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How did they water gardens way back when?

Discussion in 'Research' started by Rosemary Tea, Nov 17, 2021.

  1. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    Working on a story where the characters, who live in a town, have a kitchen garden, which is the primary source of food for them. It occurred to me that they'd have to water the garden, at least during the dry season, but how would they do that at a pre-industrial level of technology?

    Every garden I've ever watered had irrigation lines in the beds, or, at the very least, a hose and spigot. These characters wouldn't have any of that. I imagine their main water source would be a well, and perhaps a rain barrel. Not ruling out a more sophisticated irrigation system, but it would have to be feasible for a home garden in a non-industrialized society (no rubber or plastic hoses, no tap water). The only other garden watering method I know is the watering can, but that would be a horribly inefficient way to water a quarter acre (give or take) of vegetables and herbs.

    They could, of course, minimize the need for watering by using permaculture methods, but that wouldn't eliminate the need entirely. So how would they do it? Trudge back and forth with the watering can? Or would there be a more efficient way?
     
  2. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    How big is your kitchen garden? Cause if it fits inside a normal house, then they'd use something akin to a watering can. So saying "that's inefficient for a quarter acre" doesn't make sense if it's a garden in a kitchen/in a town, because it wouldn't be that big.

    We've also been using irrigation for thousands upon thousands of years. Using stuff like gravity and the physics-y properties of water can make things happen "automatically."

    Most civilizations are based around a water source. If not a pond/lake/river, then a spring or something underground they can pump up. Any town is going to have pumps where someone can go get water.
     
  3. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I suspect a people living in an area with a dry season would likely have plants also adapted for the dry season.
     
  4. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Archmage

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    The method depends on how dry the dry season normally is. If we're talking no rain for the whole season then most growing would have been done in the wet season and water would be conserved for drinking. Some rain means lots of storage is used, which gives manual work to get the water out of the ground. If it's western Europe dry season (which just means the rain is warmer than in winter...), then you're mainly looking at rain barrels.

    Yes, they would water their kitchen gardens simply because it would be one of their main sources of food, and water really helps stuff grow. How depends on 2 things. The size of the garden and the technology available. The bigger the garden the more automised the process will be. A rain barrel (which all houses would have) and gravity can do most of the work. A simple bamboo pipe gets the water to the garden and small trenches in the ground spread it from there to the plants. Once you have that in place, you can draw buckets from a well, dump them in the barrel and it will spread from there.
     
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  5. Slartibartfast

    Slartibartfast Minstrel

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    Interesting question. I used to deal with historical drainage systems a lot and from my perspective the problem that people used to experience always seemed to be the reverse: I almost exclusively found systems designed to get rid of excess water, not the other way around. Of course it might just be that irrigation systems are naturally higher and many of the features woul get destroyed more easily than drainage. But on reflection I saw a surprising lack of things that would survive, like irrigation ditches, even in places where you would have thought this to be feasible and useful.

    Anyhoo, if you did have an irrigation system, you could use gravity to distribute water as long as you start the water higher than your land. It would be more or less feasible depending on how level the garden is and which way it slopes. Depending on how pre-indutry they are, you could have them use something ceramic as a distribution channel (brick would work), wood-lined channels or, if the local soils allow, you could even have semi-permenant clay channels. Just a case of finding something that seems like the cheapest and easiest likely solution for that socity.

    I think the real trick would be storing the water. Getting water out of a well is a pain in the backside, even if it's a higher tech society and they use pumps. As you say, rainwater barrels would be used and I suspect they would be so helpful compared to dawing water out of a well that they would be used a lot more than they are today. I'm sure cooking water and any other clean-ish waste water would be used thoughtfully too, not just chucked out of the nearest window.

    Finally, I expect they'd develop a keen sense of what needs to be watered. I'm a lazy gardener but tend to water everything because it involves turning a tap on and once I do, the water never stops. If it was much harder that that I would know exactly what I didn't need to water and how long it would live for if I didn't. I would probably also develop a far better sense of how drought resistant my various crops were, and how well the soils retained water in various different parts of the garden.
     
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  6. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Things like Qanats have been used for hundred if not thousands of years to get water from where it was to where it was needed.
     
