Lose the Lawn

One the best gardening strategies to prepare for future droughts—and achieve additional benefits—is to replace your lawn with any of several landscape designs.

Lawns, and especially front yard lawns, began as a mark of affluence, because mowing a lawn was once a labor-intensive (and therefore costly) session with a scythe. A skilled scythe-wielding worker can be impressively efficient, but for most workers, including the homeowner with an up-to-date lawnmower, mowing a lawn is a tedious and repetitious task. The homeowner’s reward for a well-maintained lawn can include pride of ownership.

A lawn does more than display the homeowner’s wealth. It also serves as the base for widely accepted front-yard designs, the principal one of which has been called the Contractor’s Landscape. This consists of a shallow bed of reliable small shrubs next to the house, followed by turf grass to the curb. This design is quick and cheap to install, and inoffensive.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, the lawn provides a resting place for the eye as the viewer focuses on individual trees, shrubs and blossoms. The lawn is a neutral swatch of greenery, contrasting carpet-like with the relatively busy landscape.

But consider the negative aspects of the lawn.

  • Maintaining a good-looking lawn requires much more effort, water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides than alternative landscapes.
  • Two-cycle lawnmowers pollute the air about ten times as much as a car, and add noise pollution as well. Electric mowers are better, but they also impact the environment. Push mowers are best for the environment, the lawn and the homeowner.
  • Lawns are the homeowner’s version of monoculture, growing just one crop over an area. This practice might seem efficient, but to the wildlife, it’s a wasteland with very little food or water and no shelter at all.
  • Lawns might be valued for recreation, but in reality often have minimal use (except for maintenance). Other landscape designs could be more inviting and supportive of outdoor activities.

If these factors encourage you to consider losing your lawn, it’s time to look into the many possible alternatives. Begin with Sunset magazine’s “21 Inspiring Lawn-free Yards” <www.sunset.com/garden/earth-friendly/lose-the-lawn-low-water-landscaping>. This webpage offers a slideshow of attractive options to contemplate.

For more in-depth information, visit Evelyn J. Hadden’s extensive website, “Less Lawn, More Life,” or look for her book, “Beautiful No-Mow Lawns: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives’ (Timber Press, 2012).

Another fine resource on this topic is book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien: Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices andDesigns (

Another helpful resource is the Lawn Reform Coalition, which is “all about reducing or replacing lawn, water-wise lawn species and eco-friendly care for all lawns.” Visit the Coalition’s website for information on all aspects of lawn alternatives.

“Lose the lawn” emphasizes the loss of a familiar element of the landscape. “Lawn alternatives” suggests a more appealing idea, one that opens our thinking about creative approaches to the landscape and new resources in the home environment.

Think of the possibilities!

Rain at Last

As an impressionistic meteorologist, I’m very pleased with our recent rains and even more so with the promise of more rain in the near future. Some areas of northern and central California could actually reach normal levels of annual precipitation. The Santa Cruz area is during fairly well, but this happy future might not extend throughout the area: portions of Monterey County are receiving lighter precipitation.

What have we learned?

My first reaction to the overdue rain is that we can now anticipate fresh new stems and leaves and a great floral display in the spring. Our plants are responding to the moisture by extending their roots and drawing in nutrients, preparing for a new season of growth.

Then, I flashed on the idea that the drought is over for good, and we’re back to the Monterey Bay area’s historical weather pattern, with a dry summer and the onset of the rainy season around mid-October. This thought didn’t last long. Realistically, our climate is changing in ways that will change our gardening—and our lives—in significant ways.

This change is happening at a fast rate, not with the very slow arrival of the Ice Age (approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago or the Little Ice Age (1550 to 1850), which developed relatively more quickly, over a period of about 200 years.

Politicians are debating a range of responses to today’s emerging problem. Clearly this is a global issue that requires global action, but as individuals, we can respond in small ways. The most constructive action for individuals is to elect those who accept the reality of climate change and support long-term solutions.

As gardeners, we can pursue three basic strategies:

First, retire plants that require summer irrigation and that suffer under drought conditions. The single most widespread plant in this category is lawn grass, which achieves it aesthetic potential only with frequent irrigation, applications of nitrogen fertilizers and broadleaf herbicides, and regular cultivation, including mowing, aeration and pest control.

In a future column, I will describe alternatives to traditional turf grasses.

