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.

Water Under, Not Over, a Plant

For water conservation and plant health, the smartest xeric strategy is to water the roots of the plant and avoid watering the plant’s leaves.

Let’s look at the water savings first: Water evaporates when exposed to air, and occurs at the water surface area. The smaller a drop of water, the higher the percentage of the drop’s surface area. Add the effect of wind on tiny drops of water from sprinklers and you might as well just pour that water down the drain. And if you irrigate a plant from above or with sprinklers and spray emitters, much of the water lands on the leaves, where it can evaporate. In fact, water constantly evaporates from a plant’s leaves as it is, in a process called transpiration. It’s a plant’s natural way of cooling off on hot summer days.

herb garden drip irrigation
Cascading or spraying water is for fountains and lawns, not for plants. Note at least three inconspicuous, but efficient, drip emitters in this herb garden.

Feed a plant’s roots

It’s much better for a plant to take new water in through the plant’s roots, where the water picks up soil nutrients and works its way up the trunk and stems back to the leaves to do its cooling and feeding work. There’s another reason not to spray water on plant leaves, especially late in the day or during cloudy, humid weather: wet leaves can harm many plants.

Fungal diseases such as powdery mildew on roses or apple scab on apple trees and crabapples is partly a result of water on the leaves. Sometimes, there is nothing a gardener can do. We have an old apple tree with some scab that likely came from spores in old leaves left on the ground and a week or more of cool, cloudy and humid weather in late spring.

apple scab on leaves
We don’t water this old tree near the river, but an unusually cool and damp late spring caused this brown spotting, which I believe is apple scab. It was worse on lower leaves on the northeast side of the tree, but seems to have stopped progressing. And the apples don’t look too bad!

Change how you irrigate

Often, simply changing irrigation practices can improve a plant’s health. When we first moved to a home in Albuquerque many years ago, the previous owner had installed sprayheads in all of the flowerbeds. We eventually had to replace all of them with bubblers and rework the plantings. Bubblers or drip irrigation might have required a little more planning, better leveling of the soil and more parts or emitters. But in the end, the homeowner would have saved money on his water bill and I bet on plants! Farmers know this is the way to go, and many are learning new ways to improve irrigation techniques to reduce water use.

subsurface drip irrigation
A micro subsurface drip irrigation system was used in this demonstration project in Texas. Click on the image, which is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to learn more about the project.

We recently visited a nursery in search of tomato cages and noted that the tomato plants they still had in stock looked awful, even though they had a few large fruits on the plants. I thought at first it was too shaded in the greenhouse, but then Tim noticed the cause: an overhead spray watering system. The leaves were spotted and nearly goldish-brown in color. I don’t know how they are healthy enough to continue feeding the plants. Granted, these plants have been in the greenhouse way past the typical time, and there are many more than you would have to deal with in your garden. Still, it seems to me they would sell more tomato plants if they watered differently.

rose water pail
Roses are especially vulnerable to powdery mildew and need deep watering at the roots. The only time I spray roses is to rid them of aphids. I use a fairly strong water spray early on a sunny day.

And in case I haven’t convinced you, here’s yet another reason to water with drip emitters or by hand near the roots of a plant instead of broadcast or spray irrigation: weeds. When you spray water, you water everything around, including weed seeds. Watering only around your vegetables’ or ornamentals’ roots confines weed growth, making it easier to pick small weeds out by hand.

hose watering tomato
It takes more time to water my vegetable garden by hand, but the hose from our rain barrel waters the plants deeply and just at the roots while I weed.

As I said before, you can’t control rain, which obviously comes from overhead. But keeping plants exposed to proper sun, trimmed and cleared to give them sun and airflow and cleaning out debris from around the bottom of trees and plants can help reduce risk of fungal diseases. Choose mulches carefully, depending on local recommendations for a given plant.

Easy Rain Barrel Project: Collecting Rain from Shed Roof

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.

old shed in New Mexico
I love this old shed. We use it for storage, but it had no rain gutters for all of the runoff.

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.

shed rain barrel project
The metal gutter Tim bought matches the barrel and the shed, so it doesn’t affect the character of the shed much. We attached it to the joist beams along the back, just under the roof. See how close all that wasted water is to the garden?

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.

attaching metal gutter to shed
Metal brackets secure the gutter on both sides every 18 inches or so.

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.

rain barrel filled
The barrel installed and filled to the brim after nearly an inch of rain later that day!

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!

How To Water Mature Trees

When drought strikes, it’s tempting to cut back on watering of established trees or stop watering altogether. And maybe water restrictions in your area force your hand. I hate to see it happen, because trees can offer many benefits – most notably shade for homes to cut down on energy use, and shade for other plants to keep them alive and in need of less water. Of course, you can’t beat the enjoyment of sitting under the shade of your favorite tree. I won’t even get into how depressing it is to see dying trees in front lawns…

Ideally, your lawn has only native trees, and especially xeric varieties. In that case, the trees adapt to conditions more easily. Some survive on rainwater alone, but most need a deep watering about once a month during the heat of summer.

desert willow tree xeric
The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a perfect xeric tree for warm to hot desert climates. This one is from a Tucson, Arix., garden.

