Category Archives: Water

gardening in a dry year

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It’s been a dry year here in California. One of the driest winters on record. To us, even though we had a very wet fall, it seemed like after the holidays the faucet was shut off. There was really almost no rain whatsoever after the holidays. Such a strange winter. And this spring we are certainly seeing the signs. Sure, if you squint your eyes and turn your head a little to the left, things look pretty good. Flowers are blooming, trees are leafing out. But if you look closely you’ll notice that the lawn is almost dead already, spring flowers are getting torched by this early heat (supposed to be in the 90’s tomorrow!), and we are relying heavily on irrigation…already. This is going to be a long summer.

A few years ago I wrote a post on drought friendly vegetable gardening, (wow, I used to write such different posts back then!) which is worth a read if you are struggling with water issues too. In regards to that post, we outfitted two more beds with in-line drip irrigation. We ordered 15 yards of mulch to heavily cover the irrigation and our tender crops. We are also focusing heavily on three beds this growing year instead of last years four beds. And I’m heavily mulching the flower gardens to help retain every last ounce of water in the soil. We need, however to get these beds on a timer, so that they can be watered in the evening or early morning hours. That is an easy step, we just need to put it higher on our priority list.

Luckily we have the option of putting our laundry on grey water. We’ve had this since we moved in, but it only drains out to one spot. Though I shouldn’t complain, the snowball hydrangea looks quite happy about the situation. However, my hope for the near future is that I can hook it up to a pipe that has multiple perforations in it, so that it can water a larger area along our foundation plantings.

How is the rain/water situation where you garden? Do you have any drought gardening tricks?

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Filed under Mulch, Soil, State of the Garden, Water, what we've learned

Watering the Garden

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Friends, meet Ross. Well, ‘The Ross No. 11’ to be formal. Ross and I spend a lot of time together. Most mornings, in fact.
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Ross is a great water nozzle. He must be old as I can’t find any web links to direct you to buy one of your own. Which is too bad, because you’d like him too.
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I water first thing in the morning, right after breakfast and this morning was particularly beautiful, so I thought I’d share with you.
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When we first moved into this house, I wrote about how it was like we were on vacation. We had a very wet spring so things stayed green, flowering and lush for a long time without us having to water anything. After a few weeks, still feeling the change of the move, I felt we had moved to this dream land where we didn’t have to water, things just took care of themselves. Soon though the hot weather started and things started turning brown and droopy. Turns out this property is no exception to any other property, we had to start watering. It felt overwhelming to know even where to begin, as I’d say that half of our two acres is planted. It took me a month or so, but I mentally divided the yard in sections and every morning starting with the left side in back I’d water each ‘zone’ for an hour until, by the end of the week, I’ve circled the entire house. Then on Monday I start all over again.
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However, very slowly, change will be coming as we bought our first set of drip irrigation supplies last weekend. This new set up is particularly fancy and I’ll show you as soon as we get it set up.
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But don’t worry about Ross, even with drip coming in, he’ll always be my first choice in watering.

p.s. Next week I’ve found a great book that I want to give to one of you, so check back for a chance to win!

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A helpful irrigation tip

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Things have been mighty busy around here, which always means a slow down in blog posting, but I soon hope to have much to share. Today I spent a good deal of time outside hooking up some irrigation in my flowerbeds and I figured out a neat trick that I wanted to share with you. Have you set this sort of system up before? It is relatively easy to do, just lay down the half inch tubing, cut it all the 1/4 inch drip tubes to the right lengths and connect it all together. However the connecting isn’t always that easy. In fact I find it very frusterating to force those rigid plastic tubes over those connectors and get them to stay put. And then I remembered reading months ago about how to build hula hoops with half inch irrigation tubing and they suggested dipping the ends of the tube into boiling water to get it to slide onto the connector with more ease. Aha!
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So I boiled a small pot of water and brought it out with me and low and behold, I was connecting those little tubes twice as fast once they had their little hot water bath. Maybe this technique is common knowledge amongst the irrigation pros, but it was news to me!

I hope that helps you set up your watering system too!

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How to Water Correctly (Day 22 of 30 Days to a Better Garden)

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Happy Belated Solstice (and Fathers Day too)! It’s hard to believe that the days will only get shorter from here on out and yet, in Sonoma, the weather will only get hotter. Being that today is supposed to be a hot one, I thought it might be a good day to talk about watering your vegetable garden.
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The Basics of Watering
Most all vegetables like to be watered right at the ground because if their leaves get wet they will suffer from wilt or mildew. So while it’s tempting to let the overhead sprinkler water your veggies, it’s best to either water by hand or install a drip system. We water by hand just because we haven’t taken the time to install drip, although our good friends at Bellamadris have really inspired us to get it going. The best time to water is in the evening after the heat of the sun has dropped down a bit and after any winds have died down. This gives the water a good 12 or so hours to percolate in the soil and reach the roots. How long you should water is really dependent on your soil. You’ll have to experiment.

