5 Ways Organic Growing Methods Save Water

Growing with organic methods is smart for lots of reasons, both personal and environmental. Although there are plenty of strategies gardeners and homeowners can use to save water with ornamentals, such as planting native and xeric plants, it’s a little tougher with vegetable gardening.

Tomatoes and water
These yellow cherry tomatoes soaked up a summer rain from their container filled with organic soil and compost.

Tomatoes, for example, need consistent watering! But growing tomatoes organically can conserve water. Here are five ways how:

  1. Organic soil retains water better. Anyone can improve their soil’s water retention by up to 5 percent by adding organic matter. It also helps to avoid use of chemicals and pesticides. Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in gardens can throw off the natural balance of the soil, making it less able to retain moisture around plant roots and making fewer nutrients available for plants. On the contrary, planting cover crops in the fall and use of compost or other organic matter help restore valuable soil nutrients. Organic matter also helps soil structure for water infiltration and retention. Healthy soil can respond better to drought conditions.

    soil organic
    Before: compacted, poor soil in a newly designated garden area.
  2. Organic growing protects water supplies. By avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, gardeners also protect the water supply. Pesticide chemicals can remain in the soil for years; some are more toxic than others and break down in the soil more slowly. The chemicals from these products can run off into bodies of water, such as rivers. And eventually, they can seep into groundwater. That might seem a distant concern to some urban gardeners, but those of us using wells live right above available water. The more chemicals that run into water supplies, the less safe drinking water is available.

    organic matter on garden bed
    AFTER: Organic matter added to the vegetable garden raised row.
  3. Use of mulch reduces evaporation. A layer of appropriate mulch above the ground around a plant helps reduce ground-to-air evaporation, making the soil take longer to dry out. The mulch also helps cools plant roots. Using organic mulches such as bark, nut shells, compost and others adds organic matter to the soil slowly over time for an added bonus.

    mulching organic pecan
    Rock mulch helps lavender stay hot and dry, and on the lower left, pecan bark mulch surrounds a plant that needs more water.
  4. Organic methods can minimize erosion. Traditional gardening and farming uses rototilling and deep plowing to turn the soil before each growing season. Plowing deeply and turning the soil over can disrupt soil microorganisms, harm soil health, and place looser soils on top, where they’re subject to erosion from water and wind (think Dust Bowl). No-till methods help control erosion and build soil structure. The soils, in turn, better retain water. This can be a problem if the soil drains poorly, but a definite help in low-water regions. Not tilling involves building up beds with organic matter, much like nature does as plants drop leaves that decompose. If you want to work organic matter in, it’s best to grab a shovel. A broadfork is the best tool for breaking up compacted soil.

    watermelon organic
    Healthy babydoll watermelon plant in organic soil.
  5. Growing organically creates healthier plants. Healthy soil is the foundation needed to grow healthy food. When soil has good nutrients and structure, it supports root growth and uptake of nutrients, improving plant health.  Plants that are not healthy are more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. The plant might not use water as it should when it’s stressed, and the gardener certainly guesses that if a plant looks bad, it needs water. So, keeping plants healthy saves the extra water the plant needs or gardener applies in times of stress. And healthy plants keep on going, so you don’t waste water on establishing a plant that later dies from poor conditions.

Earth Day 2016: Five Green Gardening Tips

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.

panorama of New Mexico xeric garden
If only I had a 360 camera. Mountains, sky, low-water plants, and passive solar living.

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.

New Mexico rain barrel, reuse plant
Just behind the rain barrel (hint, hint) is a blue mist spirea. It did well there until we diverted some water when extending the patio (and added the barrel, which can overflow). It got too much water! So we split it up and moved it.
yarrow before moving
Yarrow is an herb, easy drought-tolerant plant and pollinator magnet.

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.

bee on blanketfower bloom
Annual Gaillardia plants reseed all over the garden. Bees and butterflies love them.

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.

horehound spreading
We mow and hoe, but the horehound thrives in dry conditions.

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!

cucumber blossom
Fully open cucumber blossom. I think it’s an attractive plant, too.
old pear tree trunk
This old pear tree is a stunner when it blooms. The trunk looks like it could talk.

