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Water and how we use it in the garden

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A favorite activity in my childhood — shared with three brothers — was to filch food dye, toss it into a third floor toilet, clatter down the stairs and race out the back door to the water’s edge, where we’d watch for the color spewing out the open sewer pipe. Oh, boy.

As a young woman I left that Hundred Years of Solitude watery abundance and traveled to the opposite extreme — more like Dune. In Northern California, I shared a country property with another family. Our water was stored in an 18-foot-tall redwood tank. Winter-flowing springs filled it to the top, but in the following dry summer, all we had was the contents of that tank.

We hauled our laundry to town; we showered (briefly) with buckets at our feet to catch the overflow; and we never, ever brushed our teeth to the merry sound of splashing water.

Even now, a faucet running uselessly makes me anxious.

Surrounded by the sere scents of California’s straw-colored fields, I first learned to garden. The vegetables survived on gray water. We hauled the shower buckets to our plot and, with a foot-thick straw mulch between the rows, we discovered just how little water we could use and still keep plants alive.

There was not much to spare for ornamental gardening, but I came to admire the drought-tolerant native plants, like California lilac (Ceanothus ssp.), which spangles the hillsides with blue flowers in spring and then hunkers down in summer, neatly curling its dark green leaves sideways to avoid the sun.

Out of this background of opposites, I’ve come to possess a strong water sensibility. I now live outside Eugene, Ore. The weather here combines the overflowing saturation of Pennsylvania — our average rainfall is 45 inches, arriving mostly in the winter months — and California-dry summers.

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