BY KOKHEONG MCNAUGHTON
Whenever someone mentions “the $64 tomato,” most gardeners get the joke, especially those of us who grow food in this arid climate. Despite all of my efforts at water conservation in the garden, my monthly water bill during the growing season is still around a hundred dollars.
What are some of the ways I conserve water in my garden? I consider having healthy soil as the most important factor. I have worked the soil for over 40 years now, and it is rich in organic matter. A shovelful of my garden soil typically turns up a few of my “free-range” composting worms and mushroom mycelium. Every year I add more compost that I’ve made from kitchen scraps and yard waste. I make them in 4 different ways: a regular vertical compost bin where I put in green and brown garden waste at the top and harvest the compost at the bottom, several outdoor vermicomposting sites made from recycled tires (where the red wrigglers are free-ranged), a pair of buckets with spigots designed for Bokashi composting of all of my kitchen waste, and a rotating drum into which the fermented kitchen waste from the Bokashi buckets are emptied and then mixed with mulch from the Eco Station to continue composting until they turn into black gold.
Why is healthy soil a major factor in water conservation? Besides growing healthy food with denser nutrient contents, healthy soil retains water better and keeps the water where it’s needed most instead of wasting it through runoffs. In addition to healthy soil, mulching is also important to reduce water loss from surface evaporation. In my last column, I mentioned collecting fall leaves as mulch and fermenting them as leave molds to work into the soil, thereby achieving both their functions in water retention and minimizing water evaporation. I also use the “chop and drop” method when pruning my plants and simply leave the cuttings (cut into 3-4” lengths if they are big) on the ground to add to the mulch as well as provide food for the multitudes of tiny and microscopic organisms in the soil.
I use a combination of drip irrigation and soaking hoses to maximize water delivery to the plants. For plants that are hand-watered individually, I sink a milk jug with holes punched at the bottom into the soil next to each plant (sometimes two plants share the same jug) and water into the jug so that the water is delivered directly into the roots. This method, combined with mulching around the plants, minimizes water loss.
Other water conservation methods I am using include saving the water from washing vegetables and rinsing dishes into buckets that are carried out to the front or the backyard and used for watering plants closer to the house. Most of the rain water that falls on my roof is collected in 3 separate rain barrels, the rest is re-directed through downspouts to water different parts of the garden.
This past growing season, we’ve had quite a lot of rain so the rain barrels have come in useful. Before we hit a hard freeze, it is now time to empty them. However, emptying them now would be a waste of the water since the ground is still quite wet from the abundance of rain we have had lately. I’m going to empty most of the water into 3-gallon and 5-gallon buckets and letting them freeze solid over the winter. Then I can place each bucket upside down next to a fruit tree along the drip line and just let the block of ice slowly water the tree in the winter months as it melts.
Water is precious here. Wars have been waged over water rights. My efforts seem insignificant given the larger picture. But we can all do something rather than do nothing. This reminds me of a story I read in “Mother Earth News” magazine a few years ago. A woman has been agonizing over growing food in her backyard and calculating how much water she would need to grow the $64 tomato. She wonders if it is worth it. She was driving past a big commercial farm in California and when she saw how they were spraying tons of water into the air to water their monocrop, she said to herself, “I can do better than that!”
I am sure you can too!
Free-range outdoor vermicompost site. Courtesy photo