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  7. Karlin

    Karlin Scribe

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    There were all sorts of ancient water systems. Canals and ditches if you had springs uphill-there are still many in use. Shadoof, which can lift water up from a river or well, to a ditch or bucket..
     
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  8. Slartibartfast

    Slartibartfast Minstrel

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    Just re-read my post and should have been way clearer with what I was trying to say.

    Firstly, my experience is from Northern Europe and doesn't apply outside of that area. Secondly I was trying to answer the question 'how does someone who already has a water source go about spreading this efficiently on their 30x30m garden?' I'm not trying to deny the existence of water sources and water supply systems in general :D

    Damn me and my rambling.
     
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  9. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    What are they growing? As others have said, they are probably going to pick the plants that need the least maintenance. After that, I'd guess it would be by hand and probably the job of young children, the lame/crippled and elderly.
     
  10. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I've seen water captured from the air using tarps. If they raised some tents around the garden for this reason, they might be able to cause some type of natural watering using dew and a method of capturing it.
     
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  11. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    Your post was perfectly clear to me.
     
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  12. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    Interesting! I'd been wondering how the Persians did it, building a highly urbanized society in such a dry climate.

    Perhaps the farmers in my story would use something like that, if the natural weather isn't quite enough to keep their crops going. I'm not sure they'd need it for a kitchen garden, though, if they have adequate well water and rain catchment. (I'm not setting any of it on a farm, but farmers appear as peripheral characters: they show up at the market in town to sell their harvest; some townspeople came from farming families and have relatives who've remained on the farm.)
     
  13. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    I'd been playing with that, and I think I have it worked out. Winters are much wetter than summers (a weather pattern I'm well used to; I'm from California, which is dry half the year in a good year, longer in a drought). Summers are not completely devoid of rain (that's where the setting departs from California weather), but it's less frequent. By late summer, the rain tapers off. Until mid to late autumn, it rains very little or not at all. So that's perhaps two or three months with little or no rain, three to five months (depending on whether it's an especially wet or especially dry year or somewhere in between) with lots of rain and occasional snow, and the rest of the time, a moderate amount of rain.

    So, they'd probably need to start adding water to the rain barrels sometime in the summer, and keep it up until the winter wet season starts, by which time the only crops left would be the frost tolerant ones. (Night frosts start happening not long after the autumn equinox, although days remain warm for a while.) That would mean most vegetables would have to be harvested by early autumn. Planting would be done in the spring, when it's still wet. Some herbs do best with autumn planting; those would go in the ground probably around the time the rains start.

    Simple, and they'd certainly have that.
     
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  14. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    The premise here is that the Industrial Revolution never happened, so technological and economic development has gone the way it would have (or could have) in the absence of that. Technology that could not have existed without the Industrial Revolution can't appear in this setting. Anything that existed somewhere in the world by the eve of the Industrial Revolution can. So, for that matter, can technologies that could have existed under those conditions but did not, simply because no one thought of them. It doesn't have to be historically accurate, but it does have to be possible within those parameters.

    Yes, water pumps exist. They don't require industrial level technology. And I've already decided they'd put their gently used water into a graywater system, where it would ultimately end up watering the garden. Only difference from a modern graywater system would be that it probably doesn't drain directly from the kitchen sink (though I suppose that wouldn't be impossible).

    Excellent point.

    Maybe they'd let gravity do most of it and then go do some touching up with a watering can as needed.
     
  15. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    I haven't spelled it out, but in my mind, they're growing the same kinds of plants I would if it were my garden: vegetables like carrots and cabbage and beets and chard and squash and tomatoes and peppers and beans (I know those aren't all native to the same continents, but I'm not concerned about historical accuracy, just what would be possible in the climate). And pot herbs and medicinal herbs, which are mostly the same thing: rosemary (of course!), basils, yarrow, sage plants, chamomile, calendula, mints... the list goes on.

    They would naturally arrange the garden so that the plants are in sunnier or shadier spots according to their needs, and the plants with the greatest need for water are at the lowest points, which will receive the most drainage. But from there, a helping hand would be needed.

