Growing Food without Water

Posted by on Feb 26, 2014 in Farmer's Blog | 0 comments


For the past year we’ve been experiencing the greatest drought of our time, one for the record books indeed.  The last few months my recent backyard gardening has involved being even more aware of my water usage not only in the yard but in my home as well.  I think that we should always hold a place of mindfulness revolving around precious water, not just in a drought.  I’m fascinated with the practice of dry-farming, which has been around for thousands of years.  The practice was common on the California coast from the 1800s through the early 20th century, but it became a lost art during the mid-century.  The coast of California used to be our main source of food in the state, until they started developing farms in the Central Valley because of all the water.  Now, there is none.  Today, it is experiencing a modest resurgence along the coast, where temperate, foggy summers offer ideal conditions for dry farming grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, grains, and some tree fruit.  Dry-farming requires no irrigation, in return essentially you’re at the mercy of seasonal rainfall and varying soil conditions from year to year.  While dry farming has geographic limitations, it could pave the way for more coastal agriculture and offer techniques for farmers in dryer areas to farm with less water.

Pray For Rain

Here are some tips from Colorado freelancer and gardener Debbie Moors on growing plants in a dry-climate.

Plan Carefully

1. Choose local superstars.
Ask your extension agent which varieties have been proven to perform best in your area — not just in your zone.

2. Find plants that thrive without a lot of water.
Amaranth, quinoa, tepary beans or beans in the “cowpea” group (such as black-eyed peas) like dry conditions.  Some fruits, like gooseberries, grapes and currants, are well-adapted to dry conditions. Culinary and medicinal herbs also grow well in arid conditions.

3. Group plants by water needs.
Vegetables like lettuce, beets, green beans and chard have shallower root systems; corn,tomatoessquashesmelons, asparagus and rhubarb have deep root systems. Green beans and sweet corn are among the thirstiest garden vegetables.  Plant according to water needs to keep from over- or under-watering one area.

4. Place containers strategically.
Put your thirstiest plants in areas where they get more sun earlier in the day, rather than in late afternoon.  Place containers next to each other to capitalize on humidity, shade and run-off from taller to shorter containers.

5. Use a slope.
Use gravity to your advantage by placing higher-water-demand plants at the base of a slope and lower-water-demand plants at the top.

6. Improve the soil.
Dig deep and loosen soil, then apply a lot of organic matter (such as compost) to help with drainage and water retention.  In containers, consider lining pots with sphagnum moss or adding other media to retain and conserve water.

7. Use raised beds.
 In some parts of the Southwest, highly alkaline soil and layers of cement-like calcium carbonate called caliches can challenge gardeners.  If you have a shallow caliche layer, you’ll likely have better luck with raised beds.

8. Play in the dirt.
To contain and channel water to the roots, make furrows along rows of plants, or use small rocks to build troughs around plants. Make sure plants aren’t completely flooded or submerged.

9. Block the wind.
If you live in a windy area, consider planting wind breaks to slow water loss through evaporation.

10. Provide shade.
In some areas (particularly at high altitudes), the sun’s intensity can add a challenge. You may be able to grow cooler-season crops like lettuce if you use natural shade or erect a shelter using shade cloth.

11. Choose containers wisely.
Terra-cotta pots will lose moisture more quickly than plastic or glazed pots. Look for containers that have a built-in watering system, or build your own self-watering containers.

Use Water Wisely

12. Save with a rainy day.
A 1,000-square-foot roof can yield more than 600 gallons of water from 1 inch of rain. Buy a rain barrel (or make your own) or consider a cistern to capture roof water. (Check your state laws. Some states don’t allow rain-water capture.)

13. Catch wasted water.
While waiting for water to warm in your shower, catch the cold water in a bucket or jug, and use it for your container plants.  Consider capturing greywater (wastewater from your washer, sinks and bathtubs) for use in your garden. (Again, check state or local regulations.)  Place a bucket where it can catch condensation drips from a window-mounted air-conditioning unit.

14. Reuse fish tank water.
If you have a freshwater fish tank, don’t discard water when you change the tank — it’s a nitrogen-rich water source for plants.

15. Add a saucer.
Use saucers under container plants so excess water can be reabsorbed.

16. Water two at a time.
Depending on container locations or portability, water your container plants over tree roots or other vegetation to use runoff water.

17. Deliver water precisely and slowly.
Where a sprinkler can be 50 to 70 percent efficient, a drip-irrigation system can be 90 percent efficient.  It also helps control weeds by bypassing them.

18. Water deeply.
If you water your plants slowly and deeply — but only when they need it — you can encourage roots to reach deeper for water.  Light, frequent watering produces shallow roots that require more watering.

19. Make mini reservoirs.
Centuries ago, clay-pot irrigation helped provide water for dryland crops. Lately, there’s been renewed interest in the use of ollas (pronounced oy-yas) in dry areas.  These unglazed terra-cotta jars are buried in the soil and slowly seep water to plant roots.

20. Soak selectively.
Use soaker hoses to deliver water efficiently.  Plant your garden according to watering needs.  Run one soaker hose through areas where shallow-rooted plants are growing, and use a splitter to run another through areas where deep-rooted vegetables are planted, managing flow to the hoses accordingly.

21. Time it right.
Water as early in the morning as possible, and try not to water when it’s windy. Add a timer to your irrigation system for early watering.

22. Got mulch?
Organic mulch (including chopped leaves, compost, shredded newspaper, grass clippings, hay or straw) improves the soil as it decomposes, conserves water, increases humidity around plants, reduces weeds and encourages beneficial microbes in the soil.  Be sure to apply mulch at least 2 inches deep.  Plastic sheeting has been shown highly effective at retaining moisture and increasing soil temperatures in the spring.  Install irrigation before you apply mulch to cut down evaporation.

23. Don’t overwater.
Monitor rainfall by leaving a measuring container out in the open and checking and emptying it once a week.  Know how much water your plants need, and check soil with a probe before watering.

24. Experiment.
Gardeners are an inventive lot.  Check out and experiment with ideas that might work for you.  A few key phrases to research online: no-dig gardening, wicking beds and container gardening bottles.







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