Here in California we’re entering a fourth year of drought, so the thought of conserving water as our vegetable gardens spring to life is a bit unsettling.
Fortunately, there’s no need to forgo a bountiful vegetable garden. A few simple reminders can help you keep your garden in tip-top shape while conserving precious resources.
Here are four ways to optimize your water use:
1. Avoid overwatering.
This tip is probably the most obvious. If water is running off your lawn or garden and flowing into the gutter, too much water is being delivered at that time.
Many plants don’t require as much water as we’re used to using. That’s especially true for overwatering lawns, which is the greatest cause of water wasting.
A Lawn Watering Guide from the master gardeners at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources department advises homeowners to determine how many inches per hour their sprinkler system delivers (see Publication 8044 for instructions), and consult the included tables to see how many total minutes to water each week.
Deeper, less frequent waterings are best, but if you notice that water begins to run off before the allotted time, divide the total minutes into 2, 3 or 4 blocks each week. Fewer sessions are best, but there may be no way around more frequent watering for landscapes with sandy soils or slopes. Water early or late to avoid water loss due to evaporation, and don’t water longer than necessary.
The University also provides a guide to watering your other landscape plants, but it’s pretty technical. A good rule of thumb is to water deeply once a week, and let the soil dry out between waterings. If the plant starts to show signs of stress, give it more water. If leaves are wilting and drooping, blossoms or fruit are dropping, or stems die back, they’re probably not getting enough water. On the other hand, if the soil is constantly damp, and the leaves are turning yellow and soft, the plant may be getting too much water.
Cover the soil around your plants with 3 to 4 inches of a natural mulch such as wood chips, shredded bark, or straw. Mulch reduces evaporation and helps control weeds. Organic mulch also breaks down over time, adding plant matter to the soil. While natural materials will need to be replenished from time to time, they’re a healthier option than rocks or fabrics that do not break down.
The mulching principle also applies to lawns. Don’t clip the grass too short — allow the grass grow 2.5 to 3 inches long to help shade the soil and reduce evaporation. Your lawn will withstand drought conditions much better.
3. Use the correct irrigation tools
Delivering water directly to each plant is the ultimate in conservation. Place drip emitters to the root zone of flowers and shrubs. Soaker hoses can be easily placed down rows of vegetables during the growing season, and then removed while beds are cleared and replanted.
There are even drip irrigation sensors that stop water delivery after a rain, and sense when it’s been dry enough to start up again.
Keep your irrigation system working properly, since a leaky valve or emitter will undo all your conservation efforts.
4. Grow drought-tolerant plants
Plan a water-efficient landscape by planting native species that tolerate dry periods better. It is possible to enjoy an attractive garden that conserves water.
Refer to your local master gardener program for native plants that do well in your region. In Sacramento, for example, the county extension offers a list of water efficient plants suitable for gardens.
Some master gardener programs, university extensions and teaching nurseries have public sales of plants that do well locally.
In the vegetable garden, beans and peas are well adapted to drought conditions. Tomatoes, squash and melons also develop deep roots that tolerate drier soils.
The traditional Three Sisters garden favored by Native Americans accomplishes water conservation, disease resistance and nutritional bounty in one co-planted space. As explained by Renee’s Garden, corn stalks provide a natural trellis for beans to grow upon. The addition of squash plants between the rows completes the dietary trio while acting as a ground cover to retain moisture.
For more information about gardening with limited water, check the UC Master Gardeners of Sacramento County website.