Shoots & Ladders: Bottle of Rain

story by Char VandermeerHeat can beat even the most conscientious of gardeners. All it takes is consecutive 100-degree days to reduce cucumbers and tomatoes to sad piles of shriveled leaves and cracked fruits. But even though the best way to avoid heat damage is to keep roots cool, and the best way to keep roots cool is to water regularly, watering during the heat of the day—especially delicate, hairy-leafed plants like tomatoes and cucumbers—can be problematic. In the heat of the day, those dewy water drops become magnifying glasses that burn tender leaves. And let’s be honest: There aren’t many folks who can dote on their container garden three times a day like midsummer demands.

Instead of throwing your hands up in defeat and berating yourself for being such a neglectful gardener, it’s time to start scoping out your neighbors’ recycling bins to snag a bunch of two-liter bottles.

Once armed with enough bottles to service every container (figure one or two bottles per large container), you’re ready to get crafty.

  1. Rinse the bottles well with warm, soapy water, and strip off the plastic labels.
  2. Drill two to three small holes into the cap—1/8” holes tend to work well. If you don’t have a drill, place the cap on a hard surface and hammer a hole with a similarly sized nail. Screw the cap back on the bottle.
  3. Using a utility knife, carefully slice off the bottom inch or two of the bottle, leaving a nice, easy-to-fill wide-mouth opening (which doubles as a rain-catcher, if we’re lucky enough to see rain in July).
  4. Gently dig a hole next to the plant—try not to disturb the roots too much—and bury (cap side down) about a third of the bottle. If you can, angle the bottle’s cap toward the plant roots to ensure optimal moisture delivery.
  5. Secure the bottle by pressing soil firmly around it.

The bottle should provide a nice, steady stream of water that cucurbits and tomatoes love without exposing the foliage to any dangerous overspray. If you can’t comfortably dig a hole in your containers, try investing in a set of watering spikes that screw onto a two-liter bottle—City Planter, in Northern Liberties, usually has them in stock.

And if the extended forecast looks especially brutal, don’t be afraid to relocate your crops to a shady place for a few days. Sure, veggies like full sun, but you’d rather wait until dinnertime to cook them. Besides, it’s one of the few glorious advantages container gardeners have over large-scale farmers and those poor souls who labor over raised beds.

CHAR VANDERMEER tends a container garden on her South Philly roof deck; she chronicles the triumphs and travails at plantsondeck.com