    If watering means hauling water from the well and dumping it in the rain barrel, that couldn't be a children's job. Buckets of water are HEAVY. A teenager could do it, and maybe a strong eleven or twelve-year-old could, but younger children wouldn't be able to manage. Neither could anyone who's infirm.

    But I do see most of the gardening work, the weeding and picking and planting, being delegated to the children. The adults have a lot of other work to do. The children, not so much. They'd be available for routine, necessary, simple chores, like weeding the garden.
     
  16. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    If you're doing an ultra primitive desert campout, that's a way to get drinking water. But there's good reason why deserts are not, traditionally, farm land. (Not to say there's never been desert farming. Indigenous peoples in the Sonoran Desert have done it for ages, but always near a river that could be used for irrigation.) If water is that scarce, gardening isn't feasible.

    If there is enough dew to water the plants with, the simplest way to do that would be to let the dew fall on the plants. In other words, do nothing. But then that comes back to growing drought tolerant plants.

    Some of the plants they're growing would be like that. Rosemary only needs to be watered when it's first planted, and after that, never again. Plant it during wet season, and you won't have to water it at all. Yarrow keeps itself going with or without rain (it will die back and not look so nice, but as long as there's any moisture at all in the air, it will keep putting out new leaves).
     
  17. Slartibartfast

    Slartibartfast Minstrel

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    Sounds like a fun place to write about.

    In that case, one other thing to consider (if you like) is not just the availability of a technology, but its scale and application. Barrels are certainly common technology in the early post-medieval period, but their cheap, volume manufacture wasn't. Ditto ceramic building material. Depends on how much of a rabbit hole you intend to go down.

    Another thing that came to mind is the different balance of costs they would face. In particular, materials being comparatively far more expensive and labour being comparatively cheap compared with the modern Western economy. Perhaps rather than using a physical system made from expensive resources, the cheapest irrigation device really would be a person with a bucket?
     
  18. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    There are coopers in town. Barrels wouldn't be too hard to come by.

    Cheap, volume manufacture of anything wouldn't exist, you're right. But in an economy like this, everyone's an artisan, more or less. Every family's income is derived, in full or in large part, from making goods to order. Prices have to be affordable to the community, otherwise there wouldn't be any business... but then, everyone is getting paid comparably.

    And families are doing their own gardening, which has to be fit in with all the other work of making a living and running a household. Maybe there's the occasional hired helper involved, but that person would be hired as general help, not just to water the garden with a bucket. Having someone do that would be extremely cost ineffective, whether or not they get monetary pay for it.

    The scenario you've raised fits more with the early industrial era, when factory made goods started undercutting the artisans. That was what really crashed the economy. That was what made labor cheaper: lots of desperate people who could no longer make a living through crafts, or who'd been farmers but lost their land.

    For artisan made barrels and bricks to be unaffordable, there would have to be something disrupting the artisan economy. In our timeline, the Industrial Revolution did that. Before that happened, artisans typically made enough to be able to afford other artisans' goods. It wasn't a problem. In fact, not buying from the other local artisans would have been a problem, because that would have been denying them support.

    Besides, the house and garden have already been built. The irrigation system would have been put in at that time. The people living there now aren't spending money on that. Maybe on repair and maintenance of the irrigation system, just like any homeowner has to deal with, but that would just be a now and then thing. Since the system is already in place, the most cost effective way is to use it.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2021
  19. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I forgot the old fashioned way. Have lots of kids and tell them to do it.
     
  20. Puck

    Puck Minstrel

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    In somewhere like Medieval England they definitely used 'watering cans' of various sorts (except they were not cans but pots - being made from ceramics).

    Here is a link to a late Medieval/Tudor example in the Museum of London.

    Here is another link to an article on watering in medieval and early modern times, with some pictures of the implements they used.

    For added nerdiness get yourself a copy of Thomas Hill's The Garden Labyrinth (written in 1577). He wrote, on the subject of watering gardens:

    The common watering potte for the Garden beddes with us, hath a narrow necke, bigge belly, somewhat large bottome, and full of little holes, with a proper hole formed on the head, to take in the water, whiche filled full, and the thombe layde on the hole to keepe in the aire, may on such wise be carried in handsome manner...
     
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