Here is Where We Must Begin: Water, Drought, and Flowers

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley magazine

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley magazine

This column was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and it part of a long-standing series with the publication.

The banks of the Arkansas river are over flowing. Last week the water went up past the basketball goals in downtown Dardanellle and all the low water bridges have washed out. The wetlands in downtown Little Rock are fully submerged in water and it seems like almost every river town is issuing a flood warning. My little flower garden on top of the hill is exploding with yarrow, echinacia, bee balm and tiny little volunteer zinnias and hyssop seedlings sprouting from last year’s deadheading.

Meanwhile, in the San Joaquin valley of California, the reservoirs are going dry.

Water, and access to it, has been on my mind a lot these days. California’s drought has shed light on how woefully ignorant and short-sighted we humans can be about our most fundamental resources. The fact that California waited until now to actually start making real efforts to curtain simple things like watering golf courses should give our whole nation pause. Due to greed, short sightedness, and downright apathy, we humans keep trying solve our problems by pretending they don’t exist. So far it hasn’t worked. There’s a much larger discussion we need to be having about money and power and access to resources. Regardless of your political beliefs, it’s becoming pretty clear to everyone that what we’ve got going just isn’t sustainable.

As of right now, Arkansas doesn’t have any problems with drought, man-made or otherwise. But as California dries up, more and more large scale agri businesses will move to the Arkansas Delta and other land rich portions of the state. If the same farming practices prevail, we’ll wind up in the same boat, or lack a need thereof. It might not happen in our own lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean it should not concern us. I think all of us would agree that we care deeply about the lives our grandchildren’s grandchildren, even if we may never know their names. No one wants to see a well run dry.

I met a woman at a Quaker retreat last year who was talking to me about the work she was doing in Oklahoma with incarcerated women, most of them locked up for minor drug offenses in what amounts to a debtor’s prison. Rather offhandedly and buried deep within a larger conversation, she said something I’ve been focusing on for months: “Our circle of concern is large. Our circle of influence is much smaller.” She was probably in her late sixties, old enough to be my mother. She struck me as both practical and inspired. She reminded me to pay close attention to where a person can make a real difference and funnel your energies there.

In the community work I do, I see so many people waffle between extremes. People set out to change the world; they realize it can’t be done with their own two hands and then they decide to just forget the whole thing and give up. In between such extremes are millions upon millions of human-sized goals and an endless process of trial and error. Trial and error is the long-haul work—the kind where we can all focus our energies.

I feel deeply concerned about water. I think everyone should. But concern doesn’t equal impact and we have to move beyond what we’re concerned with to thinking critically about where we can actually make change. Most likely none of us who make our homes in central Arkansas have anything to do with the situation in California. But let’s talk about Arkansas instead. Maybe you’re part of a gardening club, city on a city board, operate businesses, or are active with the Game and Fish. Perhaps you go to church; you shop for food; you hold political office or teach students. Water isn’t something that belongs only to experts. From the city halls to the church pews, we all need to be educating ourselves about what it means to create a regionally sustainable water plan. We’ll be nothing without out it.

So back to those flowers I was telling you about—-the ones in my little hilltop garden. I love flowers. Like, I really, really love them. When all my flowers start to bloom I feel like my whole heart will explode. But as I read more and more about drought and access to water I’ve started to think more critically about how I flower garden. Am I just ignoring the larger issues of water access in hopes that they’ll somehow disappear?

Before I write it off flower gardening as a wasteful use of resources, I think it’s important to note a few things. Many flowers, especially native flowers and wildflowers aren’t just there to be pretty. They’re food for bees and butterflies, creatures that keep our food healthy. They’re essential to our ecosystems. Take, for example, a wild growing field. It’s filled with flowers. The creator is clearly a fan of blooms. I fundamentally believe that growing flowers can be a healing process for humans. There is a connection that can develop between flower garden and working through grief, and in recent years much of our work at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources has been about exploring this link and helping people gain access to resources for healing gardens.

So the question isn’t really whether or not a person grows flowers. It’s more about about what kind of flowers we’re growing and what kind of water systems we’re using to sustain them. So this year I decided to experiment with drought flowers and begin researching creative watering techniques.

In most cases we don’t eat the flowers, so they can be watered with so-called gray water, the kind that hasn’t been purified with a septic system. Rain barrels can be placed at the corner of each eve of the house, for example. During these flood season rain barrels are especially helpful. For a small flower garden you can catch enough rainwater from your roof to last for quite a while. If you live outside of city limits you can also experiment with gray water collection methods, something I’ll explore more in future writing.

There’s a permaculture technique called Hugelkulture where you bury logs or decaying wood in the soil before you put in the plants, and this will act as a sponge and keep the water in the soil longer. I tried it last year with wood from a tree that had been hit by lightening and it clearly made a difference in how often I needed to water.

In the past, I’ve written pieces about moving wildflowers (what some folks might call weeds) in my yard to the flower beds. Such flowers are as hardy as they come and you hardly ever have to water them. But this year I’m also researching what flowers do best in drought and selecting seeds solely based on this. Many heirloom seed companies like Baker Creek will provide information about what flowers are best for drought conditions. This year I’m trying variates of heirloom yarrow, butterfly weed and other milk weeds, black-eyed Susan and hyssop. I’m also trying some new marigold varieties and a few sunflowers that are supposed to tolerate low water conditions.

While I’m excited about these new experiments, I’m even more curious about how to put what I’m learning into action beyond my own yard. As part of our work at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources we’re seeking to explore new ways (which are usually actually really, really old ways) of working with the land in a way that makes sense in our community. I know I’m not the only one thinking about this stuff and certainly not the only person experimenting with new ways to think about water usage.

I think the best gardens lead to conversations. It’s hard to see a beautiful field full of growth and color and not want to show another person. Flowers are sparks. They can get things started. As the national news calls on us to be deeply concerned with the lack of water in California or, even more so, a lack of water continent aways, here is where we live. And here is where we must begin.

I’d love to hear how you’re experimenting with conserving water and your own thoughts on gardening in a world where water is already a scare resource. We’d love to have you join us in working on these issues at the McElroy House. Thanks so much for reading.