Monday, March 5, 2012

Tips for a low water use garden in the California high desert

The total statewide October through December precipitation was 78 percent of average, further adding to our accumulated water supply deficit.  The 2009 Water Year (October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009) was the third consecutive year of below average precipitation for the state. Annual statewide precipitation totaled 76 percent, 72 percent, and 63 percent of average for Water Years 2009, 2008, and 2007, respectively.
On the bright side, January precipitation through the 28th is above average January rainfall.

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. 
  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. Herbs-Herbs are the perfect plants to start with when planning on incorporating xeriscaping into the home garden.Herbs are naturally hardy and many are drought resistant due to being native to the hot dry Mediterranean region of the world. Herbs like cilantro, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, bee balm, oregano and sage are perfect for using in a low water usage garden. Herbs are highly adaptable and easy to grow. They don't need much maintenance either other than keeping them from spreading all over the yard.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.                       
    Critical watering periods for vegetables. You can target the timing and amount of water to add. As a rule of thumb, water is most critical during the first few weeks of development, immediately after transplanting, and during flowering and fruit production. The critical watering periods for selected vegetables follow:

  9. Asparagus needs water most during spear production and fern development.



  10. Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and cauliflower need consistent moisture during their entire life span, especially during head or root development. Water use is highest and most critical during head development.

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  13. Beans have the highest water use of any common garden vegetable, using 0.25 to over 0.50 inches of water per day. Beans need water most when they are blooming and setting fruit. When moisture levels are adequate the bean plant is a bright, dark grass green. As plants experience water stress, leaves take on a slight grayish cast.


  14. Carrot and other root crops require consistent moisture. Cracking, knobby and hot flavor root crops are symptoms of water stress.


  15. Corn needs water most during tasseling, silking, and ear development. Yield is directly related to quantities of water, nitrogen and spacing.


  16. Lettuce and other leaf vegetables need water most during head development. For quality produce these crops require a consistent supply of moisture.


  17. Onion family crops require consistent moisture and frequent irrigation due to their small, inefficient root system.


  18. Peas need water most during pod filling.


  19. Potato tubers will be knobby if they become overly dry during tuber development.


  20. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant need water most during flowering and fruiting. Blossom-end-rot (a black sunken area on the bottom of the fruit) is often a symptom of too much or too little water. Watch for overwatering.


  21. Cucumbers, summer and winter squash, and other vine crops need water most during flowering and fruiting. Watch for overwatering

  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. Place Drainage Pipes Between Crops – By using the technique that we’ve learned over the years of placing drainage pipes between tomatoes, we’ve been able to cut down to watering our tomatoes only once a week, if that.
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. Olla gardening - Another alternative to this problem might be "olla" (prounounced oh-yah) gardening. This method was brought to the new world by the Spanish, but is thought to have developed in the deserts and arid regions of northern Africa and brought to Spain by the Moors.
    Unglazed terra cotta pots are porous. Water seeps slowly from them through the tiny pores. In New Mexico and elsewhere, these terra cotta pots are buried, with the top at or just below ground level (this keeps hot sun and wind from wicking the water from around the rim of the pot). If there is a hole in the bottom, it is plugged (marine caulking works well). Edible plants (and ornamentals) are planted in circles around the pots. The pots are then filled with water and covered (old plates, slate, a flat rock, a piece of wood...anything to keep the water from evaporating.)
    The water slowly seeps through the terra cotta into the soil (and the plant roots next to the pots). Very little water is wasted through evaporation. Check the pots every day to check water levels. When a pot gets half-empty, refill it.
    Ollas can be small (eight to 10 inch pots) or very large (a foot or two across). Plant roots benefit from this because all the water is going right where it's needed, and there is little or no evaporation. Also, with the pots, it is easy to maneuver around the garden. You can experiment with several designs.
    The Santa Fe, New Mexico Master Gardeners Association has an Olla Experimental Garden. Here's their website address: http://sfmga.org. When you get to their homepage, click on "Projects", then scroll down to the bottom of the projects. The Olla Garden page link is the last one.
  30. Windbreak - Erect a temporary windbreak next to your garden to protect it from drying winds during extended periods of drought.  I'm also thinking of putting grape trellises overtop the garden to prevent so much sun from hitting it.
  31. Sunken Beds - You can read my article on sunken beds for more info, but basically raised beds serve to dry out plants which is just what you don't want in the desert.  Sunken beds keep them wet longer and conserve the water.
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.

Much of this post is from asonomagarden.wordpress.com