Checking on your Watering
So here our task for the day, after you do your watering, either by hand or with your drip system, go take a trowel and dig down and see how deep your water is getting. I’m the queen of thinking I’ve watered enough only to find that the water only penetrated 1/4 of an inch. I can’t tell you how many perennial flowers I’ve lost due to my bad watering. So I’ve learned that I really need to dig down and see how far I’ve actually watered. To really test your watering, on your next early morning walk, stick your finger in the soil and make sure that the soil is still wet at least 2 inches down. If not, water longer.
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We’ve found that creating dirt ‘walls’ around our plants helps to keep the water in around the plants root area without running out all over the place. Don’t forget to mulch well so that you won’t loose that water to evaporation too. If you are in a water restricted area, check out my post on having a Drought Tolerant Vegetable Garden.

Tell me, how do you water? Drip or hand watering? How often do you water? Have you learned any watering tricks along the way?

Oh and I have been curious…for my Southern Hemisphere friends, was yesterday the shortest day of the year for you?

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Filed under 30 Days to a Better Garden, Water

Garden Friendly Detergents and Soap

Edit: I posted a recipe and ‘how-to’ for making your own garden friendly liquid laundry detergent. Check it out!

The other week Ken, a local reader, commented on my Tips for A Drought Friendly Garden post saying that he was interested in knowing more about about plant safe detergents and soaps to use in his homemade grey water system. He wanted to know if I knew more about this. Well I knew a little bit, but I did a little research to learn more and I thought I’d share it with you. There are a number of reasons why you might not want to use common detergents and soaps, including what happens to them once they reach our main waterways, and you can read all about it at nature moms, but I’m going to focus garden friendly detergents and soaps.

I remember from way back to an old college class that I took that using detergents and soaps that contain phosphorus can harm the waterways by helping grow algae. Phosphorus acts as a fertilizer, which at first sounds great. If it’s a fertilizer why wouldn’t you want to add it to your garden? Well probably for the same reason that you don’t use Miracle Grow, right you Organic Gardeners? Adding synthetic fertilizers strips the soil of its natural nutrients eventually, so you become dependent on using synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil. Better to add manure, cover crops and compost to your soil and keep the phosphorus filled detergents out.

When you look for a safe detergent for using when you channel your laundry water into your garden, you want to closely examine the label. Just because it states that the ingredients are ‘plant-based’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is harmless. Nor does biodegradable mean that it’s going to biodegrade in a safe and short amount of time. Even harmful chemicals are designed to biodegrade at some point. Most eco-looking detergents and soaps carry those terms, so what in the heck can you use and who can you trust?

To be honest looking at all of the cleaning websites is making my head spin. I think what it comes down to is that if you are really concerned about growing your vegetables completely organically you might want to use your cast off dish water and laundry water for your lawn and ornamentals.

I learned a new term from the Bio-Pac website: Biocompatibility. Biocompatible cleaners are not only non-harmful for plants and soil, they biodegrade entirely into plant nutrients!Biocompantible cleaners are designed with grey water systems in mind, so any of the Bio Pac products would be safe to use. We use their dish soap frequently and besides it being plant safe, it is a nice soap to use. I hand wash the majority of our dishes every night so I’m pretty picky about liquid soaps. I don’t like them to be too thin or to have an icky odor. Bio Pac is nicely concentrated and it smells really nice too – citrusy!

Seventh Generation has been a trusted ‘green’ company for a while now. I use their disposable diapers exclusively and frequently use their detergent too.

Ecover products are also reported to biodegrade cleanly. Treehugger has a great write up all about Ecover.

If you are of the frugal manner, you can try making your own dish soaps and detergents to use. Most recipes call for washing soda, which according to this site is all natural and safe, much like baking soda. I list a detergent recipe below but can’t seem to find a dish soap recipe that looks good.

What to Buy:

  1. Seventh Generation Liquid Laundry Detergent
  2. Seventh Generation Powder Natural Laundry Detergent
  3. Bio-Pac Concentrated Dish Liquid
  4. Ecover Dishwashing Liquid
  5. Ecover Laundry Powder

More Info:

What do you know about plant safe detergents and soaps? What do you use?

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The Word on Water

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Word on the street is that we have avoided mandatory water rationing this year! Hard to believe that we went from being told that we would have to cut our water usage by 50% to now being told that we can voluntarily cut back 15% in such a short time, but such is the power of mother nature. We did have lots of rain in late winter, especially up here in the north bay. Some counties in the Bay Area have already mandated 15% rationing and I think other counties in California are having a much harder time than that. But here in Sonoma county, the rationing is only voluntary. Great news. And the news said today would bring a 70% chance of rain. Let’s hope.

So can we do to cut back 15% voluntarily?

  • I’m thinking of having a friends plumber husband come over and install a three way switch to our washing machine water outlet so that we can divert water into my flower beds.
  • I’m also thinking of taking one part of my flower beds off of a drip line and watering them only with kitchen sink water scraps
  • I might just convince Scott to try Dry Farming one of our tomatoes this year
  • I’m going to mulch the heck out of everything

How has the water supply shaped up where you live?

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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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Filed under Soil, Water