No matter where the current drought monitor stands, New Mexicans and other Southwest gardeners know that water is precious. Luckily, plenty of native plants have adapted to the dry conditions of desert and intermountain regions of the Southwest.
Still, gardening responsibly anywhere demands attention to water use and waste. And people who want to grow food in their yards or on their patios can save water and money with sensible, waterwise strategies.
The good news is that the home and garden market keeps pumping out new tools to help gardeners conserve water but enjoy their landscapes. I’ve recently reviewed two products for Gardening Products Review. One of the products combines solar technology with rain or faucet water to support slow drip systems in areas of the garden.
The other product from a small startup company helps you water deeply near the roots of plants using a simple garden hose. Up next: I’m testing a cloud-based system to control watering from your faucet.
Check out these watering product reviews, along with lots of other reviews from fellow garden writers at Gardening Products Review’s website. And plan now for next spring’s waterwise plantings.
It’s Earth Day 2016! It’s hard to believe this movement started in 1970. Earth Day says “let’s get big stuff done for the planet.” I love that idea! But it’s also overwhelming. I mean, I have enough trouble taking care of myself while juggling work, family, and getting anything done to care for our four acres. But the only way to take big steps for the planet is if everyone takes a few small steps. Here are five tips for greener gardening today and all year long.
Have an empty spot to fill? Use what you have.
Sometimes a plant dies even with our best efforts, leaving an empty spot. Or maybe you’ve been studying an area of your yard all winter knowing it just needs something. Instead of buying a new plant, divide or move an existing one. Plenty of plants that spread divide and transplant easily. For example, Russian sage sends up runners that you can sometimes transplant. Our purple salvia created about five offshoots over winter, one below the garden in the grass. Tim dug up several and potted them; we even gave one to a friend. We also moved several plants. This is a great money saver (and sometimes plant saver) when areas of the garden become overgrown or one plant no longer gets the sun it should. We moved one of the three Apache plumes in our xeric garden to an area that helps screen off a little bit of our vegetable garden. Close enough to attract bees.
Help beneficial insects.
Our lawn and garden attracts bees from late winter until the insects cluster tucked away in winter. The garden also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Moving the Apache plume, along with an offshoot yarrow and two divisions from our blue mist spirea, we just added a new hangout, inviting them to gather closer to our tomatoes and cucumbers! We’ll add milkweed this year for the monarchs, and I can’t wait to see how that goes. We’re growing ladybugs, unintentionally. And I’m counting on them to keep aphids off the milkweed.
Avoid chemicals whenever possible.
Speaking of ladybugs and bees: insecticides kill these helpful insects along with the bad. There also is no need for chemical-laden herbicides in most cases. And I’m saying that knowing full well that half of our orchard is almost entirely covered by horehound. This member of the mint family does best in drought. I know that because if we try to hoe it up, we usually hit rock. I can’t win against a plant that grows from rocks and prefers dry conditions, especially around here. My Earth Day gift: Anyone who wants to make candy or cough syrup can come here and harvest all the horehound they want! As for care of vegetables and other plants you actually want in your landscape, paying attention to their sun exposure and watering needs helps prevent future problems. Enriching soil with compost is a slow, natural way to add nutrients. Compost tea is a gentle fertilizer.
Grow food for your family or wildlife.
Growing food in the garden saves water. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. I can control (within the limits of nature and horehound) the health of my edibles. And keeping them healthy can save water. Sure, they are not native to our area and require more water in the heat of summer than we could ever responsibly pour to an ornamental plant. But every tomato in the grocery store was watered, probably a with a lot more than I use. Even though water availability is regional, it also can vary. And it’s a shared, finite resource. A shrub with berries feeds birds. Fruit trees are a great example of planting a tree for shade or spring blooms with the added benefit of food. Those who don’t like the mess can choose dwarf fruit trees appropriate for their area. And no matter what anyone says, I think green bean, melon and cucumber plants are as pretty as most flowers!
Water responsibly, no matter where you live.
