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PHOTO: Bill Strubbe
Drought is a cyclical part of life in the American West, and water conservation—no matter where you live—should be an ongoing concern of every savvy gardener. A well-designed, water-wise landscape that incorporates H2O-saving devices and techniques can still be a lush and inviting place without the water waste. Here are 15 tips to get you through the summer with minimal irrigation.
1. Make Soil No. 1
Routinely cultivate your soil—especially if it’s sandy, clay or rocky—by annually incorporating compost into your vegetable and herb beds. Organic matter retains 10 times more water and nutrients than sand. In clay soil, organic matter adheres to the tiny soil particles, increasing pore space and oxygen levels, improving soil drainage, which in turn increases root depth. Organic matter also encourages the beneficial activity of soil microorganisms.
2. Get Weeds Out
Every plant has its Goddess-given place in nature, but unwanted weed intruders siphon water away from your desired plants. Regularly hoe or pull weeds out by hand when they’re still young, and use landscape fabrics, newspapers, cardboard and mulches to discourage their growth.
3. Mulch, Mulch, and Mulch
Without mulch, up to 70 percent of water can evaporate from the soil on a blistering day. Cover bare ground between plants with several inches of mulch—leaves, straw (not hay because of the seeds), grass cuttings, bark chips, shredded bark, compost, even cardboard or newspaper—to help conserve soil moisture, suppress water-thieving weeds, lower soil temperature, improve the soil as it breaks down and draw worms to the surface. Renew the mulch annually or more often if needed.
4. Plant In Blocks
Plant vegetables in blocks or clusters rather than in spaced rows: This is known as the French Intensive Method. In addition to better using precious garden space, when the plants—say leafy greens like kale, cabbage or lettuces—mature, their overlapping leaf tips create shade, hence less soil evaporation.
5. The Tall and Short of It
Certain plants will do fine in a slightly shadier spot in the garden, and as a result, will require less watering. Shady spots are more prevalent than you might think, so get creative. Behind a row of pole beans or tomatoes, plant lettuce or kale. On the east or west side of a gazebo or shed, sow a patch of carrots or green onions.
6. Create Swales
If your garden is situated on a slope or hillside, it’s a prime candidate for swales. This is a permaculture method where you create a snaking soil mound following the contour of the slope in strategic spots—this is the swale. Plant your garden within the swale, and rain and water runoff will collect behind it and sink into the soil, creating a sweet damp spot.
7. Use a Soaker Hose
Commercial soaker hoses produced from recycled tires “sweat” water through millions of tiny pores along its length. Very little water is lost to evaporation, and they can be hooked up to a timer, are easily buried under mulch and require relatively little upkeep. You can also create your own soak hose by attaching a hose cap on one end of a tired-out garden hose. With a small drill bit, poke hundreds of holes—this could take an hour or two!—along the length of the hose.
8. Drip Irrigation Works, Too
With more than 90-percent efficiency, drip irrigation is the most conservation-friendly watering system. Drip irrigation consists of tubes with release points next to each plant, usually set on a timer. If a plant no longer needs water, a plug can be inserted to stop water flow. A challenge with drip irrigation in a veggie garden is that each year, your plant layout will vary, and reconfiguring the piping and emitters is not always simple.
9. Tune Up Your Irrigation
In the spring, and perhaps once or twice during the summer, perform maintenance on your irrigation system. Emitters fall off, sprinkler heads break, timers go berserk, leaks happen and sprinkler heads become blocked. Also check your water pressure: High pressure can damage drip systems and cause spray heads to mist, losing water to evaporation, while low water pressure diminishes the overall performance of the irrigation system. Appropriate pressures are 15 to 25 psi for drip irrigation; 25 to 30 psi for sprayers; and 40 to 50 psi for rotors and impact sprayers.
10. Upcycle In the Garden
Who knew that recyclables could be so useful in the garden? Depending on the size of your bit, drill four to eight holes in the cap of a liter soda bottle. More and/or bigger holes mean a faster drip. Cut the bottom of the bottle off, and bury the bottle cap-side down about halfway in the soil, and press dirt around to secure in place. Plant your pumpkins or peppers within a few inches of the bottle. Fill it up with water, and let it drip away. The container directs the water downward to the roots, and lessens surface weed growth.
An alternative is to use yogurt containers or large tin cans. Clip or punch four or five holes around the bottom side of the container, bury it in the ground and plant your crops around it, several inches away. With all these recycled containers, you’ll need to water the seedlings directly until the roots develop for the first days or weeks after they’re transplanted.
11. Turn Tomato Supports Into Easy Watering
Obtain scrap pieces of PVC piping 3/4 to 1½ inches diameter and 7 to 8 feet long. Drill a couple dozen holes at the bottom foot of the pipe that are 1/4 to 1/2 inch diameter. Bury that end into the soil where you’ll transplant your Early Girl or Purple Cherokee tomatoes. In addition to acting as a support to tie your thriving tomato to, you’ll be able to water it by filling the pipe, aiming the water down deep where it’s needed.
12. Use An Olla
An olla (pronounced oy-ya) is a commercially sold, gourd-shaped, terra-cotta container fired at a temperature that allows it to remain porous. Native Americans in the Southwest have a long history of using these buried earthen jars to water plants. Because roots grow in search of water sources, they usually form a dense, fibrous mat around the olla for an efficient water-delivery system.
Bury an olla in the middle of your vegetable bed with the opening just above ground, and fill it with water. When the surrounding earth is dry, more water seeps out. No surface watering means saving water and less weeding. It also means you only have to water every seven to 10 days, and can actually go to the beach for the week.
13. Try a Faux Olla
To create your own cheaper version of an olla, sand down the lip of a terra-cotta pot and an appropriately sized terra-cotta saucer until smooth. With silicone sealant, glue the saucer and the pot together. Bury the pot with the drainage hole above the soil surface next to the plants it will be watering. Fill the pot with water through the saucer hole, and voila! Olla on the cheap.
14. Think Twice About Terra Cotta
You may prefer the simple look of terra cotta, but except for succulents and cacti, think twice. Especially if you live in a hot climate, unglazed terra cotta quickly evaporates moisture through the porous surface drying out the soil. Glazed pots and—goddess forbid!—plastic pots retain moisture longer. In peak summer months, shift pots and containers, especially smaller ones, to partial shade under a tree, or to the east or west side of a structure. Group pots together to benefit from the shade created by their foliage.
15. Make Self-Watering Containers
For those lacking space or time for a full garden, container gardens can be created out of crates, barrels, bathtubs and buckets. The most water-efficient of all is the self-watering container garden, with a recessed trough at the bottom. As the soil dries, water wicks upwards to the plants. (Another vacation maker!) Online are several helpful videos explaining how to make them from recycled materials, or you can read our instructions for two different versions.