I’ve been carrying on a secret love affair for years, and the time has come to finally admit it: I’m enamored of my garden well. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. One of the reasons I decided to purchase this house in the first place was that the property still had its original 1852 14’ shallow well. Granted, our initial meeting wasn’t precisely providential – I discovered the well’s exact location during one of my first visits with the realtor by stepping on, and partially falling through, the rotted wooden cover. If you ever want to be profoundly, utterly shocked, try having the earth fall out from beneath you, desperately grasping a wet slimy stone edge to prevent yourself from slipping further into unknown depths. I guarantee you it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Once past that unpleasant introduction, however, I warmed to my well quickly. Truth be told, I’ve been fascinated by running water since I was a child, often amusing myself for countless hours diverting and funneling snow runoff in the alley behind my boyhood home into little streams and rivulets. There’s something hugely magical about flowing water, and something even more so about places where water emerges from the ground. I’m not the only one who felt this way: the Greeks and Romans believed that special divinities controlled the springs, and they often made offerings of small coins to ensure the continued beneficence of these aquatic gods. (A practice that continues to this day, without anyone quite realizing why, every time you throw a penny in a fountain.) In my case, the well is both well, fountain and spring rolled into one, as whoever dug the first stone-lined pit chose the location, pardon the pun, well: for a large part of the year the water table is so high that my well is artesian, producing a little stream that flows of its own accord out into the pond. Over the course of 17 years, I’ve slowly built a bog garden around the stream, and constructed a country inspired fountain over the wellhead that burbles merrily during the daytime, thanks to a timer and a small submersible electric pump.
Best of all, though, is the fact that one of my predecessors here in the 30s decided to electrify the well, and ran a 2” underground water line into the basement. While the house had long shifted over to town water by my day, the old line to the well was still extant, and gave me an idea. Thanks to my father’s plumbing knowledge, he and I reinstalled a shallow well pump in the basement, and ran an independent series of PVC lines to all the exterior spigots. A few years later, we added, luxury of garden luxuries, an irrigation system to the garden – what a relief! – that is also fed by the well. Not only do I have the satisfaction of being able to irrigate the garden with my own water (a marvelously closed, environmental friendly circle) but I also save many hundreds of dollars a year in water costs.
(A short digression here in the form of a caveat: it’s illegal to use shallow wells in many communities for potable water. Animals and other things have a nasty habit of falling into them, providing a possible source of contamination. Though we’ve had our well water tested – it’s purer than the water supplied from the town – only the animals and plants drink it, and the irrigation operates on a closed loop completely separate from the municipal supply.)
Granted, a system like this is not for everyone. Shallow well pumps are finicky, need to be replaced periodically, and require constant surveillance when in active use, as the water level in can shift dramatically over the course of the summer, requiring adjustments to the pump’s pressure shut-off switch to prevent the motor from burning out. (There were ample reasons for shifting to town water years ago, ease of use being principal among them.) And then of course there was the time I got back from a lecture tour to find that one of the pipes had frozen and burst the in basement; my dear old pump, sensing the drop in pressure, had obliged by striving mightily to supply the water it thought I demanded. It did, but I didn’t. Sensing an odd noise as soon as I entered the house, I opened the basement door to discover water gushing out of the pipe, the pump running merrily away, and four inches of water accumulated on the floor. Fortunately the bulkhead had allowed some of the water to drain outside, or else the entire basement would have filled until the pump was submerged and shorted out. Ah, the joys of old house living.
Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I turn on that hose, I get the most remarkable thrill: cold, clear, clean, liquid gold, from my own little piece of the earth. And one day, when I have a spare 20K or so, or if energy prices spike again, I’m going to replace my antique natural gas fed, low-pressure steam radiator system with a heat pump, and I will use the almost endless supply of 55º water from the well to heat and cool my house. But that’s a story, and an adventure, for another day.