Back to water, because that is always a concern on our place and in most of the Southwest. As I said, it’s a shared and finite resource. If I use too much from our well (or from city supply), I affect the water table, the saturated, upper part of groundwater where rain has soaked through soil. Groundwater provides nearly 40 percent of water for cities and counties, and drinking water for most rural people. It’s everybody’s job to do their part in the home and garden, no matter where they live. Use of drip irrigation, watching and caring for plants sustainably, watering early in the day and using automatic timers to control sprinklers or smartphone timers to remember to turn off the hose are small but important steps every gardener can take.
Harvesting rainwater makes perfect sense, and we learned more about the process at a terrific workshop we attended at the NM Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque last week. From neighboring Texas, Billy Kniffen is the water resource specialist for Texas A&M University.
Kniffen explained that catching and using rainwater is not a new concept; early settlers in the West captured water. Interest is increasing today, at least among homeowners and gardeners who live in states that allow rain harvesting. We’ve used one or more rain barrels to capture roof water for years, and hope to someday acquire a large cistern. As Kniffen said, “the first rain barrel is the ‘gateway drug’ to rainwater harvesting.”
Getting Started Is Easy
I believe more people would harvest rainwater if they realized it’s not as complex a process as it seems. For simple gardening use, a few rain barrels or a cistern with pressure can irrigate ornamental plants. If you want to water edible plants, you have to take a few more steps; it’s recommended that you add features such as first flush equipment (which directs the first flush from your gutters away from the barrel to prevent nasty debri from entering the container) and filters. A prefilter also keeps leaves and debris out; you just have to clean it from time to time. You also can disinfect your rain water with chlorine or ultraviolet light.
A house that has a roof of 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of water from just one inch of rainfall. For me, watching the small barrels fill and then overflow feels like a waste. In our case, water that runs from the house eventually refills our water table – and therefore our well. But in urban areas, water runoff fills streets and gutters, and often is wasted. Texas A&M Extension has made it easier to calculate the amount of rain you can collect from your home or shed roof.
Here’s a simple calculator for catchment area courtesy of the college. There’s also a link here to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (under Resources) with the formulas already included. HarvestingRainWater.com also has a simple calculator. Texas residents, or those who can easily compare their annual rainfall to one of the included Texas towns, can input the information and receive monthly flow rates and required cistern sizes to catch as much rain as possible. Finally, the school also publishes a manual all about rainwater harvesting.
Kniffen and his wife run their home solely off collected rainwater from their home and a shed. I don’t believe we have the money to collect all water and make it potable, but it’s always on the wish list. Any attempts to save and use rainwater can help preserve water for future years. I hope these tools make it a little easier for anyone considering rain harvesting to get started.
It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.
I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.
We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.
Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.
Safe Rain Water Collection
None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:
Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.
Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:
After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.
Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.
In several posts, I’ve reiterated how important it is to water slowly and deeply, especially for vegetables and xeric plants. Just last week, I touted the benefits of drip irrigation as a way to accomplish deep watering and ensure that you water under plants, not over them.
I babbled so much about drip irrigation that the folks at Garden Drip System by Thombo offered to send me a free Garden Drip hose (tape) to test. The drip hose differs from typical soaker hoses in its material. Instead of the heavier, rubber-like round tubing, the drip hose comes as flat plastic tape. In fact, the company mailed it to me in a small padded envelope, not a box.
Different from soaker hoses
The drip tape material is lightweight and compact. That helped when I lugged it back and forth to try it in a few places. It didn’t take long for the rolls from packaging to completely flatten (as opposed to a regular hose I purchased recently, which keeps coiling around my leg, kinking and knocking into my delicate bean plants!)
Anyway, back to the Garden Drip. The tape is designed so that a tiny hole emits drips of water about every foot. That’s another way in which it differs from a soaker hose, which basically is scored all the way down its length. Having said that, you can control where the emitters go to some extent, but you still will get some drip between plants if you have wells rather than rows. The tape is designed to only curve slightly, not make intricate curves and 90-degree turns around a garden. The in-between drips were not a big deal, though, because the soaking is so slow and steady that I had no pooled water anywhere.
Little pressure needed
I laid out the drip tape to water some vegetables and roses near my house and set my phone timer for four hours. It was nice to work while I watered. The pressure was terrific once I easily spotted and flattened any slight twists in the hose. Once the tape is in place, it’s unobtrusive. The polyethylene tape should stand up to beating sun better than traditional soaker hoses. I imagine you could easily place a few stakes along its path to keep it secure, but it would be best to do so while it’s running. That’s because the tape looks flat when it arrives and you first lay it out, but the shape rounded out as soon as I added water to the tape, filling it all the way to the end of the 50 feet.
