Although we have been receiving less than normal rainfall for three years now, having an official declaration of drought in California really has people thinking. It’s pretty much been the topic in the nursery all week. Although it would be great in the next month to get all the rain we need, sometimes I think we need to be reminded in California that most of us actually live in a desert and we have taken the water we have for granted for far too long. It’s time we should all be careful with this resource and use it wisely. Here are some tips on how to save water in the vegetable garden this year.
I cannot say enough about the benefits of mulching. Not only does a 2″-3″ layer of mulch reduce watering by slowing down water loss, it also reduces weeds. Plus if you use a natural mulch, it actually will improve your soil once it breaks down. You can use bark, shredded leaves or even straw to cover the areas around your plants. Just remember to keep it about 3″ away from the base of your plants because pushing it right up to the plant can cause disease and rotting. I like to place mulch in late April which allows the soil to warm up first. One of the most common mistakes I see in the way people mulch is not putting down enough. Remember you need a 2″-3″ layer for good moisture retention and weed control. What you spend now on mulch, you will save later in water. Plus your plants will benefit from having more consistent moisture instead going through wet and dry spells.
I have to admit that there is a visual appeal to nice straight garden rows, but planting items closer and letting them mingle helps lessen moisture loss because the plant leaves shade the surrounding soil. This is part of the biointensive gardening method which I love. You can also try intercropping (planting a quick growing crop between slower growing crops) or using a companion planting method. One of the benefits of the Three Sisters Planting is that the squash shades the base of the water needy corn holding in the moisture. And while we are talking about planting, stop planting on mounds, especially in sandy soil. Water travels downhill fast and planting on mounds often means water travels below the roots of your plants. Just plant your squash and pumpkins level with the surrounding soil.
Weeds use water that could be going to your plants. So they must go. This will be considerably easier if you follow the first two tips above. Weeding is easiest when the weeds are young. Rather than pull weeds, cut them near the base with a sharp hoe. This reduces the amount of dormant weed seeds you might bring up. Hand pull only those weeds that are close to plants. Whatever you do, try not to leave them until they bloom. The saying, “One years seeding, is seven years weeding” is pretty darn accurate.
Install a Drip System
Although new studies show that overhead watering doesn’t lead to as much moisture loss as once thought, it still can cause problems with fungus (especially in foggy coastal areas). Installing a drip system (or even using soaker hoses) gets water to the base of the plant, where it needs it most. Allowing water to slowly drip out to each plant also cuts down on the amount of water that runs off and away from the plant. If installing a drip system seems really complicated, start with a vegetable drip system watering kit
I recently read a blog post that suggested that all the world’s food problems could be solved if everyone just practiced more mindful eating. That is eating in a way that was thoughtful and showed true appreciation for the wonderful gift that food is. The same is true of water. Watering in a way that is mindful and thankful for this gift rather than just broadcasting it thoughtlessly over your plants will save water and money. Some ways to water more mindfully would be to water only when your plants need it. Forgo an automatic timer and learn how to look for signs that plants need water (leaves become dull, wilting, etc.). It is important to water properly as well. With longer, deeper watering you can go more days in between before you have to water again. Frequent shallow watering leads to plants producing surface roots which makes them less able to survive even the tiniest bit of dryness. The trick is not to give plants more water than they need. How do you know this? I often tell people to visualize a gallon of milk. Then estimate the size of the plants root system at any particular time (young, newly planted transplants have small root systems, while large shrubs and trees have extensive root systems. Also most plants have a root systems that is about the equivalent to the area of the top portion.) Would that gallon of water reach the area that your plant’s root system covers? The best way to find this out is to make a depression in the soil about 12″ in diameter with a berm around it. Slowly pour in a gallon of water. Wait a couple hours. Now dig down and see just how far the water has traveled. I know it seems like a lot of work, but you really only have to do it once and it will give you a tremendous amount of understanding just how water flows in your soil.
Use a Watering Can
I don’t recommend using a watering can for all your watering. Honestly if we had to carry all the water needed to sustain our gardens, they would die. But holding off on using an automated system and using a watering can to deliver water to those one or two plants that just seem to need a bit more will save water. At the nursery on cool, foggy days especially, we will spot water with a watering can. No point in soaking an entire block of plants if only two of them are dry. One of the side benefits of hand watering is it really puts you in touch with your plants. You will catch pest problems early, be able to pull young weeds and spy those ripe strawberries before the birds do. I like this 2 Gallon Plastic Watering Can because it has a detachable rose (the spray nozzle part), holds two gallons which I can comfortable carry and the fill opening is at the back and not under the handle.
Save Water in the House for your Veggies
And why not save some water inside for use outside? Keeping a bucket in the shower to catch the water as you wait for the shower to heat up will net you at least a gallon or two. Saving the water from boiling vegetables or pasta not only adds moisture but nutrients back into the soil. Just allow it too cool first. (I’ve even watered my houseplants with cold coffee.) You can also save water by not using the garbage disposal to get rid of those vegetable trimmings. I keep a small galvanized bucket in the sink that I put all the trimmings in. At the end of the meal, I take them out and dump them in the compost bin. Not only do I save water, but I’m building great compost. And guess what? Compost in the soil helps retain moisture. The trick to making this easy is to keep some buckets handy. One small bucket in the sink for the trimmings. A larger bucket in the kitchen that you can pour the pots of water into and another kept near the shower. The next morning I dump them into the watering can and water some plants.
And while we are at it, here are some more household tips:
1. Don’t toss ice cubes in the sink, toss them in the water bucket.
2. Running a water efficient dishwasher uses less water than doing dishes by hand. Tips on properly loading one can be found here. Side benefit, more time to garden!
4. Wash only full loads in the washer. Most front-loading machines are energy- and water-efficient, use just over 20 gallons a load, while most top-loading machines, unless they are energy-efficient, use about 40 gallons per load. Laundry is probably the biggest use of water in our homes. I no longer wash whites separately since it is such a small load. Should my socks turn pink I consider it a surprise wardrobe change.
If you have other tips, please leave them in the comments. We can all use a reminder. You will also notice I didn’t cover rain barrels or grey water which are both good options. With rain barrels, you need rain and so far we have none. I wanted to cover what we can do now. Some cities have restrictions on grey water and it’s best to check with your area to see what the rules are first.