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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Let it rain

What a lush garden year we’re having! Last summer’s gardens were parched by drought. This summer the Northeast has been blessed with plentiful rain. 

Foliage is thriving thanks to plentiful rain

As of August 6, we’d had 30.83 inches of precipitation in the Boston area in 2017, well above the average of 25.88 inches by this date. You can probably see the difference in your garden; I certainly can in mine.

    Why should that be? What makes rain better for gardens than irrigation? We run a sprinkler irrigation system, so unless I cut back on scheduled watering, my plants should be getting enough water even when it doesn’t rain.

Water beads on a giant elephant ear leaf

    There are limitations to even the best-designed irrigation system. Ours is set up in 12 watering zones. Twice a week, sprinkler heads pop up in the early morning and start spraying in a programmed sequence, controlled by a computer in the basement. A rain sensor prevents watering when there’s been adequate rain. With this system, I lavish a lot of water on the garden, sometimes more than my conscience tells me I should.

    Theoretically every plant gets plenty of irrigation water, but in practice, I’ve learned, it’s not that simple. As the garden has matured, shrubs have grown wide and tall, hogging the spray of water and creating dry shadows behind their bulk. And the arcs described by the sprinklers’ spray don’t fit exactly to every angle and curve of plantings. Inevitably some patches get less irrigation.

    Beyond falling evenly on the whole garden, rain conveys numerous advantages:

Lots of rain is helping this St. John's wort get established

•    Whereas irrigation water contains dissolved minerals, including calcium, magnesium and sodium, rainwater is “soft” and mineral-free. As a result, it pulls nutrients by diffusion from where they're bound in the soil, making them available to plants’ roots.
•    Rain water is acidic, which promotes release of micronutrients including zinc, manganese, copper and iron that plants need. Most of my garden soil is acidic already, but there may be alkaline areas where concrete paving leaches lime. Acidic rainwater is especially beneficial in those spots.

Soil next to sidewalks may be alkaline

•    Rain falls at 20 miles per hour, penetrating soil better than irrigation water, which falls at 5 mph.
•    Rain is saturated with air, so it oxygenates soil. That’s good for plants
•    Rain contains nitrogen in the form of nitrate and ammonium from the air. This nitrogen becomes available to plant roots and promotes growth.

Big canna leaves can use a boost from extra nitrogen in rain

•    Rain doesn’t contain the chlorine that comes with treated drinking water. Chlorine inhibits plant growth.
•    Rain flushes salts (such as road salt) that inhibit growth through the root zone and washes mineral deposits, dust and pollutants off leaves, making for more effective photosynthesis.

The proof is in the pudding. The garden looks happier this year with more rain. 

New plants I added in June and July are surviving, despite the heat. Just watering them might not have been enough if it hadn’t been for well-timed, frequent rain.

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