Soil conditions that involve too much or too little water present issues for many gardeners. In some areas a short rainy season provides some water while the rest of the year is dry. Various ways of retaining rain water and using it judiciously come into play. Rain barrels, drip irrigation, swales, and thick mulches are some of those.
Here, in the past several years we have experienced unusual and copious rainfalls that dump a lot of water in a short amount of time. One of these was a devastating hail storm that cut a narrow swath through Southern Maine. The hail entirely stripped young fruits from trees and shrubs, and completely leveled the garden turning plants into soggy heaps of collapsed tissue. Onslaughts like these send brooks through the woods where there were none before. This is catastrophic water, and we’ve deepened ditches to prepare for future incidents.
Constant water is another matter. This comes to mind because Roman, who is renovating a home on Chebeaque Island, wrote to me that this may be a consideration around his house. His description reminds me of gardening where I once lived. This was a 1900 farmhouse with a spacious backyard abutting a large hayfield. In talking to neighbors at the time, I learned that the hayfield had been tiled by the Army Corp of Engineers. It was an aquifer. The engineers redirected water into a brook running down the center of the field.
But tiling it didn’t stop the field from being an aquifer. My backyard, at the edge of it, consisted of soggy soil heavily populated with a tenacious crop of weeds. My visions of rows and rows of veggies bounded by perennial flower borders turned into an enormous amount of work.
In the end I resolved the problem of waterlogged soil, and wonderful crops were able to grow. The soil there was deep, unlike the thin forest topping we have here. It would have felt tragic to not use it!
Having no book of instructions I acted on instincts, the first of which was to dig soil out of pathways and pile it into rows. This, I believe was the single most important thing that could have been done. The raised beds gave the plants a dry-enough place, while the roots could reach down and find moisture. In the center of the garden I piled a mound of dirt several feet high and planted sage, oregano, thyme, and other herbs. These grew beautifully also. An area was planted in rhubarb, which thrived. I have a photo of my teenage son holding a rhubarb leaf ... it was almost as big as him!
And I did a couple more things. The garden pathways were gradually filled in with leaves, grass clippings, and weather-worn hundred-year-old cedar shingles from the side of the barn. Pathways running along the outsides of the garden were filled in with trucked-in small stones. The stones made an ideal path that was always dry to walk on. Off to one side I planted a Wisconsin Weeping Willow tree. Driving by recently, I saw that the little twig that was originally planted has grown really big! A full grown willow can soak up an enormous quantity of water.
I guess the moral of the story is that with some adaptation even soggy soil can be turned into a beautiful garden. -jmm