My front garden spent years as the otherwise unloved playground for a giant Norway maple's giant root system. Any soil I could get at by chopping through the tangle was as fluffy and incoherent as dust. Water rolled right down the slope to the sidewalk, leaving the ground as parched as before.
This is my third summer here, and the view from the front is better, but watering is still a challenge. The maple is a glorious but greedy neighbor when it comes to other plants. I've mulched and mulched, and brought in topsoil, but the new blueberries, peach tree, vines and flowers are still outmaneuvered in the quest for moisture and nutrients.
That may be why I responded so strongly to this passage from the aforementioned Gardening at the Dragon's Gate, by Wendy Johnson. She tells of going out to her father-in-law's garden shortly after his death, to water his plants and his memory.
"The soil was compacted dust, as if forty circus elephants had been tethered to that very spot for decades. I chipped away at the dry flanks of this abandoned garden and remembered Charlie years ago watering his riot of 'State Fair' zinnias and prize Jersey tomatoes in this very same spot.
"It took me two solid days just to loosen the soil in his garden, going a few inches down at a time, coaxing the ground to accept small tentative sips of water. Even though it is best not to cultivate soil when it is too dry or too wet, I had only this time and this ground, so I pried open a shallow seam in the dirt and watched the water trickle into the dry earth. An hour or so later, when the soil was softer and more receptive, I pried deeper with fork and hose.
"...Little by little the soil began to swell with new life, humming a slow, fat summer song."
My own dry ground ritual starts when I plant anything perennial in the front, especially on the slope. I dig out a hole behind the new plant and fill it most of the way with topsoil and compost.
I leave it a little concave. When I water, that's where it goes. The water sinks into the fertile pocket instead of rolling across the top of the ground, and the little bush gets a special delivery of moisture and food. Fanatical composter though I am, I never have enough of it to mulch everything, so this system allows me to, as Ken Kesey used to say, "put your good where it will do the most."