s easier to saturate the soil in Medford with water than the soil in Bandon.

To learn more about your soil’s texture and porosity, fill a Mason jar about one-third full of the soil in your garden or planting area (first sift out rocks, leaves, sticks, etc.). Fill the jar with clean water, leaving some room at the top of the jar, and then add one tablespoon of powdered dishwashing detergent or Calgon liquid water softener.

Close the jar tightly and shake vigorously, and then set the container on a flat surface and allow the soil to settle for 48 hours. Afterward, note the height of each soil layer: sand on the bottom, silt in the middle, and clay at the top. Layers that are about equal in size indicate loamy soil with good drainage and water-retention capacity.

Adding compost is helpful for sandy and clay soils. Organic matter helps sandy soil retain water, thus important nutrients for plants, and organic matter loosens and aerates soils with a lot of clay.

Timing is important. It’s best to water plants in the morning to avoid wasting water from evaporation during hot afternoons, and to reduce the risk of fungal diseases caused by foliage staying wet overnight. Heat-loving plants, like my tomatoes and cucumbers, particularly benefit from morning watering so the dark, damp earth they are growing in absorbs the sun’s rays all day.

On the other hand, lettuce, Asian greens, spinach and brassica plants thrive best in cooler soil. They enjoy late afternoon watering to cool things down after a hot day, which helps prevent them from bolting prematurely. Applying a two-inch layer of mulch around the plants also keeps the soil cooler, and helps to conserve water.

“Memory of Water” is part of a growing genre of literature called eco-fiction, or cli-fi, aimed at raising awareness about climate change and the need for conserving water and other natural resources. During her interview, Itäranta explained why she chose to write in this genre:

“I feel that we live in a culture that is very focused on short-term profit at the expense of long-term impact on our environment, and that people choose to ignore the continuity and interconnectedness of things. [Eco-fiction] is about seeing the bigger picture, and recognizing responsibility. Noria thinks about these things because she has no choice. We do have a choice — what we do with it will inevitably have a bearing on the lives of those who come after us, so I believe we should try to see beyond ourselves and our own short lives.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.