Green Scene: Water everywhere

SUBMITTED PHOTO A puddle remains on a lawn, even 24 hours after the sun came out.

"Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink."

This portion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has long stayed with me. Of course, they describe a situation I have never experienced: The mariner, long stuck in the doldrums, experiences the greatest irony. He is surrounded by water, yet he is dying of thirst, since he cannot rehydrate himself from the salt sea.

(By the way, the poem has a 19th century environmental message, but that's your homework).

Having come through one of the wettest springs on record, some of us are experiencing a similar irony. Our plants have had so much to drink that they are thirsty. All right, I realize this is a bit of an over simplification, but the truth is that water can suffocate plants. Plants that can't breathe also can't drink. And if you cannot drink, soon you become thirsty.

The photo shows ponding on a lawn 24 hours after the sun came out. If there is water above ground, imagine the soil below ground.

Healthy soil is composed of macro- and micro-pores. The water in micro-pores is held by molecular attraction, like a magnet. The water in macro-pores is held by capacity and gravity. If there is capacity, the water will move lower in the soil, leaving empty macro-pores above. If the macro-pores are empty, they contain oxygen that the roots use to breathe. However, if the capacity fills up below, then the macro-pores fill up above. When soil has exceeded maximum capacity, it is obvious because puddles form and remain at the surface, waiting for evaporation, not drainage to dry them.

So the first respiratory problem is that the macro-pores are full of water and not air. And the plants can't breathe. The second respiratory problem results from cultivation. We Americans have all followed the 20th century Joneses' suburban mandate: Every open space must have a lawn. And every lawn must be mowed. Mowing the lawn means driving something on it regularly, and this driving or walking smashes the macro-pores, especially when they are wet. So now the roots can't breathe because their air tanks are gone.

What should you do if you have a lawn pond? Think back, before the pond years, this ground was always softer than other places. Perhaps you should consider planting an informal rain garden. (A formal rain garden requires engineering). Choose beautiful plants that have different maintenance and respiratory needs. These plants accept hydrologic variability. In other words, they can survive both a good soak and a periodic dry spell.

Plant this kind of garden and not only will you have new varieties of plants and wildlife to watch, you'll have less to mow, and your mower won't get stuck anymore.

Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit's municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at


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