Check out this graphic on where California’s water goes. The mind-blowing statistic of this month is that 90% of all water used in California is used by industry and industrial agriculture. That makes me want to take a long hot shower, and get involved in policy discussions at every level about water distribution. As with all the other problems in our culture, the persistent unequal distribution of resources–with those at the top of the “food chain” who can most afford to pay being charged the least for the resource–holds trye for water as well. We have to direct our activism not only to our own backyards but to the bigger policy issues which affect the distribution of all resources.
Here in California we are grappling with how to continue to garden when the rain is not falling from the sky in adequate quantities–i.e., barely ever, and certainly not enough to sustain all the human and other life in our vast state.
Here’s some tips for gardening in dry times and dry climates:When facing serious drought, we can be water-wise and successful growing a food garden. Here are some thingsto consider when planning a food garden during a drought and some suggestions for optimizing water usage.
The first step in deciding to have a food garden is to determine if extra water beyond basic household needs of cooking, bathing, etc. is available. This includes rain collection systems, captured water, and greywater.
FOOD GARDEN ACTION PLAN
1. Compost, compost, compost! Add organic matter to the soil. If soil is sandy, the addition of organic matter allows the soil to hold more water. Organic matter also helps open up soil allowing roots to go deeper and find more water at lower depths if there is any. Higher soil nutrition helps plants produce better yields with the same amount of water. Avoid adding excessive amounts of nitrogen as this encourages lush leafy growth that requires more water to sustain.
2. Mulch, mulch, mulch! Mulch keeps soil cool, conserves moisture and reduces weeds. Use three to four inches on top of the soil. The larger the material size, the deeper layer you need to provide. Choose from straw, fallen leaves, hulls, shredded bark, grass clippings and newspaper. It is not advisable to use plastic sheeting as mulch because it deprives the soil of much-needed oxygen. Keep mulch two inches away from the base of the plant to avoid the possibility of rot. When hand watering, pull back mulch so that water goes directly into the soil.
3. Use a drip system. Learn about individual plant moisture needs and group plants that have the same need together on the same valve. If using in-line emitters in one-fourth inch tubing that use one-half gallon per hour per emitter and there is a length of ten feet with emitters spaced every foot, five gallons of water an hour is used on that section of tubing. Add up all drip lines to determine total water used. Install a timer. Install shut-off valves at the beginning of drip lines in order to turn them off when an area is fallow. Irrigate only as long as it takes to moisten the active root zone. Water, preferably, in the morning or in the cool hours of the evening so that soil stays evenly moist. Don’t forget the drip system once it is set up. Monitor and adjust it, as needed.
4. Be selective. Consider the water available to support crops through harvest, and grow only the amount and types of vegetables the family will consume. For example, plant two beds of vegetables instead of six; plant four tomatoes instead of ten. To get the most out of the water you apply, grow high yielding vegetables like beans, chard, mustard, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, squash, quinoa and amaranth. Do not grow crops that need consistent moisture. Examples include most brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower and radishes), lettuce and other greens, beets, carrots and other root crops, celeriac, celery, leeks and onions. Avoid these unless a particular variety has been bred to need less water. Generally, cool season crops are not drought resistant and growing them during the heat of the summer requires lots of extra water to keep them cool.
Consider the following observations on which crops need the most water and when:
Some beans and sweet corn need considerable water to produce a good crop. Beans need water most when they are blooming and setting fruit.
Corn needs water most during tasseling, silking and ear development.
Yield is directly related to quantities of water, nitrogen and spacing.
Peas need water most during pod filling.
Other vegetables, such as cucumbers and squash, and fruits, such as melons, need water most during flowering and fruiting.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant need water most during flowering and fruiting. (Note that after tomatoes set, they can do very well with reduced water).
After deciding what to grow, choose varieties that tolerate dry conditions. Look for the terms “drought-resistant” or “drought-tolerant” in seed catalogs or on plant labels (note that “heat-tolerant” refers to above ground air temperature and is not the same as drought-resistant or drought-tolerant). Even these varieties require water. Some water is needed to start seeds or establish a seedling, and to periodically irrigate the plant through the growing season. Selecting varieties that are described as “widely-adapted” in addition to drought-resistant and drought-tolerant also may be helpful.