To water your a mature tree that requires irrigation, avoid a common mistake — watering only near the trunk. Trees do not have tap roots, but instead have a root system that extends out from the tree, more or less mirroring and extending just past, the tree’s branches above. So, when you set out your hose or set up a drip or soaker system, begin near the trunk, and then work your way out to the edges of the tree’s canopy. Scroll down in this handout on caring for trees from Colorado State University for a photo of a soaker hose layout.

To water deeply, you have to water slowly. That means setting your hose or irrigation system to deliver the water at a lower rate for a longer period of time. To reach the roots, the water needs to penetrate the ground to at least 12 inches. If you’ve ever seen roots growing at ground level, they’re probably doing so because the tree is receiving too little or too shallow watering.

Don’t dig a hole around the tree to help get water to go down deeper. The hole allows air in and dries out roots!

If possible, avoid using a sprinkler to water trees. In addition to producing shallower roots, the sprinkler wastes water by dispersing it into the air, where it evaporates. And some trees are subject to leaf diseases from constant watering. The only time I ever spray a tree or bush is if it has aphids, and I give it a fine-water spray in early morning to wash the aphids off.

If you can’t reach a tree with your hose, you can drill a few holes in a 5-gallon bucket and carry it out to your tree. The water will flow more slowly through the hole than if you pour the water on the ground. Move the bucket out and around the tree’s base with each refill.

apple tree along river.
This apple tree is hard to reach with the hose, but we don’t water it because it is along the river bank and the roots take up plenty of water. This year, it had twice as many blooms and may give us some fruit. Trees can help preserve water sheds.

If you want to save tap or well water, reuse! Direct roof water to a tree using the downspout and a dry river bed. Save shower water in 5-gallon buckets (with no holes – you have to get them outside!) but only use the water that flows while the shower warms up, not any soapy flow.

If you have other clear water to dispose, such as kid or dog pools, empty the water onto tree roots instead of a random place in the yard.

Another Reason to Weed Your Garden: Water Savings

If you’re like me, you hate the sight of weeds in your ornamental or vegetable garden, and you have permanently discolored cuticles from April through September.

Weeds are more than unsightly, however. Ask any farmer, who knows that weeds can reduce their crop yields by at least 50 percent by simply robbing crops of water. Although weeds can seemingly grow out of rocks, parched dirt or sand, they still compete with surrounding plants for water. Weeds also host bugs and diseases and can block sun or air circulation to important plants. For example, if a tall weed shades your bell pepper plant, the plant is less able to compete for water and nutrients and less likely to produce as many peppers. Some weeds even introduce chemicals that are toxic to certain plants, animals and people.

Weed growing in middle of sage
This culinary sage has a weed growing up through the middle of it. The weed’s tap root likely steals rain water from the sage.

Are you hating weeds as much as I do yet? There are those who tout their benefits. A few weeds provide nectar for bees or help supply organic matter to soil. And as I’ve mentioned before, there is a fine line between weeds and wildflowers. Our widespread alyssum invasion each spring adds early color and brings hundreds of bees to our land.

Further, several weeds are edible. Examples that come to mind are dandelions and purslane. But I really prefer carrots and cucumbers.

According to Robert Parker, Ph.D., of Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension Center, it’s more important to control weeds during drought than during typical years. And some common weeds consume more water than typical crops. An example is Russian thistle, which Parker said removed nearly 18 gallons of water per plant while competing with a spring wheat crop. The thistle is just one of the weeds we are trying to attack here on our property and a priority throughout Lincoln County, N.M.

thistle weed
This thistle (to the upper left of Buster) is growing in our ditch, along with a horehound and numerous other weeds. I need to grub it before it goes to seed.

Parker says that crops are most affected by weeds during early growth. So home gardeners are best served by prepping their gardens carefully to start out with a clean slate and to handpick weeds until their backs give out. Seriously, it’s always best to keep weeds under control without chemicals if possible. That’s especially true during a drought, because most herbicides require water to work effectively.

In fact, weeds are the ultimate native plant! They adapt to drought by developing ways to retain moisture in their tap roots or waxy layers on leaves. When drought affects grass growth on rangelands, more weeds move in and establish squatters’ rights. That’s what seems to have happened to us. We now have a proliferation of several weeds, and especially horehound (Marrubium vulgare).  Horehound grows best in dry soil, and I’ve seen it growing in the worst places possible.

horehound
Horehound, which is considered a good plant or an awful weed.

