Scott McGuire

Western co-creative gardeners face a unique challenge, and that is providing water. Many eastern and central farms and gardens rely on nature to bring rain, even if amounts fluctuate these days. But this isn't the pattern here in southern Oregon where summers have been dry for a long time. The working rhythms for a garden that receives summer rain are molded in part by the arrival of those rains, how long they last, and how much water they leave behind. When humans provide the rain without any help from nature, all the garden cycles can be thrown off balance. So I’d like to talk about ways I've learned to include nature’s pattern in my watering.

To temperate climate gardeners, it might seem weird to "artificially" control a "nature-department" item such as water. (Western farmers who go east for the first time wonder, "Where's your irrigation system?") But to grow anything here during the summer, humans have to provide the water somehow. Aside from learning from nature the best winter crops to grow (when it does tend to rain), I’ve had to learn to ask, "What are the most appropriate water timings and amounts for each plant/bed/garden?" As it turns out, the right answers are also the most efficient for meeting the gardens' needs as well as for conserving water.

Most gardens that need to be watered suffer from either over- or under-watering; there is probably more guesswork here than in any other garden job. For co-creative gardeners it might seem overwhelming to learn yet another process for nature’s input, especially for such a vital element such as water. But I’ve found that nature’s information on watering helps to integrate the best timing for other garden activities and sheds more light on how it all links together.

Let's start with germination — appropriately enough! Whether sown in flats or directly into soil, each kind of seed has particular water needs, before, up to, and after actual germination. Rather than try to guess what they are, I just ask the Garden Deva. (Of course!) But watering questions can be tricky. Does the garden want lots of water at once, or smaller amounts in intervals, and if so, how much and how often?

For germination, frequency is critical, each seed bed usually needing only a flash of water, but at various times during the day. When the cover surface starts to look dry, I ask, "Does this flat/bed need watering now?" If yes, I'll water it. If no, I keep my eye on it and keep asking until I get a yes.

This would be cumbersome to do all the time, so when I sense a pattern forming after a few days, I'll describe my impression of the pattern and ask for verification. To arrive at this rough outline, I always start by asking in present time ("Does it need water now?"). And once I have a workable pattern, I verify it daily in case of any changes. If at any time I sense the pattern has changed (it's cloudy, Sherlock), I’ll ask, "Do I need to redefine the pattern?" and that gives me the lead-in for more precise information.

Also for germination, the timing of the last watering of the day is often more crucial than the first. Wet plants and warm evenings can combine to cause damping-off, so I always ask, "Is this the last flash of the day?" If yes, I can release and move on; but, if no, I still need to be attentive until the last watering — lest conditions be too dry or worse, too wet going into evening. Generally, cloudy days have an earlier last flash than sunny days. Once I made the "mistake" of asking a friend to keep my seed beds moist while I was away for a few days. I neglected to include any more precise information. I found out later that the beds were only checked in the late afternoon. Not a single seed came up! Now I don't let anyone water my garden unless they know muscle-testing.

As for watering the rest of the garden once it's established, I simply proceed bed by bed: "Do any plants in this bed need water today?" If no, I move on. If yes, then I ask: "Do all the plants in this bed need water today?" If the answer is yes, I make a note of it for the next set of questions. If no, then I go ahead and ask plant by plant. Once I’ve checked the whole garden, a pattern is usually clear and I can set up sprinklers accordingly. I find that the garden layout most always lends itself to watering without my having to jump through too many hoops. Plants with similar water needs tend to be grouped together, which seems to be part of the devic design.

All this may sound more tedious than it actually is. Once I start working with some patterns (always verifying) I can usually set up a sprinkler and tend to something else nearby. Other garden jobs tend to organize themselves around the water pattern. For example, while the border is being watered, I can weed and thin the carrots; and then put the sprinkler on the carrots while I mulch the border. The beauty of this is that by determining the sequence of watering the border before the carrot bed, I received clues as to what work was needed in each. And in this example, the time it took to weed the carrots allowed all the water the border needed, and the time it took to mulch the border provided plenty of water for the carrots! But we still need to be able to figure out how much water to apply ahead of time. Determining this involves getting information regarding both rate and time at once. If I had a fancy flowmeter, nature could tell me directly, "This bed needs 23 gallons of water by mid-day" and I could just dial that in and go about my day. Another way is to give nature part of the equation and then the rest can easily follow. For instance, I'll adjust a sprinkler’s position and flow, checking until it’s correct, then ask: “At this rate, how long should I run this sprinkler?” Then I go through the sequence: "More than five minutes?" (yes), "More than ten minutes?" (yes), "More than fifteen minutes?" (no), "So between ten and fifteen minutes?" (yes), "Do I need to be more specific?" (no). Also at this point I can include my personal timing for nature's adjustment: "I need to be gone for two days, any alterations?" I've found it's best to give nature a few day's notice for a smooth absence, and I don't push my luck when trying to germinate anything!

Along with all of this, I've learned to ask nature for signals I can test to verify the timing of other chores besides watering. And learning how to water co-creatively has helped my intuitive expansion into other areas of life besides gardening. I like to think that if I can meet my garden’s water needs the way nature prefers, I'm somehow helping to reclaim a small part of the devic weather pattern for the benefit of both humans and nature together.