Wednesday, September 17, 2014

8 Ways to Save Water in Your Garden

From the bean of Green Bean.

A local native garden mulched with leaves.

I live - and garden in - one of the most parched regions of the country - northern California.  Indeed, my region is classified as Exceptional Drought, one dusty, dry step past Extreme.  I cannot remember the last time it rained.  I really cannot. 

Even surrounded by this lack of water, my garden continues to bloom - a lush, verdant green.   This summer, I harvested pounds upon pounds of blackberries and pumpkins erupt across the chocolate brown soil.  Hummingbirds battle over the California fuchsia and finches stop to sample cosmos gone to seed.  

How do I justify my large edible and ornamental garden in the midst of such thirst?  By adhering to the following steps, I've managed to cut my water use in half - all that while having my tomatoes and eating them too!

The chart from my latest water bill shows how I'm continuing to use less water.

1) Add organic material to the soil.  It's always a good idea to add organic material to your soil - compost, leaves, pine needles, straw, newspaper, what not.  Not only does improve the fertility of the soil but it also increases the soil's ability to retain water.

Straw mulch around the base of a drought tolerant hyssop.

2) Mulch.  Piling straw around the base of a fruit tree or oak leaves scattered through a native plant bed will help keep water from evaporating and reduce the overall need to irrigate.  Non-organic mulches are also available and equally effective.

3) Switch to drought tolerant ornamentals.  While my garden's footprint has exploded over the last couple of years, I have mostly planted are drought-tolerant plants. Succulents in pots and native plants elsewhere.  Even the few non-native (but pollinator friendly) plants I have added are low-water.  Last fall, I converted an entire planting bed to California natives.  Because those plants are newly planted, they require weekly watering - far less than the three times a week I watered that bed last year.  Moreover, next year, I can skip to twice-monthly watering and the year after, as they become more established, monthly watering.

My new, native plant garden, comprised of butterfly larvae host plants, is mulched with oak leaves and watered once a week.  A few non-native annuals that have made their way into this bed but I leave them if they can survive the low water allotment. 

4) Collect rain water and greywater.  While restrictions on collecting rain water exist in some places, more and more municipalities are permitting, even encouraging residents to collect rain water to use in their gardens. (Check out this great resource on US state rainwater harvesting laws, hat tip to Eco-Novice).  Last year was the first winter that I collected rainwater.  What have I been missing! Free, untreated water straight from the sky? I loved it so much that I ordered two more rain barrels for this winter for a total of 5.

I used up the last of my rain barrel water in July.

Greywater is an equally great way to supplement garden irrigation.  I have yet to jigger up some fancy system for our showers or, at least, the laundry to landscape thing.  Now, I just haul out water from washing vegetables for irrigating ornamentals and refilling the bird baths.  It is amazing how much you can water with what used to just run down the drain.

5) Pay attention to how water moves through your garden and plant accordingly.  For years, I struggled with new plantings.  Why did the black elderberry thrive in this location but not that one when sun exposure was the same?  I finally realized that one, planted in a bit of a gully, received run off from my neighbors' garden.  The other was in a quick, draining mound and did not retain much of the water.  I have learned to pay more attention to where water collects in the garden and where it dissipates.  I now group plants with similar water needs together and consider whether a plant will reap the benefit of run off.  If you like this concept, check out swales and other permaculture-based ideas for using water in your landscape.

6) Add perennials - both ornamentals and edibles.  The water needs of perennials and annuals has become crystal clear this dry summer.  While perennials - like blackberries, grapes and fig trees - flourished, our annual flowers and vegetables were often wilted, requiring more frequent mulching and irrigation.  As a result, I plan to convert one annual flower bed to primarily perennials this fall and to add perennial edibles in the form of an asparagus bed, artichokes and sunchokes to the garden next spring.

7) Water long and deep.  You can coax deep roots from your plants by watering them less frequently but for a longer period of time.

8) Minimize or stop watering the lawn.  After years of cutting back water to the lawn or over-planting with clover and other drought tolerant options, I finally did it!  I turned the lawn sprinklers off completely.  How can I justify watering when our local streams are dry and my state burns with wildfires?  Because my kids still play sports on the lawn, I am not ready to replace it completely with a native meadow or other low water use alternative.  The brown lawn is not as soft when you fall as green grass but it is serviceable for soccer and football and keeps the water bill low.  That said, I'm open to any lawn replacement ideas...

How do you save water in your garden?  Have you felt the drought's impact where you live?

This post is part of the Homestead Barn HopBackyard Farming ConnectionMaple Hill HopGreen Thumb Thursday and Tuesday Garden Party.


Betsy Escandon said...

What great tips! Thanks for distilling your years of collected wisdom into this useful post. I am very impressed by your water conservation!

Lisa said...

It's currently raining here in south eastern Oklahoma but there are dust storms in part of the state and our long term drought is still happening. Water levels at the lake near me are so low there are warnings posted and some areas are closed, a popular swimming spot is totally dry. The really scary part is this area is apart of the aquifer where my water comes from.

There are still huge cracks all over my yard and back in 2011 things were so bad many towns were weeks away from running out of water, some are still really struggling and western Oklahoma is still in an exceptional drought in some areas (very similar to where the dust bowl hit and even worse!).

I don't do a food garden, in part because other than this summer our summers have been so hot that you have to keep water on the plants almost non-stop to keep them from burning. I do have flowers though and I try and only plant very drought and heat tolerant plants. At this point I mostly have lavender. And I collect water from my dishwasher (which is portable so it empties into the sink) and things like that to water my plants.

Fishtail Cottage said...

Excellent tips - would love for you to share your post over here at Fishtail Cottage's garden party this week! look forward to seeing you! oxox,trace

Lori Alper said...

Great tips! Our garden was a complete flop this year. The weeds took over. I have to remember to mulch or do something to help prevent the weed growth.

daisy g said...

The drought out there is such a sad thing. So many thousands of land being burned up. I understand how disconcerting it is when rain has been scarce. I admire the way you are making the most of your resources. Such good advice.
Lots of folks here use perennial peanut or mimosa as a ground cover. If I didn't currently live in a deed-restricted (read CONTROLLING) community, I'd be planting it too. Consider yourself pinned! So glad you shared this on this week's Maple Hill Hop! Hope to see you next week!

Green Bean said...

@Betsy - Thank you! Now that you mention it, I guess I have been thinking about this for years. This year's drought has just punctuated its importance to me.

@Lisa - Lavendar sounds like a good compromise. That's frustrating that it is too hot to grow food at all. :/

@Fishtail Cottage - Thank you for the invite! I've shared over at your garden party. What fun!

@Lori - I highly recommend sheet mulching to deter weeds and improve fertility. It is basically laying down cardboard or newspaper and then covering with alternating layers of organics. If you are mainly trying to deter the weeds, you can just do the paper/cardboard and a layer of compost. I've done that and its worked wonders.

@daisy - Thank you for the empathy. Droughts and accompanying wildfires are NO fun. How interesting to think peanut or mimosa as ground cover. I'll have to go Google that. Thank you for visiting and pinning! :)


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