Gardening on the Planet

Turn off the tap for a better garden

I spent the last two weeks in Morocco; as travel is supposed to do, this provided me with a new perspective. Morocco is a semi-arid to arid country. In Fez, where I spent the most time, the wettest month is February, with an average of just 2.8 inches of rain, while the whole of summer (June – August) gets less than an inch typically. Yet Morocco is an important agricultural producer, and has, as I saw, some beautiful gardens. This is possible because water is prized and used sparingly and for the greatest impact. Cities such as Fez and the villages are built around water sources and there is remarkably little suburban sprawl. Gardens might feature a fountain or a rill, but if so, it is a centerpiece, the jewel of the landscape, something to be savored like the spices in the local cuisine.

public garden Fez 2

Arriving back in New York, and driving back to Connecticut, then, was an eye-opener. There is the obvious abundance of water with all our rivers and streams, and a just as apparent wastage. We pollute so much of that water that much of it is unusable and squander so much of the rest. We get away with this because the United States, especially the part east of the Mississippi, is sort of a Saudi Arabia of fresh water.   Unfortunately, this has led us to regard water as the Saudis regard their petroleum, as a commodity to be extracted and marketed as rapidly as possible.

Thirty years ago I wrote a book, Waterwise Gardening, that urged all American gardeners to plant more in harmony with their local climate. I was, of course, only one of many advocates of this practice, but what I found was that in the Northeast, this advice was largely ignored. We could easily have gardens here that are largely irrigation free, but we choose not to. After all, our most essential resource, the one we cannot live without, is cheaper than dirt – literally, for we pay far more for a cubic yard of topsoil than for an equivalent amount of water.

public garden Fez

Public Garden Jnan Sbil in Fez, Morocco

Our gardens suffer from this attitude. Where water is more precious, as in the desert southwest, uniquely regional – and fascinating — gardening styles have arisen over the last generation. Yet gardens in the northeastern states have continued to be, on the whole, mongrel imitations of European traditions. We have not developed a broadly popular, northeastern style of planting, and that is largely because we treat irrigation as a given.

This summer I urge you all to turn off the tap and come to terms with where you actually live. The results will be the beginning of a garden rooted into the local landscape and climate, a garden with its own, unique style of beauty. Let’s celebrate that, and treat our water with the respect it deserves.

Posted by on March 20, 2017 at 11:54 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.
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