Daily Archives: February 5, 2009

Tips for a Drought Friendly Vegetable Garden

As a native Californian, you get used to the word ‘drought’. It comes up every once in a while so you do what you can to cut back on your water usage. Sometimes it gets so bad that you expect that everyone has to let their lawn die that summer, you adopt the rule, “if it’s yellow, it’s mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.” You put buckets under the bathtub faucet to catch all the cold water before it turns hot. You do what you can.

But this year is different. Because we’ve had such a warm, dry winter this year as well as the past two years, we are really low on our water levels. Frighteningly low. At the rate we are using water and the rate we are receiving rain, the main reservoir in our county, Sonoma County will be dry in July. Dry. Bolinas, the infamous hippy beach town, could be completely out of water by April! Out of Water!   They are calling this the worst drought EVER in California’s history. A 30% water rationing is coming in the next couple of weeks to us. And a 50% rationing is probable if we don’t get much more rain.

So what do you do in this situation? Give up gardening all together? Mainstream agriculture uses about twice as much water (and maybe much more!) to irrigate as a small scale, organic and well planned home garden. It almost seems to be a better thing to grow your own vegetables in a drought. But to do it thoughtfully. We’ve been doing some reading and planning and making changes to the garden for this upcoming dry growing season. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Grow Your Crops Before the Summer Heat Starts – Instead of doing a heavy summer planting, do the majority of your planting in spring with short season vegetables. Plant lettuce, peas, radishes, spinach, beets, onions, garlic and broccoli all which thrive in the cooler spring weather. Keep your summer plantings spare and then when fall arrives you can replant the same things you did in spring.
  2. Plant Drought Tolerant Vegetables – Some vegetables don’t need as much water as others. Amaranth, cow beans, corn, mustard greens, purlane, spinach, tomatoes, chard and a few others don’t need as much water. You buy a Drought Tolerant Seed Mix. The Veggie Patch Reimagined has a great list of drought tolerant plants. And you can read more about  drought tolerant vegetables here too.
  3. Double or Triple Dig Your Beds – While double digging is a common idea in America with organic gardening, in parts of Africa they triple dig their beds. Their crops are much more successful than their non-digging neighbors gardens. If you aren’t familiar with double or triple digging, basically you dig out the first layer of soil about one shovel deep. Then you dig out a second layer and if you are really ambitious then you can dig out a third layer. Doing this aerates your soil making it easier for the roots of your plants to grow down, thus making it easier for the roots to pick up the water that is already deep in the soil.
  4. Add Compost to Your Soil – Having your garden beds be composed of at least 2% of compost will help your soil retain a great deal more water.
  5. Mulch – Adding a 3-4 inch layer of mulch to your garden beds will do wonders. I found it amazing what a difference this made to my flower beds years ago. A night and day difference in the health of the plants once dry old August came around. You can use either compost, grass clippings or straw as mulch (there are many more mulch options too).
  6. Water at Night – In thinking of using your water to it’s best advantage, water in the evening. Most vegetables do most of their growing at night and that is when they’ll need the most water. If you water in the morning or mid-day, most of it will evaporate and not benefit the plant at all.
  7. Water the Right Amount - If you are watering from a hose, you should water just long enough for the top layer of soil to look shiny. Once it looks shiny, turn off the hose. It should remain shiny for 3-5 seconds after you turn the water off. If the ‘shine’ wears off faster, water a bit more, if it takes longer to soak in, water less.
  8. Install Irrigation on a Timer – The best way to water plants properly and save the most amount of water is to install some sort of irrigation that is regulated by a timer.
  9. Plant Vegetables Close Together – There are many advantages for planting your veggies close together. But in thinking of water preservation, planting things close together creates a canopy layer over the soil, which shades it and prevents evaporation.
  10. Choose Plants that Produce in Abundance – When water becomes a precious commodity, when it comes to gardening, you want the most bang for your buck. Plant vegetables that produce a copious amount of edibles. Tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant among many others produce many meals worth of produce. Broccoli and cauliflower both take up a large amount of space and water and only really produce enough for one dinner, maybe two.
  11. Try Dry Farming Your Tomatoes – Some people swear that by dry farming their tomatoes they acheive the best flavor possible. To do this you have to really build up your soil with organic matter by way of adding compost and growing cover crops. Then basically you plant your tomatoes and let them grow without watering. You only water when their leaves start to turn yellow and then you do so rarely and deeply. Once the tomato plant develops fruit you stop watering all together. This allows the plant to focus not on new growth, but developing the fruit. You tomato plants will be ugly and straggly by doing this and your yield will be small, but you’ll have great tasting tomatoes.
  12. Place Drainage Pipes Between Crops – By using the technique that we’ve learned over the years of placing drainage pipes between our tomatoes, we’ve been able to cut down to watering our tomatoes only once a week, if that.
  13. Use Grey Water from the House – We’ll be buying some large buckets with sturdy handles and maybe a rain barrel for outside to fill with our indoor grey water. Any water remains from washing things out in the salad spinner, cold water before a hot shower, etc will be put in these buckets for watering the garden.
  14. Don’t use Roof Water – From the reading I’ve done, it is not safe to use roof water collections to water edibles. The water picks up whatever chemicals are in your roofing and make it not such a healthy thing to water your veggies with. Leave that for the ornamentals only. And it isn’t like we are getting much rain to catch this way anyway. We’ll be skipping this step.

Do you have any water saving tips that we can add to our list? I’d love to hear them…we need all the water tips we can get.

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