5. Consider days to maturity. A crop needing fewer days to mature requires fewer irrigations before harvest (e.g., 62-day ‘Stupice’ vs. 85-day ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato). Look for early-maturing or short-season varieties. Days to maturity will vary from one part of the country to another as well as from one microclimate to another.
6. Increase plant spacing. Spaced plants are not competing as much for water in the soil. Very deep, open soil or French intensive double dug beds allow vegetables to be planted closer together because the roots have more room to grow deeper and find water if it is present. Try increasing the spacing recommended in the SCMG “Vegetable Planting Summary,”iv by 50 percent or even doubling the spacing if you have room.
7. Eliminate weeds. Weeds compete for water. Be aggressive in removing them from growing areas.
8. Use light-weight row covers. Cover plants as a means to collect dew. Dew drops onto soil and keeps it moist. While using row covers can help prevent insect damage, look under the cover from time to time to monitor plant growth and check for unwanted insects trapped inside.
9. Use shade. Heat-sensitive vegetables can benefit from being planted where they receive some afternoon shade. Plant them underneath or behind taller plants or consider using shade cloth.
10. Use windbreaks. The moisture on leaf surfaces is dried by moving air, causing the plant to need more water. In coastal and other windy areas, windbreaks will help roots keep up with leaf demands.
11. Determine when it is time to water again. Use a soil moisture meter. Or squeeze the soil in your hand: if it sticks together, it is still moist; if it is crumbly and falls apart, it is time to water.
Sourced from Sonoma County Master Gardeners
This week, gardener divine Wendy Krupnick and I penned a letter (to anyone who would listen) about the scarcity of water in our county. The Press Democrat picked it up, and hopefully a few others will as well. County Supervisors are responding as well. Here is the Press Democrat link for the letter: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20131231/opinion/131239969 and here is the letter printed in full:
To: Sonoma County Supervisors and Water Agency
Re: Drought leadership needed
The driest year in California’s recorded history is about to come to a close, and there is no promise that the drought will end any time soon. Even if there was substantial rainfall in the next few months, will it be sufficient to replenish severely depleted groundwater reserves? What if that rain does not come? Too many human, animal, biological and economic lives are dependent on this scarce resource for us not to take immediate measures to preserve what we have.
The specter of extended drought is as scary as the “super storms” which have been happening in other parts of the world. Equally frightening is the deafening silence of our public officials, who have so far failed to acknowledge this crisis and call for mandatory conservation measures. Climate change is clearly happening here and now.
We know that:
- In 2002 Sonoma County reported that approximately 40,000 wells existed within the county, serving 90,000 residents. Groundwater provides drinking water in part to 42 percent of the population, with nearly all of the county’s residents dependent on groundwater as either a primary or backup drinking water supply source.
- Sonoma County issues about 500 well permits each year. California is one of only two states with no groundwater regulation. Increasing amounts of water are taken out of the ground and decreasing amounts are being replenished.
- In the Santa Rosa Plain alone, there are about 12,000 wells operated by the five cities, the county water agency and private homes and ranches. Virtually all farms and ranches – the lifeblood of our county’s economy – depend on private wells for water.
- Groundwater in many parts of the county has been in “overdraft” for many years and some wells are now drawing on “ancient” deep aquifers. Other areas have many dry wells, and subsidence has occurred in some regions.
In spite of the information above, we are told that our county does not need to worry about this unprecedented lack of rain, because there is still water in Lake Sonoma. As we can see, Lake Sonoma water is completely irrelevant to a very significant part of our population. And what if Lake Sonoma does not refill this winter?
In the 1970s California experienced a drought that was not as severe as the current one, but there were mandatory conservation measures enacted in many communities. Lawn watering and washing sidewalks and cars with hoses were prohibited, and low flow water devices were distributed. We learned to let “yellow mellow” and took short showers. These measures made a big difference and we found that we could do just fine using much less water. There are additional water conservation measures that could be actively supported by the agencies now, including grey water systems.
