(April 20, 2002) Welcome through
Fred's Garden Gate! Over the past few weeks, I've received several emails from gardeners
asking how they could drought-proof gardens—particularly vegetable gardens—this growing season. Here are some answers, plus a few tips,
for those of us who live in one of the widespread droughty sections of the country. It's generally geared to helping gardeners gain a better appreciation of what it
takes to "do battle" against Nature...when she decides to withhold that oh-so-refreshing and revitalizing rain.
I garden in the midst of dense, thirsty Maine woods, where environmental stress, the
potential loss or damage to aesthetic
beauty around us, and fire danger—all resulting from drought—are frequent concerns. Some have voiced the very real fear that nearby
forest or landscape trees—in an effort to satisfy their insatiable thirst—will send moisture-robbing feeder roots even further in
their search for water. Deep incursion into cultivated areas—especially high-water-demanding vegetable gardens—will almost surely
increase the need for supplemental watering. (Feeder roots frequently extend laterally to a distance equal to the height of the tree.
During drought years, those roots will search even greater distances to satisfy the need for water.)
As you probably already know, your vegetable garden will normally require about one inch of water per week—either in the form of
precipitation, or through supplemental watering or irrigation. There are several cultural "tricks" you can employ to help plants
deal with extended dry periods, while conserving water, and improving soil and plant health in the bargain.
Key, in my mind, is the placement of nutrition as low into the root zone as practical. Many gardeners make the mistake of sprinkling a
little compost and fertilizer on or very near the surface. In that too-common scenario, plants are obliged to send roots far too near the
surface to get their
"dinner", leaving them vulnerable to drought and cultivation trauma. Getting your compost and other supplemental nutrition deep
forces roots to grow and remain deeper as well—where they are more resistant to lack of water, and well away from the possibility of
cultivation damage as well.
Additionally, frequent "sprinkling" can encourage roots to remain at or near the surface. Guess what happens when you take a
weekend vacation away from the garden—and no rain falls? Severe—if not terminal—stress preceded by wilting. One deep soaking per
week (or two during the hottest,
driest weeks of summer) is far better than frequent, light surface-dampenings. Same general principle applies to lawns.
Kelp-rich liquid fertilizers (such as Sea-Plus Liquid Seaweed/Fish Fertilizer 3-2-2—available at
Johnny's—have the ability to actually
drought-proof plants upon which they are applied, by providing a natural substance that assists them in dealing with periods of dry
of nitrogen-rich liquids, however, can stimulate tender, new growth that can be adversely affected by drought. Used judiciously, they can
be an important tool in battling drought.
An organic mulch around most popular vegetable crops will serve several purposes: prevent undesirable evaporation of precious moisture,
moderate soil temperatures for more consistent growth, discourage weeds, and provide valuable, till-in organic matter to build soil—giving it even greater ability to retain water and nutrients.
(You shouldn't mulch around hot peppers because they like it hot.)
Seaweed, collected from the shore, makes an excellent, natural mulch. (Gardeners fortunate enough to live near the ocean—where
seaweed is free for the taking—enjoy a distinct advantage: a ready supply of organic material, and the added bonus of micronutrients in abundance...exactly what
plants—and those who consume them—really need and like! The downside: possible odor—not a serious problem unless the garden were
directly beneath your bedroom window.
Alternatively, poly mulches (also available at Johnny's) can be used instead of organic mulch. In my experience, however, they tend to
prevent absorption of water at the site of roots, because they shed natural precipitation. Placing water-conserving drip irrigation tubing
under the poly generally
solves that problem...but that implies a ready source of water, and careful maintenance/timing.
I once saw a nifty system utilizing a rain barrel filled by roof run-off, connected to a hose that then ran water several hundred feet
(down hill) to the vegetable garden. A shut-off at the garden end provided control. 55 gallons of water in the barrel, and another 10 or
15 gallons in the hose, would go a long way to supplementing natural rainfall on the garden. Since drip irrigation tubing performs nicely with as little as 10
pounds of water pressure (that's actually not very much), such a system could be incorporated into the "rain-barrel-and-hose"
method. The downside: hot water
from an exposed-to-sunlight hose, reliance on at least occasional rainfall to replenish the barrel, and an occasional large waterbug that
seems destined to clog the hose.
A variation of that concept showed up in an old gardening magazine, depicting several barrels (one stepped about 4" lower than the
previous) where, as the first one filled, water overflowed into the 2nd, then 3rd and so on...providing a greater reserve.
A final collection of tips—Conserve water in the home: flush fewer times, catch otherwise-wasted shower water by sharing your daily
shower with a pan or pail, wash the car with a pail instead of a hose, allow your lawn to go au-naturale...even if it means a tan lawn, create
a "moat" or dike around
plants to prevent wasteful runoff (especially useful because it confines water in the zone where roots are), and—here's a good one—save water used in
cooking pasta, boiling eggs, and preparing vegetables...then after it cools, use that in the garden.
I'm confident that readers with their thinking-caps on can come up with a great many other ways to "juggle accounts" in Nature's
"water bank." If you've discovered unique or original ways to preserve soil moisture and conserve water, send them in...and I'll see
they're shared with all our readers!
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