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.

snorkeling in clear water
And this is why Earth Day matters most. For my daughter, her fiance and all future generations. Photo by Dave Higgins.

Happy Earth Day!

Calculate How Much Rainwater You Can Collect

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.”

rain barrel shed
This was actually our third rain barrel, located near our vegetable garden. I couldn’t stand to watch the water pour off that shed roof without catching at least some of it.

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.

filter lid on rain barrel
Inexpensive, smaller barrels have crude filters to stop debris. A larger system needs a more sophisticated filter.

Calculating Collection

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.

rain collection system model
Here’s the demo system Kniffen brought to our workshop. It’s simpler than it looks!

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.

gutter on shed
We had to add a gutter to the shed roof to collect the water. It was simple and worth it.

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.

Taking a Measured Approach to Biointensive Growing

As we plan expansion of our vegetable garden/tiny farm, we’re hoping to grow healthy food by continuing to use organic methods and some principles of biointensive (biologically intensive) planting. The idea of biointensive farming is far from new, but more small and large farmers are applying biointensive principles, which complement organic methods – and for us – water savings.

vegetable garden at dusk
It’s important to grow food sustainably for best results and to avoid ruining the environment.

In biointensive horticulture, rich, healthy soil maximizes a farmer’s yield in minimal space; it also strives to continuously preserve, or even improve, the soil’s health. And that should be the goal of any vegetable gardener. Biointensive farmers loosen soil more deeply by using tools such as broadforks instead of tilling and turning the soil over. Compost is king, building and enriching the soil.

building garden bed
Building a bed in fall by adding compost and recycling healthy plant matter.

So far, so good. We already take those steps. A few more principles of biointensive gardening follow. I want to share our measured approach largely to help gardeners who have less time or experience. Any method with the word “intensive” in the name is going to freak some folks out. But nothing says that gardeners have to follow every tenet of biointensive gardening to the letter. To me, adopting any of the ideas should improve plant health and production, especially if you’ve never gardened organically. There’s no way I can adequately tackle this topic; entire books address it. And I don’t claim to be an expert, but we’re adding to our knowledge base with research, along with trial and error!

Healthy soil for healthy plants

As I said, composting and double digging of beds better prepares soil. If you can produce your own compost on site, even better. That leaves plenty of healthy organic matter on hand and saves money. Another principle is avoiding chemicals in the garden. If soil and plants are healthy, they should need less help and better resist pests and diseases. We spray aphids off with blasts of water, handpick critters like cucumber beetles and use insecticidal soap or diatomaceous earth only when nothing else works.

compost bin
We keep one compost bin right by the garden, another closer to the house, and Tim is starting vermicomposting this spring. You can tell by looking at the yard around the garden how dry the ground was in September 2015.

More yield in less space

Maximizing growing space is another premise of biointensive gardening. One reason is weed prevention and cooling of soil, or “living mulch” from mature plants. The other is efficiency and production, especially for urban gardeners with limited space. We certainly want to grow as much as we can in the space we have. But in biointensive gardening, the design and proximity of plantings is a little too, well, intense for me.

I love the idea of planting lettuces and other low greens close enough to help shade the soil and block weeds. But I’ve seen what happens when people plant tomatoes too close together. Not only do some plants shade others from valuable sun, but they don’t get enough air circulation. Plants also compete for nutrients and water. And why build an above-ground highway to make it even easier for a hornworm to travel from one plant to another? Finally, I want to be able to reach plants for easy maintenance and harvesting. We’ll experiment on the lettuce and maybe another crop or bed to see how close spacing compares.

vegetable garden spacing
Plants need some space, and spacing changes as plants mature. We learned a lot our first year of laying out this space.

Interplanting and companion planting

We’ve read Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener,” and plan to employ many of his methods for building rows. We’ve built up the soil and added compost, and measured the rows so they’re 30 inches wide, with a small walkway between each. That’s just enough room to maximize growing area and minimize plant problems or gardener aches, pains and frustration. We’ve got containers to extend our growing space. I believe we’ll also try a little more interplanting, just to help maximize space or use the shade from a tall or trellised plant to cool another. Many urban gardeners use square-foot gardening to achieve intensive planting.

mature vegetable garden
It’s hard to tell where the tomato ends and the melon begins.