Why have such measures not been called for now? Are we afraid to scare off developers? Of the political battles that will ensue if we recognize the drought for what it is? It’s insanity to continue with business as usual when it comes to water–one of life’s true essentials.
Some of the cities have good water conservation policies “on the books”, yet dozens of acres of lawns adjacent to commercial enterprises waste thousands of gallons of water every month. And in many unincorporated areas water use is still extravagant. As long as private water districts like the Country Club neighborhood are allowed unlimited access to “their” water at nominal cost to their residents, water will continue to flow down those streets into the storm drains daily.
We the undersigned residents of Sonoma County call on our Supervisors, the Sonoma County Water Agency and its municipal clients to enact mandatory water conservations measures immediately. In addition to appropriate prohibitions and fees, there should be incentives for businesses to convert their landscapes to low water use plantings. Independent water districts and home owners associations should be required to provide water conservation information to their residents and to change their fee structures.
And we ask every resident of our county to count every drop of water as the precious, scarce resource that it is, and to do their part to adapt to our changing world.
As per my Where’s the Water? blogpost, here’s a good read from the Union of Concerned Scientists on just this issue — working as well as we can with the resources available to us in any given season.
I’m thinking global climate weirding’s gonna take a lot of creativity and resilience…
We’ve been having another unusual weather winter here in Northern California. Last year, our rainy season was fairly dry–basically no rain during December and January–but we basically caught up on our water quotient with later rains during March and April. Kind of wreaked havoc with the fruit crops, but there you have it.
This year, I don’t think we’re gonna get so lucky. It started off well–rains coming in the autumn and turning the terrible dry brown of late summer into the lucious green of winter. Northern California’s funny that way–the nicest, most fecund time of year is, in some ways, winter–surely the polar opposite of most climates in the country. We watch the world looking like a shriveled dead thing coming back to life, even as many plants go into dormancy.
November and December brought plenty of rain–sometimes too much at one time–rivers of water flowing through the culverts and into the streets. The reservoirs were filled up to the brim, and early. My rain barrels were full by mid-December.
And then some time around New Year’s, the rain stopped. In January and February the rainfall where I live has measured less than 2 inches–not so good for getting our beds ready for the spring planting season. Now, a month later, I can see what that means–dried soil in my garden beds, no seeds sprouting without plenty of water inputs on my end, the usual spring wildflowers stunted, or non-existant.
According to the Climate Prediction Center, http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/DOD.html, in central and northern California, the 3-month precipitation outlook for March – May 2013 calls for significantly enhanced chances (over 50 percent) that spring precipitation totals will rank among the lower one-third of historic occurrences.
So this means that the drought which spread through the mid-West last year is creeping westward. And one of the significant things it means is that we have to get creative about making the water we have last longer, since the dry season this year will be longer by at least 2 months. This means, potentially, little to no rain between January-October. I dread the summer and the autumn in years like this.
How to plan a garden in this circumstance is tricky. I usually plant food for my family in three separate gardens–one in the backyard of a friend, one at a community garden, and one at home. The home garden feeds us in greens and beans and herbs and the kinds of foods you like to pick frequently. The two outlying gardens usually host crops that need less daily tending–potatoes, squash, garlic, onions, drying beans, artichokes.
But I’ve been wondering if this isn’t the year to rest one of those beds, and to choose instead to buy food from farmers who are already committed to growing for larger numbers of people and who will already be using water growing this food. Will I be saving water in this way, while spending more money? Probably. Is this is a responsible choice, or does it not really make much difference? How do I feel about starting the irrigation on three gardens months before I usually start watering? What’s the eco-responsive choice?
I’m not 100% certain of the answers to these questions yet, but I notice that my garden planning is slowing down and looking for new solutions to the problem of water.
How are you managing water in your garden this year? Are you in a drought-prone location? Has the winter weather revealed any seasonal challenges for the coming spring? Will you do anything differently than you did last year?