As I write this, it's 97 degrees outside and I'm thinking about our water supply, or lack thereof. Many gardeners questioned whether it's a good idea to grow this year, but I must admit that I didn't flinch. There was no question for me that I would continue to grow food. It has, however, made me hyper aware of how I use water, and what steps I can take to reduce my usage in the garden. Here's 5 steps I'll take this year.
1. Prep Your Beds Well. This is SO important. I double dig my beds, which is initially a pain in the a**, but it makes a world of difference. Why? Many reasons, but simply put, plant roots need air. The farther down from the surface you can loosen and amend the soil and provide air, the farther down plant roots can go after water and nutrients. The deeper the roots, the less water needed at the surface. I also space my beds close together. Narrow walkways mean less hot, dry, exposed, compacted ground.
2. Plant Intensively. In a double dug bed, or in raised beds and containers, you can space plants quite close together. As the plants grow and mature, they help shade each other and the soil surface, slowing evaporation. Water vapor also stays in and under the plant canopy longer. Additionally, planting a diverse group of plants together enhances the health of each, especially if you include flowering plants and those that tend to have different root depths and similar water requirements.
3. Install and maintain a drip system. Not only does it save water, but it makes life a lot easier. I set up my beds with dripper line spaced quite closely. I want the dripper system to wet the entire bed, not just the base of each plant. That way I can plant intensively and not worry about whether there is a dripper exactly at the base of each plant, and next season I can plant again without rearranging the system. I also believe that an evenly moist bed supports soil life and nutrient supply better than a bed with wet and dry spots.
4. Mulch. Lots and lots of it. 3-5" of it over the whole bed and over the drip system. Just as planting intensively slows evaporation, so does mulch. Compost, straw, mini bark or fir bark, all work fine. I don't suggest wood chips, because as they break down, they use nitrogen, making it less available to your plants. Bark doesn't do this, wood does. I like compost because it's the same material I double dig my beds with and it will only make the beds better. It also looks better to me than straw. Make sure your drip system is working well before you mulch and pull the mulch away from plant stems a little.
5. Stop Watering So Much! Tomatoes, peppers, most herbs and well chosen beneficials don't need an abundance of water. If fact, too much water makes tomatoes taste like...water. Additionally, a plant that gets watered frequently has no need to send roots down deep. In the August heat, tomato and pepper plants in my double dug beds get water every 10-14 days. That's it. With deep mulch I'm sure I can stretch it farther than that. My squashes, beans, cucumbers and melons get water every 7 days or so. I'm curious to see how far I push it this year.
I wish us all an abundant and drought friendly gardening year!