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A Spouse’s Guide to Garden Watering

Michael Hillman

"Remember, the yellow verbena only gets watered every other day, everything else in that bed gets water every day," hurriedly noted my Master Gardener wife as she packed the last of her clothes for her long trip.

"Got it. Yellow Ver -bean-um, once every other day, everything else twice a day . . . Um, err, one more time. Wher'se the bed again?" I shyly asked.

"It's the one across form the pond. Also, remember to feed the fish."

"Fish? Fish? When did we get fish?"

My wife closed her suitcase and sighed. "Six years ago . . ."

I'm sure if you polled Master Gardeners on what their worst nightmares are, leaving their gardens in the care, even if only temporarily, of well meaning, horticulturally challenged spouses, probably ranks at the top.

I've long ago given up keeping track of the plants that now call my wife's many gardens home. Prior to becoming an Master Gardener, she was satisfied with a simple garden containing flowers, which I could not only recognized, but who's names I could pronounce without major contortions of my lips.

By the time she received her Master Gardener certificate, her gardens had quadrupled in size. The simple varieties that once graced the walkways, perfectly good plants as far as I was concerned, had been pulled out, replace by obscure, albeit 'native', plants.

Having been given a taste of how spectacular her gardens could be, she moved on to more advance and focused training at Longwood Garden. Each new class brought eclectic new plant additions, and with them, new garden layouts.

When existing gardens could no longer meet her needs, she simply appropriated more of our ever-diminishing lawn. Soon she was buying weed killer in barrel containers, not to kill weeds, but to eradicate whole portions of the yard to accommodate her latest shade garden, raised bed garden, or butterfly garden.

As one can imagine, the daily maintenance of such an extensive array of gardens is a Herculean task at best. A task best suited for a Master Gardener, not a Master Gardener spouse! While I have always been ready and willing to help, the scope of my 'acceptable' services has diminished inversely to the growth in the size and complexity of the gardens.

At first, I was entrusted with planting 'hardy' plants, ones that didn't need the fine touch of a Master Gardener. But my unique ability to step on the most fragile plant in the bed gave her pause.  Given my unique ability to kill any plant I touched, weeding seemed a natural. But I got fired from that position for failing to master the technique of pulling weeds out by the root. Since then, my help in the garden has been limited to 'safe' activities, like dumping buckets of rocks over the fence line. Anything more than that, my wife claims, would be hazardous to the health and well-being of the gardens.

So, when my wife inquired if I would be willing to take responsibility for watering while she visited her parents for a week, I jumped at the chance to prove myself. After all, how hard could watering be?

I quickly learned that there was much more to watering then turning on the hose, opening a beer and stand around waiting to get bitten by mosquitoes. Apparently, one of the first things you learn when you become a full fledged Master Gardener, is the secret equation for determining just how much water a plant needs on a daily basis.

The equation is made up of several basic components. At first glance, it was fairly simplistic, and compared to running a nuclear power plant, seemed like child's play. Factors Master Gardeners take into consideration include: deepness of the roots (DR) - the deeper, the less frequent the need for watering; plant height or the tallness of the plant (T) - the taller the plant, the more need for watering; leaf width (L) - the wider the leaf, the more need for watering. Of course, flowering plants (FP), need more water then non-flowering (NFP) plants. Or, in mathematical speak: ((T x L)/DR) x (FP/NFP)

A good Master Gardner then adds in some fudge factors. For example: the closer the proximity of plants in a bed (PP) - the less you have to water; the windier the day (WD), the more you have to water; the sunnier the spot (SS) - the more one needs to water; the shadier (SS1) - the less you need to water. Or more simply: (WD x SS)/(PP x SS1)

Then, of course, one needs to factor in whether the soaker hoses you've been meaning to replace for the past five years leak more at the top or the bottom of the bed (SHL), the number of mosquito bites you're willing to accept in any one time period (MSB), and the number of times you're willing to fuss with a hose that always seems to kink at the worst possible time (HK). Or more simply, (SHL)/(MSB x HQ)

Put together, the equation on how much and how often to water just one plant in a plant in a Master Gardener's garden looks like this: (((T x L)/DR) x (FP/NFP)) x ((WD x SS)/(PP x SS1)) x ((WD x SS)/(PP x SS1)). As a point of comparison, the equation that describes the chain reaction within a nuclear power plant has only six factors, and to calculate that requires some pretty heavy computing power. How Master Gardeners can juggle all these factors and calculations in their head and get it right every time is beyond me, but they do, and their gardens always look beautiful.

Given that the results of my first calculation for my wife's garden -- 300 inches of water -- was a little bit suspect, I ran the equation on my computer. It crashed halfway through and has refused to start since.

Realizing that what was left of my reputation as 'mindless' garden help was now at risk, I did the only thing I could think of -- I multiplied the whole equation by zero, subtracted 1, and began to water likes my wife buys plants: non-stop.

Every morning I raced the sun to the garden. Juggling the coffee IV and the watering hose took a little getting used to at first, but it was rewarding. Every garden was filled with a capricious array of colors and fragrances. Drooping plants, almost instantaneously rose to meet the rays of the sun after receiving their fill. Bugs of every shape and size, invisible to those who hurry through gardens, suddenly became ever-present. And for the first time, I realized that my wife had not simply created gardens, but whole worlds unto themselves.

Everyday I discovered a new collection of potted plants squirreled away in some corner of a garden, all with intended purposes that only my wife could reveal, and all of course, now desperately wilted from lack of water.

In spite of my efforts, it was apparent that I was losing the watering battle. Pulling out all the stops, I fired up the soaker hoses and even enlisted the help of local kids, all to no apparent avail. Finally in desperation, I contacted a local pool water company, and after being assured the water was untreated, contracted for a shipment.

As I stood watching the deluge from the tanker flood the gardens, my wife called to check in and remind me: " . . Remember, over-watering is as bad as under-watering . . ."

 Read Mike's Latest: A Spouse's Guide to Building  the Perfect Water Barrel System

Read other stories by Michael Hillman