A leaf from India's book -- saving every drop

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There are dust-dry areas of northern India where good rain are about as common as hen's teeth. Yet gardeners there frequently produce good crops of that most water-consuming plant, the melon.

How those desert residents accomplish this may well help gardeners here in the United States as they face what is predicted to be another dryer-than-usual growing season.

Simply put, the Indians don't waste a drop of their precius water with surface irrigation or spray irrigation; they put it right where the plants need it most -- underground among the roots. They do this by using a narrow-necked, unglazed clay pot.

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First, the pot is buried in prepared garden soil so that the neck protruders above ground. The pot is then filled with water and a stone is placed over the mouth of the jar to reduce still further any chance of evaporation. Then the melon seeds are sown around the circumstance of the pot.

The water seeps through the walls of the pot to moisten ITTED FROM SOURCE] the immediate soil area and feed the growing vines. Because this movement of water is so slow, some of it is wasted by draining away before the plants can use it. Simply, it provides a slow but constant supply to the plants. While the spreading vines send down new roots to draw up the minuscule nutrient-laden moisture that is available, their principal source is the clay pot, which is topped off with water from time to time.

Not only vining crops -- squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and the like -- can be grown this way, but any strong-root plants that produce heavily above-ground, among them, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

There are other, less-expensive alternatives to the clay pot, but if you should go the pot-in-the-ground route make sure that the pot is unglazed. Glazed clay is waterproof, which would defeat the whole purpose.

One option is to use a bucket with small holes punched in the base and around the sides, right next to the base. Set the bucket a few inches into the ground and fill it with water. Cover the top with a board that has been weighted down with a brick. The water should slowly drain out of the bucket, moistening the surrounding soil.

You may have to experiment with the size of the holes until the rate at which the water drains nut suits your needs. Generally speaking, you will need small holes in light sandy soils that drain easily. Heavier soils will automatically delay the rate at which the water drops from the bucket. On the other hand, if the holes are too large, it will allow the water to drain out and flood to the surface.

You might also use old plastic milk bottles, or any large plastic bottle, for that matter. Punch the holes, fill with water, and lightly screw the top back on.

Not tightening the top means air is allowed into the bottle as the water drains away. A tight top would either prevent the water from draining out altogether or else a vacuum would be formed, which would collapse the bottle. Try tightening thetop to various degrees until you have the suitable drainage rate.

For row crops such as potatoes or corn you can make use of a length of plastic drainage pipe (available from a builder's supply store). STop up the ends and half bury the pipe, drainage holes down, between two rows of the crop. Drill two hole on the top of the pipe, one to fill with water, the other to let the air out as young filling it.

One advantage of using plastic containers is that they can be used to dispense liquid fertilizers, manure, or compost teas to your growing vegetables from time to time.

You know the recipe for "manure tea," don't you? Throw a few shovelfuls of manure or compost into a drum, fill with water, and stir well. Leave for an hour or so to allow the residue to settle to the bottom. Now draw off the liquid, which should be the color of weak tea, and feed it to your crops. Add water whenever you need more "tea" and repeat the process.

When the water no longer turns the color of tea you will know that all of its soluble nutrients have been drawn out. Add the residue to your compost heap or mulch pile and start over with a new batch of tea.

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