We won’t, however, use interplanting as companion planting. I know there is historical basis for placing particular plants next to one another to improve each plant’s health or yield, but I’m less certain about scientific basis for the practice. Aside from use of cover crops to enrich the soil at the end of the season, I’m not sold on companion planting. Of course, I might have a jaded opinion because I’m so tired of seeing it, along with many garden myths, pushed on Pinterest. We’ll continue to build and improve the soil in our beds and rotate crops.

walk to vegetable garden
The garden is behind this abandoned irrigation ditch. We’ll plant some milkweed and a few transplants to the south side of the bank to attract more pollinators. For now, that’s as close a I’ll come to companion planting.

Whole-minded and open pollination

The biointensive principle of using open-pollinated seeds instead of GMO varieties ensures biodiversity of crops. The reason is that heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants can be saved for use the next year. Saved hybrid seeds are not reliable. Our focus this year has been on organic seeds, and I don’t believe we would try to save seeds for vegetables regardless. We have saved or redistributed seeds from wildflowers.

cosmos and other annuals
Pollinators flock to many annuals and perennials, and these wildflowers spread naturally. The more pollinators we can attract, the more we help all of our gardens.

As with permaculture, biointensive gardening focuses on the whole and how different parts of the garden, or ways of gardening, affect each other. For example, if I don’t apply chemicals to my vegetables, but use pesticides on ornamentals on my property, I still affect the tiny ecosystem. The pesticides can kill bees that might otherwise fly over to the vegetable garden and pollinate a cucumber.

fresh vegetables farm to table
Here’s a healthy yield of fresh vegetables for our kitchen!

Learn more about biointensive gardening from Fortier’s book and from this Mother Earth News article, including a great explanation of square foot gardening. And don’t stress over doing everything suggested or doing it perfectly. The first goal is to grow healthy plants and food for your family.

 

Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!

The Dirt on Saving Water in the Garden: Good Soil

Gardeners can take many steps to save water, such as saving rain water and using drip irrigation. But one of the most crucial steps lies beneath our feet, in the soil that protects and nourishes roots and controls water drainage and aeration.

black sand beach Maui
Black sand in Maui along Hana Highway. The black sand is made from lava rock.

What you can’t see: soil microbes

Tiny microbes feed soil and plants, relying largely on humus, the rich organic matter that results from decay of natural materials. When conditions are right, insects, earthworms and microorganisms in healthy soil create humus. Organic matter in the soil ensures that microbes thrive and the soil drains as it should. And when a plant is otherwise healthy, it’s less vulnerable to diseases and can likely survive with less water. In Master Gardener training, I learned that New Mexico soils have organic matter of 20 percent or lower on average. At our place, rocks take up 90 percent of the soil (slight exaggeration). We located our vegetable garden in an area that used to be part of an apple orchard and that’s near the river. The soil is much better than near the house, likely because of organic matter working its way into the soil over the years.

xeric rock garden
Got rocks? We’re certain the rock garden walls and borders were made with rocks excavated on our land! Many of the native and xeric plants have adapted to soil conditions.

Xeric plants and soil drainage

The thing is, many xeric plants are more affected by soil that remains wet than by lack of water. Lavender comes to mind; wet feet can cause root rot. Add a sudden drop in temperature to the dampness and lavender plants are at risk of dying. I’m seriously worried about ours after 18 inches of snow. Plant care instructions for nearly all xeric plants read “place in well-draining soil” because too much water in the soil suffocates a plant’s roots. Sand dries too quickly, but clay and compacted soils fail to drain.

Lavender does better with well-draining soil and less water.
Lavender does better with well-draining soil and less water.

Plants use valuable energy to pull moisture from soil. When they have to work harder to access water in soil, plants become stressed and wilt. If your soil drains quickly, you have to water more often and less deeply. Loam is the name used for balanced soil that has a fairly even mix of sand, clay and silt. As mentioned, clay soils hold too much water. Amending either extreme (sand or clay) with organic matter helps plants access the appropriate amount of water needed with less stress. Instead of adding sand or clay to balance soil, gardeners should use organic matter to gradually improve soil health and function.

