Since my family's move to hot, dry Texas from cold, wet Massachusetts, water and its presence or absence have been on my mind a lot! There's plenty of trivia about water to go around: 90% of our planet is covered with it, our bodies are 60% water (depending on age, gender, and other factors), but what do we really know about it, and why does it matter so much to gardeners?
It never rains but it pours
This is a cliché, a truism, a saying that we have said or heard so many times it has lost its original meaning. The intended meaning is usually that we never seem to get just enough of what we want; either we get none or we get too much. This is expressed metaphorically through WATER in the old saying; we never just get rain, we get a drenching storm or downpour. The geological record seems to indicate that there have been numerous floods in various parts of the world at different times.
Water is essential for life on Earth.
Even preschoolers learn about solid, liquid and gas (don't be scared of science) from harmless water. Water, composed of two simple hydrogen atoms linked by one of oxygen, can be easily shifted from a solid state (ice) to a slippery liquid state (water) or a nebulous gaseous state (steam, mist, cloud or vapor). All three forms of water (solid, liquid and gas) are present simultaneously at normal temperatures on earth. This is shown in the thumbnail, the very first photo on the top right. What is illustrated here is a solid iceberg floating in liquid sea water in early morning fog—a gas. Scientists evaluate other planets by whether or not they have water and can support life. We earthlings cannot imagine life without water.
Water for sale in Euless, TX.
Bring your own bottle. Picture by Carrie Lamont
Water is critical to civilization.
In the Christian Bible's creation story of Genesis, on the third day, God separates the land from the sea. From that third day forward, humans (who are created later in the story) cannot exist without water. Did you learn about the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris River and the Euphrates River, wherehuman civilizationis thought to have evolved? Water. Or how humans learned early farming when the Delta of the Nile River flooded every spring? Water again.
Water gods and water goddesses
Early cultures attributed phenomena they couldn't explain to divine intervention, and so rain, harvest, sun, or tides, each had its own god or goddess. Every culture seems to have its own stories about water and sea- or water-creatures. At school you may have learned about Greek or Roman gods, but there are countless others. You may recognize Hydros by name—he's the god of fresh water in Greek mythology. That's where we get the Greek root for words like hydrant (to access water in case of fire) and hydrate (to give supplemental fluids). But did you know there's also a Sumerian deity in charge of fresh water (Enki or Ea) and Inuit mythology tells of a goddess who walked on water? These are just a few of the dozens of deities mentioned on a
Water-loving plants growing happily in a pond.
picture by Melody Rose.
water mythology website maintained by Lenntech, a Dutch water processing company. It's interesting reading, if you're curious.
Water is a basis for measurement
When French scientists proposed the metric system in 1799, it used pure water as one of the standards by which other things could be measured. A gram is defined as the mass or weight of one cubic centimeter of water. 0° and 100° Celsius are defined as the freezing point and boiling point of pure water (and then the difference is split up into one hundred equal degrees). The metric system is used world-wide for consistency in science and in commerce. Maybe it's one of those things like driving on the other side of the road, but the United States is the one hold-out among industrialized nations; we still don't use the metric system.
The Water Cycle
We may not use the Metric System, but we do use a lot of water. Half of the water used in the United States is used to cool electrical power generating stations, and returns to the planet as steam, or water vapor, via the Water Cycle of evaporation and precipitation. Water used for irrigation represents only a third of total water used in the U.S., according to the United States Geological Survey, but that water may not be returned good as new. Do you remember the children's TV shows showing a fish gasping at the bottom of an emptying lake? My husband used to shout into my daughters' showers that Niagara Falls was starting to dry up. However, household water use (tooth brushing, laundry, cooking, hobby gardening and so on) represents a small percentage of total US water consumption.
Our water conservation matters.
Water conservation in this country has meant that despite the population increase (we have 10% more people now), water use has stayed about the same since 1980. Even a 1/4 inch of rain on a half-acre lot represents 3,400 gallons of water if collected and saved! (All units are US.) We need to keep up the good work. (Nice work, folks!)
What kind of plant is that?
We gardeners have long categorized or divided plants by the way they use water, into drought-tolerant and moisture-loving. Some plants root readily in plain old water, or can even live that way for a time. Others are specially adapted to life without a lot of water, and may easily rot or drown (drowning, for a plant, means the roots get water when they need oxygen, and that's what can happen to these poor plants) if given too much water. My daughter killed all the plants I gave her by forgetting to water them. I gave up and gave her a cactus. That one, she remembered to water every day, and it died too, of course!
Do You Have Too Much Water?
Drought-tolerant plants growing happily
without much water. (photo Melody Rose.)
In my New England climate with long, wet, chilly springs, I learned to avoid plants like agastache and others that are developed specifically for drought tolerance unless I planted carefullywith excellent drainage in a gravel bed or with gravel mulch, imitating the conditions of a hotter, drier garden. I won't embarrass myself by listing the plants that succumbed to too much water, but I will mention that the ones that thrived: balloon flower, coreopsis 'Moonbeam', creeping phlox, cranesbill, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, azalea, forsythia, honeysuckle, euonymus and hydrangea bushes.
Or Not Enough?
From Bev Walker's's article on Keyhole Gardens, we understand that much of the world is making do with not nearly enough water. In Geoff Stein's excellent articles about succulents and cactus, we learn how to care for these drought tolerant (or are they "water-wise") plants. In a world where we are realizing that just the right amount of water is as important to our plant's health as fertilizer or the growing zone, we need to pay attention to our planet's water needs too.
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.