The biggest question garden-loving Californians are asking right now is, “Should I even grow a garden this year with this drought?” It’s a responsible, well-meaning question. I asked it myself a few weeks ago. I went back and forth about it. A garden increases your water use, but at the same time, you don’t want to let all of your hard work die.
And then it dawned on me, as I was driving by agricultural fields being irrigated by overhead spray in the middle of the day: I’m going to be eating food that requires water use anyway.
If I grow it, I can control how much water is used. In fact, I can actually reduce my water use through food consumption if I grow it myself. The LA Times recently had an article about how much water is required to grow certain foods. If you eat meat, goat needs the least amount of water per pound of meat. An apple requires 18 gallons, and an orange requires 13 gallons. That’s quite a bit of water for just one fruit. Potatoes require 119 gallons of water per pound. Yikes.
My guilt of growing a garden subsided a bit. Now it was time to figure out what I can do to reduce my water footprint even more. I hope these tips help you as well.
KNOW YOUR SOIL
One of the keys to water-wise drought gardening, and gardening in any conditions, is to know what kind of soil you have. If you have raised beds, you most likely have a soil that is high in organic matter and maybe even has a bit of topsoil. If your beds aren’t brand new, you’re going to want to get your soil tested so you know what nutrients you need to add. Plants that are getting enough nutrients are going to be hardier and will weather the drought better. If you plant in the ground like I do, you are also going to want to know the soil’s structure. How much sand, silt, and clay does your soil have? Sandy soil doesn’t hold water very well, while clay soil has a tendency to hold onto water too well.
In addition, you can check out the Web Soil Survey through the USDA (push the green button). This will give you an idea of how deep your soil is, which directly affects how much water it can hold. It will also tell you the water-holding capacity of your soil. For the record, our soil is 20 to 40 inches deep but only holds 4.5 inches of water, which means that if it rained 6 inches, the soil would only be able to hold 4.5 inches, and the remaining 1.5 would run off, or flooding would occur. Also, the water table is more than 80 inches deep, so I can depend on trees being able to access it, as most tree roots only go down 2 to 3 feet.
AMEND YOUR SOIL
Adding compost to dig in
Starting from the ground up, we first want to make sure our soil is well amended with a lot of organic matter. Organic matter will help absorb and hold onto more water. It will also help provide enough nutrients for the plant to develop strong root systems. Organic matter helps fast-draining sandy soils hold onto water and helps heavy clay soils distribute the water deeper to the root zone, making it more available to the plant. If you have tested your soil through A&L Agricultural Laboratories, as I recommend, they will offer suggestions of what to add to your soil to grow your desired crops. You can read more about developing your own organic blend in the Composting 101.
CONTROL YOUR WATER
A tomato planted at the drip-tubing emitter location
Fortunately for us, we are already on the right track. Our entire property is on drip/micro irrigation. If you don’t have your vegetable beds on drip, now is the time to invest. A drip system does several things.
- It reduces the amount of water you use while watering by 50 percent or more.
- It reduces diseases caused by overhead watering.
- It reduces problems with weeds.
- It reduces the amount of time you spend watering.
- It reduces runoff and erosion.
If you don’t have a drip irrigation system yet and don’t know how to put one in, I’ve got a pretty thorough Drip Irrigation 101 that can help you. Once you have your driplines in, situate your plants near emitters so that the plants fully utilize as much water as possible. Instead of watering a little bit every day, water heavily but less often. You want the roots to travel as far down as you can get them to go. Plants with shallow roots are more likely to get dried out and stressed. Most plants require an inch of water per week. My aim is to water with drip 30 minutes twice a week. Of course the length and frequency of watering depends on the drip components you use. Many manufacturers offer calculators to determine how long and how often you should run your irrigation. To reduce evaporation, schedule your irrigation to turn on between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Early morning hours are preferable.
RETAIN YOUR WATER
Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch.
If you do go the drip irrigation route, mulch the hell out of everything you plan to water. And I mean MULCH. Lots of it. Go for at least 4 inches, if the plant’s height allows. Straw is a cheap mulch that you can use, although it does get slick when wet and has a tendency to blow around. Bark mulch is heavier and longer lasting but can be expensive, unless you get it from a tree service. Getting it from a tree service, however, can limit you to mulch from whatever tree they just removed, and some tree species, such as black walnut and eucalyptus, can cause problems in the garden.