This soil at the entrance to our vegetable garden is compacted foot traffic. Notice how water from snow melt stands in the soil.
This soil at the entrance to our vegetable garden is compacted from foot traffic. Notice how water from snow melt stands in the soil.
Only a few feet away is this raised bed with organic matter added. No standing water under the same conditions; the water is working its way down through the soil.
Only a few feet away is this raised bed with organic matter added. No standing water under the same conditions; the water is working its way down through the soil (and rocks).

Here are a few tips for ensuring your plants’ soil is healthy, providing nutrients, water drainage and oxygen to roots:

Add organic matter. The type of matter you add is more specific to your soil’s pH and other factors. But most natural organic amendments, such as manure or green manure, can help.  Also called cover crops, green manure is the purposeful planting in fall and winter of crops that restore soil nitrogen and organic matter used up by summer plants. When using animal manure, add it to compost or make sure it’s cooked completely; don’t add fresh manure to growing plants.

You can see the difference in the color and texture of the mushroom compost that sits on top of the summer vegetable bed. The soil needs some help.
You can see the difference in the color and texture of the mushroom compost that sits on top of the summer vegetable bed. The soil needs organic matter from the compost and some broken-up plant residue.

Properly handle plant residue. Although some schools of thought are in favor of letting spent plant material stay on the ground to decay and provide organic matter, gardeners should use caution. Insects overwinter in plant residue on the ground (good if you want monarchs, but you can’t really go around selecting which insects get to take up residence). And it’s never a good idea to use diseased plant material. We kept some healthy plant material, but anything that looks funky goes into compost bins or garbage. We don’t mess with “wilder” areas around the property.

An unripe pear and leaf material remain under a large, old pear tree. They'll compost and improve soil, but also attract ants and other insects.
An unripe pear and leaf material remain under a large, old pear tree. They’ll compost and improve soil, but also attract ants and other insects.

Use organic mulches. Adding mulch around (but not against) the base of the plant helps slow water evaporation from the soil. Organic mulches eventually break down, improving soil make-up.

Here at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, landscapers have added mulch around many beds, including blue fescue.
At the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, landscapers have added mulch around around many plants, including blue fescue.
Cacti at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. need no mulch!
Cacti at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. need no mulch!

Rotate crops and use cover crops. In vegetable and herb gardening, move annual crops around so that the soil nutrients get a break. Families of plants differ in how they use soil nutrients.

Stop tilling. Rototilling, the traditional farm method, burns off carbon and adds to weed emergence. It also breaks soil up into smaller particles, which makes it less permeable for air and water. Repeated tilling leads to loose top soil. Heard about the Dust Bowl? Work added organic matter into the top few inches only, or let it sit on top of soil.

When in doubt, test your soil to determine how much of it is sand, clay or loam. You can perform your own home test pretty easily using a mason jar, as described on page 11 of this publication from the San Diego County Water Authority.

 

10 Reminders for Waterwise Gardening

Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.

Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.
Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.

No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.

The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.

If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain.

For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:

1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.

2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.

3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.

garden Drip tape in vegetable bed
Drip irrigation saves water and improves plant health for edibles or ornamentals.

4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.

5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.

6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.

This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.
This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.

7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.

8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.

9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.

Here's Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.
Here’s Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.

10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.

Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature's water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.
Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature’s water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.

Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!

 

 

Safely Use Rain Water on Vegetables and Herbs

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.

rain barrel metal roof
This is one of two rain barrels by our house. We used it to water the carrots in the pot next to it one year, along with container tomatoes. It also serves as a handy drinking spot for the mutts and apparently as a shelf for my wind chimes when they annoy my husband as a storm such as this one comes in.

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.

rain barrel for watering ornamentals and edibles
Here’s the same barrel up close and right after we put it into service in early spring. I know I can’t water everything with it, but we don’t need to. Most of our ornamentals are xeric and need no regular watering. Why not capture some rain to use where we can?

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.
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
  • 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.

Safe Watering 

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).
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
  • 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.