From what I can tell, horehound spreads by seed, but also has runner-type roots and maybe spreads just by magic. It’s in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Need I say more about its invasive qualities? And although a noxious weed in some areas, horehound also is considered one of those “good” weeds, having both medicinal properties and use as an edible for tea or candy. But I point to the “vulgare” portion of its name. If it continues to take over our grass, I might give in and learn how to make the vulgar weed into candy, which apparently tastes like licorice.

horehound spreading
Horehound mowed down to prevent seeding, like that will help. It is taking over this grassy area.

Most likely, we are going to require herbicide at some point. By the way, the horehound noxious weed spread began when it was introduced to ornamental gardens. I’m all for growing edibles, but why not mint in a container?

Plan a Xeric Turf Lawn

Because the drought in California is so severe and restrictions attempted earlier this year did not have much effect, regulators adopted unprecedented restrictions at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown that include encouraging homeowners to let their lawns die. A survey of the state’s local water departments showed that water use fell less than 4 percent in March of this year compared with March 2013; total water use has gone down only about 9 percent since summer 2014. The new regulations require cities to cut use by up to 36 percent.

What remains to be seen is how cities will enforce the laws, or help homeowners do a better job of conserving water.

all-gravel lawn
This is the choice of most homeowners who xeriscape, and now the only choice in drought-stricken California. Note the bermuda grass creeping back through the gravel.

Some of the crisis could have been avoided with xeriscaping years ago. Californians and any of us in arid Southwestern climates do not have to  give up on turf lawns completely, at least if we act before a crisis of California proportion hits. You can responsibly incorporate some turf into your xeric landscape rather than going all gravel. Let me first explain the benefits of keeping a limited amount of turf.

  • As I’ve mentioned before, xeriscaping includes zones, and the zone closest to your home is called the mini-oasis. This is where you should plant turf and your highest water users, keeping “highest water users” relative in scope and quantity. One reason is that you can water some of the plants in this area with rainfall runoff from the roofline and downspouts. And when in a drought, you should catch as much rain as possible.
  • The other reason to have some planting and green around your home is to help keep your house cool in summer. This might not be as important if you live in the mountains (although if you do, I bet you are like us, and rely on cross-breezes and cool evenings instead of air conditioning!). If you switch to all gravel instead of some grass or native plants, your house will become hotter, and eventually you’ll use more energy to cool your home. If you have evaporative cooling, guess what? You’ll use more water, too.
  • Any trees planted near the house that help shade it in summer will likely die if you cover their roots with plastic and rocks.

I’m not saying you should sod a huge lawn or use any grass you like, however. Many people in Albuquerque, where average rainfall is 12 inches a year, have planted lawns made up of a Kentucky Bluegrass mix. Those lawns need about 40 inches of rain a year, and I don’t have to tell you that Kentucky is hardly a desert…

So, what’s the ideal situation? Plant a small area of native, low-water grass near your home (especially on the south or west sides) or around the base of the tree that shades your house. Native grasses have adapted to live in their environment, and should thrive in your climate with little to no supplemental watering. Here are a few examples of sod-forming grasses:

  • Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis). Blue grama is best known for its seed heads, which form in middle to late summer, assuming you stop mowing for a bit and let them go to seed. The low-water, warm-season grass has fine green blades and loves hot weather. It will winter over in cold climates as well.

    Dried grama grass seed heads
    We mowed around this clump of blue grama for weeks last summer and fall to let it go to seed and hopefully spread. This is how it looks in early spring.
  • Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides). Buffalograss is a native prairie grass that establishes quickly from seed or starter plugs. It won’t work as well under a tree or the shade of a house as some natives because it prefers full sun. But the warm-season grass requires little mowing and only two inches of water a month, even in the hot summer.
  • Western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smitthi). This cool-season grass works in most soil types and uses little water. It has bluish leaves and spreads by rhizomes, so be careful where you plant it. Also, the grass is native to high elevations.
winter wheatgrass
Winter wheatgrass in a New Mexico horse pasture.

You also can mix buffalograss and blue grama for a native lawn that fills in quickly and densely.

blue grama grass in spring
This is some blue grama grass near the clump that went to seed. It’s greening up nicely in early May with only rain water and some fertilizer from deer.

Avoid planting turf on a slope, and keep your small lawn area away from sidewalks or curbs, so that when rain or the occasional sprinkler water hits the grass, the moisture stays there and doesn’t run off.

Finally, with native grasses, you have to learn to go with the flow, so to speak, and not expect to have the greenest, most dandelion-free lawn on the block. The lawn’s health will vary from one year to the next. We have several acres of various native grasses and even more weeds. Obviously, we do not water any of the lawn/pasture. It’s completely up to Mother Nature. We control the weeds in some areas and mow when it all begins to grow in late spring or early summer.

salinas-pueblo-missions-natural-grasslands
Natural grasslands at Salinas Pueblo Missions, a national park near Mountainair, N.M. I am certain this grass receives no irrigation.