Watering Your Garden Without Running Water or Electricity

By Evan Stirling, An Alaska Master Gardener in Ester, Alaska

Welcome back for the update on starting a garden in Interior Alaska. One of the things I had tried to emphasize in my first posting was that a lot of gardening seems to be about patience. We’ve met a lot of people who use gardening almost as a sort of meditative practice, which seems really great. With that said, if you are just starting out like us, it’s hard not to go all gang-busters crazy with all the things to do, but make sure to enjoy it and remember that you can (and should!) only take on so much at a time. It should be fun, and when you get down to it you can’t rush nature—and after all, a garden is hopefully as best a reflection of the natural world as we can manage while still trying to feed ourselves (physically and spiritually).

Enough philosophizing and back to some more nuts and bolts of our new garden. Water—one of the most critical aspects of gardening. Remember, plants need soil to grow in, sun, water, and carbon dioxide. We’ve been through location (sun) and soil, and carbon dioxide is always present in our atmosphere, so now we’ll consider water. Without water, plants as well as people, don’t survive. And our annual vegetable plants that we love to grow, even in the desert of Interior Alaska, need a LOT of water to be productive. We’re talking an average of an inch of water per week, and in Fairbanks we only see about 11 inches of precipitation all year! Yikes. So, to have a successful garden here you have to really think about where your water is coming from. This is true everywhere, actually, as freshwater is an incredibly precious resource that is growing more scarce everyday. We would all do well to use it wisely and conservatively.

Our 55 gallon drum collecting water from the gutters.

If you live on city water or have your own well, you are probably covered and don’t need to read much more here. But if you are like us and live without running water in your home or on your land, then this is pretty crucial. I can’t claim to be any kind of expert, and I will tell you up front that we have nowhere near enough water storage yet for our own garden, but I will pass along to you what we have done so far and also what some other folks do. One of the simplest and best things you can do for your garden is to collect rainwater. This is a topic in and of itself, but the basics are just that: hang gutters and collect the water in some type of vessel. For us, we started with just collecting water in one 55-gallon and one 30-gallon drum because it was what we had. We then carried buckets of water to our fledgling garden last year when we were there. Not ideal, but it worked.

 This year we have upped our game and run PVC directly from the gutter
downspout outlets to a 250-gallon storage tank in our garden. We already
know that this amount of storage will not come close to meeting our
needs for the subsistence-sized garden we hope to grow. We’ve gathered
from friends that we would need more like 1500 gallons of storage for our size of a garden. If we could only find a tank that size without buying a new
one…

Our raised, 250 gallon tank, with PVC pipe running to the garden.

All of this will clearly be determined by your own situation on your property and in your garden. We have the ‘disadvantage’ of our cabin sitting slightly lower than the top of our garden. This meant that we needed to keep the water as high as possible to be able to maintain pressure once it was in the storage tank. Many people construct a system where they have a smaller storage tank up high on a stand of some type and just pump water up to it from a larger holding tank on the ground when needed using a small electric pump. We don’t have electricity and haven’t invested in any type of powered pump so that is out of the question for us, for now.

Another method of collecting water that quite a few folks in Fairbanks do is to collect the spring snowmelt by funneling it somehow into either a holding tank or large collection pond. Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, relies on water collected in ponds from snowmelt in the spring to water a 3 acre farm. Water can then be pumped ‘uphill’ from there to various storage tanks to create pressure for use in watering. I should also mention at this stage that this is a good time to consider how you will be watering your garden. It is sufficient to hand-water, using a watering can or garden hose, but I would highly recommend creating some type of drip irrigation system. I won’t get into all the details of drip irrigation, but there are loads of great resources out there, including a nice blog post from Heidi Rader, with the Cooperative Extension Service: Got Gravity? 10 Steps to set-up a low-tech drip-irrigation system using gravity and rain. The principle of drip irrigation is simple: it uses water most efficiently and helps to send water deeper into the soil to encourage deeper root development. It also doesn’t take much pressure to run drip irrigation so you don’t have to worry about having a super-high water tank if you live without running water or even lack electricity.

I hope all of that helps somewhat for those of you who are gardening in Interior Alaska in one of the warmest June’s on record without running water. Again, I’m no expert, but have been collecting ideas from many places for years. For now, this is where we are starting. We know we need more storage and we would love to collect the spring snowmelt in some type of pond if we can. We shall see!

We have loved this process of developing our own garden and hope the same for you. Never stop learning. There are so many wonderful gardeners in our town and things to learn all the time. Don’t be afraid to try something out and if it’s not working for you, do something different. Gardening is definitely not all science. Until next time, happy gardening!

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