This is the view of the new barrel from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.
This is the view of the new barrel and shed from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.

Easy Gardening Project: Carrot Trough

carrot harvest
Fresh carrots from your garden taste much sweeter than any from a store. We grew these in a galvanized livestock trough.

I love gardening with raised beds, and when we closed our garden last year, Tim and I discussed the idea of slowly adding some raised beds to our vegetable garden. We’ve got some really good reasons:

  • Warmer soil temperatures for our short season.
  • Flexibility in design and crop rotation.
  • Ability to control and amend soil for better weed management.
  • Shorter distance to bend over for our aging backs.
  • And tops on the list, as always – critters, especially gophers.

Ultimately, improved soil management and weed control can lead to water conservation, though sometimes containers dry out more quickly. We’ve seen livestock troughs used as beds before, and decided to start with a 2 x 4 trough from Tractor Supply Co. for our first attempt this year. We wanted more carrots and for a longer season. Considering that carrots are root vegetables, with the “fruit” growing down into the ground rather than above, this seemed like the perfect choice for a container with a metal barrier between the crop and the critter with the giant fangs.

Prepping the Trough

Carrots also prefer stone-free soil. That pretty much rules out any area of our property, so filling a trough with compost and soil mix made much more sense. But first, we had to prep the trough. It really was so much easier than building a raised bed – and I doubt the cost was much more, especially for the 2-foot height the troughs give you. Drainage is essential, so I drilled about a dozen holes in the bottom using a one-half inch metal drill bit. Yes, without harming myself. That was an easy step!

holes drilled in bottom of livestock trough
Every container needs a method for drainage, even a large one. It was easy to drill holes in the trough, but leave it mostly intact.

It takes a lot more soil than you would think to fill a container that large, and I didn’t want to use stone-filled soil near the crop. So we started with recycled plastic bottles on the bottom. They’ll allow water to drain down. We also laid some gravel under the trough to promote drainage and help level it before filling. Next, we used some of the soil from our place. But in the top one-third to one-half, we added organic potting soil and compost to create a really rich and well-draining environment for the carrots. It took at least six big bags.

gravel under raised bed trough
We had some extra driveway gravel to throw under the trough for drainage and leveling.
carrot trough soil organic
I used a rich organic soil mix for the carrots.

Big Enough for Succession Planting

To have carrots throughout the season, I started rows in succession. I didn’t have a very high germination rate at first, but I believe that was low temperatures. Plus, carrots notoriously germinate inconsistently, not necessarily in neat rows (we found one from last year outside our garden fence this spring). Still, I covered the trough with a layer of white row cloth and a few clamps, just to make sure the birds were not to blame (I didn’t count on flying critters).

We now have several rows of carrots growing at various stages, and they are delicious! Carrots can take light frost, so I plan to add more seeds before the soil cools and get them going, then cover the trough with a warmer fabric.

carrots growing in trough
The center row is ready to harvest and we have carrots in varying degrees of growth.

We’re happy with the trough. The only potential advantage we might be wrong about is mobility. Even with plastic filling the bottom, it’s pretty darn heavy. But we’ll see what happens during fall clean-up. I don’t mind the look at all for our place, which has an agricultural feel; the garden backs up to a neighbor’s horse pen. But I’ve seen the troughs painted and placed in front yards as raised flower beds.

When I was giving zucchini and carrots to our neighbor the other day, she said not to buy more, because they have several old troughs we can clean up and use. That would be perfect; then we can place them throughout the garden and rotate crops between them each year.

Product Review: Garden Drip Tape

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.

garden-drip-hose-product
The Garden Drip Hose rolls up to a compact size, so it’s small and light for shipping, storing and lugging around.

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.

garden drip tape emitter
Tiny holes emit drips of water from the striped top of the tape, making installation super easy and the flow nice and slow.

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.

garden Drip tape in vegetable bed
The thin strip of tape fit nicely under the zucchini plant and was flexible enough to curve slightly with the beds.

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.

garden drip hooked to hose.
I hooked the tape up to my hose for the best possible pressure in a location too far from barrels with faucets. They were simple to connect.

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.