Speaking of pressure, I wanted to test the hose with my rain barrel, but the only barrel I have with a good hose connection is too far from my garden, so it’s unfair to readers and Garden Drip to say how it works with a 50-foot hose between the barrel and the 50-foot drip tape, not to mention a fairly inexpensive barrel and a barely downhill slope. I would suggest the shortest possible length if you want to try it with a barrel, simply because you don’t have any mechanical pressure like you will from a faucet.
The Garden Drip comes in lengths of 25, 50, 75 and 100 feet. And if you watch the company’s videos, you can get fancy with shortening, repairing and customizing the hose.
Bottom line: This is the perfect way to water rows of home garden and small farm crops. It is slow and steady as promised, lightweight and effective at drip irrigation and saving water. It won’t work as well as a custom drip system for a xeric garden with plants scattered around, but if you’ve got some fairly straight rows or beds to water, this is the way to go! You can irrigate less often and more efficiently, saving water and helping your plants’ roots become more healthy.
For two years, I’ve watched rain pour off the roof of an old shed in our orchard and hated to see it go to waste. And our vegetable garden is only about 20 yards from the shed, so it just made sense to capture some of the water. This weekend, as storms approached, we got around to adding rain gutters to the back of the shed to catch some of the precious rain in a barrel.
First of all, this was a relatively easy and inexpensive project. We already had the barrel, which cost about $80, in the shed. One of the drawbacks of the barrel type is that it tends to leak along its outside seams. Tim caulked and duct taped it for safe measure. The gutter, outlet and brackets came to about another $60. We had old hoses to reuse.
Tim picked up two pieces of metal gutter, which covered most of the 24-foot roof, some slip joints to connect pieces, two end pieces and the outlet. The most time-consuming part of the project was bending the metal gutter pieces to fit together. Then we caulked them.
We used metal brackets to connect the gutter to joists on the shed. Some of the joists were beginning to rot at the top, so we connected the brackets to the strongest ones and then reinforced the gutter with screws in other spots.
We sat the barrel on a found, fairly flat rock for some ground clearance around the lower faucet control and plugged the other hole with PVC pipe (this barrel also had a busted faucet). I’ll only be needing the hose connection. The garden is downhill from the barrel, which makes the hose flow more easily. And we stacked a few rocks around the sides of the barrel to help with drainage and mud control from overflow.
Because the ground was so high in relation to the back of the shed, we haven’t bothered yet with a downspout; the outlet is only a few feet from the top of the barrel. We figured that if it missed, we could repurpose some old gutter we cut off the house when fitting barrels on it. But we found out that wasn’t necessary! When the rain came, it flowed right into the barrel and filled it up.
I realize this barrel won’t hold enough to water my garden all of the time, but it helps. And if it works well, we might chain another barrel to it next year. I don’t worry too much about using water from the metal roof on my vegetables. First, I water the soil, not the plant’s leaves. Second, there has been plenty of research done on safety of rain barrel water for edibles. We don’t have pollution where I live, and I’m using well water if I don’t use rain water, so it’s not like I’m choosing water from a roof over city tap water. I make sure I rinse all harvested food.
This was a fun, easy and rewarding project. With the rain we received, I haven’t had to use the stored water yet, but I’m sure I will need it by the end of the week!
The drought is easing here as April showers finally arrived and turned into a few May thunderstorms. Our rain barrels are overflowing, and it makes me happy, but crazy. (I need to check and see if I say “xxx makes me crazy” on every post. This is a troublesome pattern.) Anyway, I hate to see any of that precious resource go to waste. In reality, I know it’s watering the natural grass, trees and plants, flowing into the river, and adding to our water table. But I want to collect as much of it as I can to avoid use of our well water for most of the year.
From 30 percent to 50 percent of public or potable water in a given community can go to landscaping. I know we could use more than that between our fruit trees and vegetable gardens. It’s imperative that we all continue to find ways to cut the amount. I tackle that as often as I can on this blog, but for now, I want to focus on rainwater collection and safety of rainwater for edibles.
