Apply these smart water-saving ideas and make the most of this resource.
• Use rain barrels. Direct free runoff from your roof out into your garden via rain barrels. As long as they sit about a foot higher than your garden, gravity can move the water effortlessly to your crops. If your house is located slightly higher than your garden, you may be able to connect the gutter downspouts to a temporary plastic pipeline to distribute the roof runoff directly into your garden.
• Watch for weeds. Be sure to keep areas between plants and rows free of weeds, or the weeds will steal water from your crops. Mulch is a simple way to make open areas unfriendly to weeds.
• Apply plenty of mulch in beds. While you’ve got the mulch out, make sure to apply thick layers throughout your garden beds. A variety of organic materials free for the taking — grass clippings, leaves, coffee grounds and other organic materials — will help preserve moisture in the soil.
• Dig in plenty of compost. If you add compost or rotted manure to the soil every time you plant something, your soil will retain moisture better.
• Plant in blocks rather than rows.Plant leafy greens, onions and other shallow-rooted plants in blocks rather than rows to simplify watering, especially if you water by hand.
• Install shade covers and windbreaks. Turn down intense heat with cloth shade covers and windbreaks, such as old window screens, attached to stakes placed alongside plants. You can also grow tall plants like sunflowers to act as a shade.
• Try an old-fashioned buried reservoir. Crops grown in wide beds can be planted around a buried reservoir that delivers water to the plants’ root zones, about 4 to 8 inches below the soil’s surface. One ancient technique is to bury porous terra cotta jugs, called ollas, leaving just the mouths of the jugs aboveground. Fill them up, and they’ll slowly seep water to plants’ roots. Plastic milk jugs, kitty litter containers, dried gourds and nursery pots all work well, too. Just puncture them with plenty of holes.
• Try a low-tech irrigation ditch. In extreme summer climates, where plants are screaming for water at the end of hot days with drying winds, irrigation ditches are practical when closely monitored. If your garden is relatively level and laid out in rows, cut shallow trenches along at least one side of each row when plants are still small. When plants need to wet their whistles, drop the hose in one end of the ditch, continue with other chores for a bit, and then remove the hose after the ditch has filled.
• Try ancient, effective sunken beds. In chronically dry climates, such as the Southwest, vegetable yields skyrocket when crops are grown in sunken beds that capture and retain scant supplies of rainwater. Follow the example of the Zuni Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, and pile your excavated soil into ridges around each square. The ridges channel rain into the beds and provide a bit of shade and wind protection for the crops.
• Plant water-wise crop varieties. Download a list of drought-tolerant varieties of more than 20 popular food crops at Water-wise Crops.
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