So far, one of the best mulches I have found for water retention is old livestock bedding. It’s heavier because it has absorbed urine and feces (which also increases its fertility), so it doesn’t blow away. It’s also finer in texture from being broken up by hooves, so it doesn’t have as many air spaces to allow evaporation. If you don’t have livestock, you can get old bedding from horse stables, which often give it away for free. Just be careful about weed seeds. Horses that are stabled tend to have fewer weed seeds in their feces than pastured horses. I’ve used rice hull bedding from a local stable before, and this stuff was fantastic. You can also save up dried leaves and use those as well. We tried out plastic-mulch sheeting one year and found that it helped hold onto more water than expected. It also helped heat up the soil for plants that preferred warm ground temps. Melons and watermelons really thrived with the black plastic. The more drought-tolerant plants, such as tomatoes, didn’t fare quite as well.
Whatever you use, make sure to lay the mulch over your irrigation lines. You don’t want to water the mulch because it will absorb all of the water and not allow any to reach the soil and your plants. You also don’t want to have mulch right up against the stems of most plants (the onion family and potatoes plants tend to be the exceptions), as it can cause problems with rot. An inch or so away is fine, though.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLANTS
All of this pink banana squash came from a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice.
Not all vegetables are created equal. Some, like celery, onions, green beans, carrots, lettuces, and melons require a lot more water than other vegetables. Squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, chard, arugula, and dry beans, especially Tepary beans, are better choices for drought gardening, when water is restricted. Most plants have critical periods, when they require more water than normal. This is usually during flowering and fruit production.
If you really want to grow some of the higher-water-need plants, put them together on a separate water valve. That way you can have part of your garden getting more water than the rest, rather than the entire garden getting more water than some plants need. Also, space the plants farther apart, so they aren’t competing with each other for every precious drop. You may end up with fewer plants, but you won’t have to water as much.
The picture above of all the squash is a perfect example of how water-wise gardening can be productive. All of that squash—each weighing approximately 20 pounds—came from a single volunteer plant. It sprouted in our old chicken yard, so the soil had lots of organic matter and a high nutrient content. Because it was a volunteer, we didn’t have irrigation going to it and only ended up giving it two deep waterings early on in its growth. That year was wetter then this one, so the soil had a larger water capacity than this year, but it goes to show that, if done correctly and mindfully, very little applied water can result in a big harvest.
We have a lot of volunteer vegetable plants that grow in our yard. Most of the time they are in our beds, but sometimes they grow in spots that don’t get any supplementary water. These vegetables are the ones that do best in drought conditions because they don’t need the extra water. Chard, squash, arugula, and tomatoes are the most common drought-tolerant volunteers growing in our yard. Artichokes are very drought tolerant as well. Their growing season is in the winter and spring, and then they die back in the summer and go dormant until the rains return. We rely nearly 100 percent on the rainy season for our artichoke plants. We’ve never watered them until this year. They and the trees are now getting the water we save.
A WORD ON CONTAINER GARDENING
If you have a small yard or balcony and still want to grow some of your food, you can go the container gardening route, even in a drought. You’ll follow many of the same guidelines as outlined above, but you also want to take care regarding the type of container you are using. Terracotta planters are going to dry out a lot faster than plastic or even glazed pottery. You’ll want to set saucers under your pots to catch excess water. An even better system would be to invest in or make self-watering containers. These only release water as the plant needs them and are low-water use. For instructions on how to set up your own system, check out the Self-Watering Container (aka Subirrigated Planter) 101.
SAVE YOUR WATER
We now have several 5 gallon buckets in our kitchen and bathroom to collect water that can be used for watering perennial plants and trees. One of those buckets is in the bathtub, specifically to catch the cold water before it gets warm. This is perfectly fresh, clean water that shouldn’t be wasted. In addition, we are now saving some of our kitchen water. If you cook pasta, don’t salt it. You can use that water in the garden. If we’re rinsing off produce, we save that water. We also save some dish-washing water, based on what we are cleaning and what soap we’re using. If it has touched raw meat, raw eggs, etc., it goes down the drain. (You can also save laundry water if you aren’t washing diapers.) All of this water is getting used on our artichoke plants, fruit trees, and various shrubs. I don’t use it on annual vegetables whose leaves or roots we eat.
Besides saving water, we’re also reducing the amount we use. The saying, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down,” is heard quite often around our house now. We also turn off the water when we’re brushing our teeth, which we all should do anyway, and turn it on only to rinse the dishes. Also, while washing dishes, we run the water a lot lower. The tap seems to rinse them just as quickly at a lower flow than at full blast, so I hope to see a savings there. We’ve also shortened our showers to just 5 minutes. I’m planning on getting a valve to attach to the shower head so we can turn it off while we’re soaping up.
By reducing the amount of water your garden and your household use, and by saving some of that water, you can reduce your overall usage enough to not have to feel guilty. If you’re growing your own and following water-wise guidelines, you are helping reduce more water than just what you see on your bill. Whether or not your area is experiencing drought conditions, following these methods will conserve water, which is always a good thing.
Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!
ALL PHOTOS: RACHEL