Rain barrels and cisterns
Our two 50-gallon rain barrels just don’t cut it. And I have big plans to add more, including a huge above-ground or underground cistern. Most homeowners use barrels similar to ours to water ornamental gardens. We’ve found that they’re easy to install, and work pretty well, although Tim has had to replace the faucet on some. You can add a hose to the bottom of the barrel or fill a watering can from the spigot. The barrels cost around $80 to $135, depending on quality, size and appearance.
Cisterns cost more, and generally are used by commercial operations. But if we ever get our greenhouse (see my comment above about what makes me crazy, as in not having one yet), I think it would be difficult and irresponsible to add year-round gardening without having rainwater collection. A 1,000-gallon tank runs close to $600 or more, and you can expect to pay up to $5,000 for a 10,000-gallon cistern, plus excavation if it’s going underground. Of course, with all cisterns, you have to consider some installation costs, plus shipping or transportation and permits in some cases.
Roof water for vegetable gardens
In the past, I heard that roof water was not safe for watering edibles, and I avoided using rain barrel water from my tar and gravel roof on herbs or vegetables. But we now have a metal roof, and I feel comfortable using the barrels to water ornamentals and edibles. I wanted to back that up with science, however, so I found some great information from Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.
The study tested safety of rain barrel water for irrigation of a vegetable garden. In short, they found that rainwater collected from asphalt shingle roofs met irrigation water standards, with a few exceptions. E. coli sometimes appeared in the samples because of droppings from birds, squirrels or other animals. And rain barrel water is not safe to drink, but is considered safe to use to water the soil (roots) of your vegetables. The authors of the study recommended a few practices to ensure the rain water remains safe:
Clean rain barrels with a 3-percent bleach solution before collecting water you’ll use for herbs and vegetables. Since you need to empty the barrel before winter (unless you are in a mild climate), you can clean it before each spring. Or simply add household bleach at a rate of 1/8 teaspoon per gallon of water twice a month during heavy rainfall). It’s diluted enough to prevent any harm to plants after about 24 hours.
Pour the rain water directly onto the soil, not on the plant’s leaves, or use it in drip irrigation.
Water in the morning and harvest at night. This gives the sun’s rays time to disinfect leaves. Morning watering is a better xeric technique, anyway.
It also helps to clean your gutters before spring rains hit, just to cut down on dirt and debris.
I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association, and one of the benefits to membership is access to research conducted by GWA’s foundation on consumer gardening trends. The Fall 2013 report explored how gardeners conserve water and provided three years of historical data for comparison. I have to say that the results gave me pause.
About 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they have a lawn or garden in 2013 and of those surveyed, here are the top ways they conserved water this summer:
Used more mulch (28 percent).
Used more drought-tolerant plants (17 percent).
Watered with drip irrigation (15 percent).
Used a rain barrel (12 percent).
Didn’t water at all (30 percent).
OK, not bad overall, but my concern is that on every water-conservation measure, the percentage was down — from two to five percentage points — from the 2010 survey. Is it a matter of awareness that peaked, then waned? Or is it simply an anomaly, something to attribute to the size or randomness of the sample surveyed? Probably not the latter, because GWA says that the sample balances the population geographically. In that case, we’ve got work to do to raise gardeners’ awareness of water conservation. That’s certainly a goal of this blog.
Here are a few more findings to ponder, though. An additional 28 percent of respondents said “Didn’t think about it,” and 8 percent responded “not sure,” or refused to answer the question. So that means more than one-third of gardeners are doing nothing at all to conserve water in their lawns or gardens. It could be that many of those people, like a portion of the 30 percent who didn’t water, live in lush, rain-heavy areas that require no supplemental water. It made me think of how envious I would get when visiting the northeast or Hawaii. I get it; nature takes care of most of the watering there. Then again, the last time I went to Maui, restaurants only served water upon request because the island was experiencing a drought. That’s right. I know a tropical drought is not the same as a desert drought, but it’s all relative, and an island (even though surrounded by water) has finite resources.
We’ll discuss more ideas of how to conserve water, including rain catchment and whether it’s a good idea not to water at all, in future posts. For now, I just really want to raise awareness. I’m not perfect in my conservation efforts either, but I’m learning more as I write these posts. And there’s a certain degree of natural conservation that comes with the territory when you live in the desert Southwest.