It has been raining a lot the past several weeks. As of today, the 13th, we've already had well over 4 inches of rain in June, which equals the normal monthly total. The ground is saturated. The walking aisles between raised bed crop rows look like canals. And our rainwater storage tanks are full and overflowing. We are blessed with an (over)abundance of water.
The weather gods are fickle. A running joke Rich and I talk about is how we'd like to have sunny, warm days every day, with a few nights a week of steady, gentle rain. Of course, it never works out that way. Here in New England, the weather seems to always swing from one extreme to the other, to eventually get an average, that usually sounds better than it is actually is moment to moment. But we can always dream.
Nature is resilient. It always recovers, no matter what weather is thrown at it. It's harder for gardeners and farmers though, because vegetable crops aren't as tough and hardy as the native flora. Crops need a steady, proper amount of water, just like humans do for optimal health. Neither too much nor too little is healthy for them. For most of the country, most of the time, providing enough water to crops is more problematic than having too much, even here in the wet east. On a hot, humid day, the soil will lose about one-third of an inch of water. After three of these days, an inch of water is required to restore the moisture to the soil. It can come either in the form of rain or irrigation. It doesn't take too many of these days to reduce the moisture content of the soil enough to stress vegetable crops (grains are hardier).
In the arid western part of the country, irrigation is absolutely mandatory. When we lived in California, whenever we'd drive up through the Central Valley (an area which produces more food than any other in the world), I'd always marvel at the miles and miles of handsome crops growing in what was essentially a desert. This point would be reinforced by seeing the occasional farm which would be shut down because of lack of water due to regional politics. Dry, dusty soil with nothing growing but a few sparse weeds. The land quickly reverted to its natural desert state. There would usually be a billboard alluding to the political situation that was apparently causing the lack of water for irrigation.
We don't usually think of the necessity of irrigation here, because generally, if you don't mow it down, everything grows like Jumanji (which coincidentally was filmed in nearby Keene, NH). However, as I mentioned above, veggie crops aren't very hardy, so it doesn't take very many hot days without rain to require irrigation. We found this out last summer during the drought. We tried running sprinklers from our well, but because it has a low recovery rate, it wouldn't take very long to run it dry. We knew we needed a long-term solution if we were to have a successful farm, even a small-scale one.
My friend, Thomas Hanna, who used to run a very neat small-scale farm in Westmoreland, had a constant-running spring right at the wooded edge of his farm. He plumbed from the spring to a large holding tank and used small solar powered pumps to supply drip irrigation to his crops. It was a very efficient and elegant design. The groundwater gods are even more fickle than the weather gods though. There is no rhyme or reason to the accessibility of groundwater, even within a relatively short distance. Not having an abundant spring on our property, we knew we needed to take another approach.
We considered putting in a pond from which we could pull irrigation water. However, my good friend Ed Csenge of Septic Manager, convinced us to put in underground holding tanks instead. To collect water for the tanks, I remembered information I learned while still living in California. I had attended an excellent lecture in Santa Monica, CA with my son Sean on rainwater harvesting, presented by Brad Lancaster. I never thought that his ideas would be necessary in New Hampshire, but with the drought and a low recovery rate on our well, it definitely provided a workable solution for irrigating our crops. All things work for a purpose, even if we are not aware of it at the time. So we put rain gutters on our new support building and a French drain along the front of the attached greenhouse, and we route them all underground to the water storage tanks. It's amazing how many gallons are collected from every inch of rainwater. Even though we don't need that water right now, it's nice to know that we'll be better prepared whenever it does finally dry out.