Community Gardening 101: How to Water


Rachael Brown

Watering was always my favorite part of gardening as a kid. Spraying our garden beds with a hose and nozzle felt like a grown-up job, but one that fit small hands. And it was tangible, with an immediate impact. In the Texas sun, plants would visibly perk up, looking greener, more abundant. It felt easy and refreshing, unlike the grime and sweat of weeding and digging.

Yet in our community garden today in Washington, D.C., watering is a chore, and a dirty one. Our garden space lacks a faucet or plumbing, which means that all of the gardeners share water from six large catchment containers. It can be a messy, muddy endeavor, dunking watering cans into the barrels to fill them and making several sloshing trips from the barrels to our plots to hydrate the tomatoes and greens against the summer heat. And when the rain barrels run dry, which is often, we fill them by tapping the fire hydrant on the street outside the garden. This can garner some strange looks from passersby, but it gets the job done.

Here's how it works:

In a lot of ways, filling these containers is the ultimate civic duty at the garden. It's frustrating to find the barrels left empty, especially if one is in a hurry to water before heading to work. Garden members (or most of them anyway) pitch in to fill up whenever one finds them starting to run low. And despite the hassle, we've come to prefer the containers to simply spraying from a hose because it's easier to quantify how much water we are using.

Water is one of those things that most gardeners, and cooks, can take for granted—until it's scarce. It's also a hidden cost in growing food, and requires additional time and energy. For our vegetable garden, the task has generally fallen to Bryan, who visits the garden to water every morning on his way to the office, and sometimes again on the way home if the day has been particularly scorching.

The challenge for us has been access, not supply. But in some areas, like nearby Montgomery County in Maryland, the summer can bring drought, shortages, and mandated bans on watering, which can ruin carefully tended crops. The problem is only going to increase—a recent report projected that 14 states will face a high or extremely high risk to water sustainability by 2050, due to over use and global warming. As urban gardening spreads, and more people embrace growing their own food, we will also have to become more innovative in conserving the water we have. Rain barrels and rain gardens are a start. Home gardeners, what do you do to conserve water and keep your produce healthy in the summer?

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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