Tropical-climate plants compirse another category to avoid for drought-tolerant gardens. Examples include the hibiscus (H. syriacus is the most popular ornamental species) and the banana (Musa acuminata, M. balbisiana and others). In general, avoid plants with large glossy dark leaves, which tend to absorb more heat, require a lot of water and transpire a lot of water.

For the water needs of specific plants, Sunset’s Western Garden Book provides useful guidelines, with briefly descriptive terms from “ample water” to “little to moderate water.”

The second basic strategy is to favor plants that will survive in your garden under drought conditions. Generally, as often mentioned in the column, these are plants that are native to coastal California and other Mediterranean (or “summer-dry”) climates. These plants will do better with a little moisture during a prolonged drought, but they have evolved to withstand dry periods, using such methods as growing small leaves, that minimize water loss.

Succulents are another category of drought-tolerant plants, which have developed structures for storing water in their leaves, stems or roots.

The third strategy for drought-tolerant gardening is to use water wisely, through drip irrigation and regular mulching. These water-conservation methods complement the two preceding strategies for plant selection, and help the gardener to cope with water restrictions.

Use the next clear days to assess your garden for drought-tolerance. However much we enjoy the current rains, preparing for future droughts requires long-term planning..

Summer Pruning of Apple Trees

Do you have one or more apple trees that have vigorous new upright growth, like the shoots, often called water sprouts, shown in the picture? This photo shows new growth on an espaliered Gala apple in my garden, before and after pruning (click to enlarge).

BEFORE PRUNING

Water Sprouts - vert

AFTER PRUNINGWater Sprouts - pruned

Those shoots, usually at least one foot in length, are the tree’s response to heavy pruning during the dormant season, and represent an effort to restore the balance between the canopy and the root system.

Water sprouts are unlikely ever to bear fruit. Instead, they sap the tree’s energy and shade the interior of the tree, slowing the development of vertical growth, and the time for dealing that problem begins now. The period from early August to mid-September is the ideal time for summer pruning, after the new branches have set their terminal buds. This means that the branch has stopped growing for the season, so pruning will not stimulate additional growth. The best practice is to remove the water sprouts with their terminal buds.

Note that some new shoots will be shorter, and horizontal or nearly horizontal. Horizontal shoots (properly called “laterals”) are more likely eventually to bear fruit, so they are treated differently from the vertical or near-vertical shoots.

First, consider training these laterals to close to horizontal, using string or V=notched spreaders, to support fruiting.

Then the recommended treatment is to prune these laterals back to three buds of new growth after the cluster of leaves at its base. This will stimulate the formation of fruiting buds.

Oren Martin, the gardening guru at UC Santa Cruz’s Farm & Garden, says this three-bud pruning system is based on the advice of Louise Lorette a French orchardist of the early 20th century.

Pruning your apple tree’s water sprouts and laterals in this manner can be a repetitious and fussy detailed task, but it really will not take long and will contribute significantly to your tree’s vigor and productivity.

My practice is to listen to National Public Radio on a portable radio while pursuing repetitious tasks like pruning or weeding. That way I can feel like both a conscientious gardener and an informed citizen.

Summer pruning of apple trees is distinctly different from winter pruning, which should focus on the tree’s structure and overall form. Summer pruning, by contrast, emphasizes the tree’s details, keeps sunlight flowing to the interior and supports fruit production

The time for structural pruning of an apple tree is late winter while the tree is dormant and leafless. Winter pruning can stimulate the growth of water sprouts, which are pruned in summer when the tree is not producing new growth. This practice results in less pruning down the line.

When the dormant season comes again, we’ll review the art of winter pruning. Now, during the summer months, pick up your clippers and snip away at those water sprouts.

Gardens as Tools

Following recent surgery, I felt too fatigued and sore for even light gardening. Those limitations lasted about one week, after which I could again put in several hours on easy—and overdue— tasks: weeding, installing small plants, pruning, all of which helped a lot in my recovery.

This episode stimulated thoughts of the garden’s many functions beyond pleasing the eye, feeding the stomach and providing regular light exercise.

Without minimizing the direct benefits of ornamental and edible gardening, consider the types of therapeutic gardens: healing, meditation, contemplation, and restorative.

“Healing” means helping individuals to overcome physical, mental, emotional or spiritual challenges.

“Meditation” involves deepening personal knowledge and attaining inner peace.

“Contemplation” involves thoughtfully examining issues larger than oneself, perhaps in a religious or mystical manner.

“Restoration” refers to returning to an ideal or normal state from a stressed or agitated state, or from boredom or difficulty in focusing.

A garden designed to help individuals to overcome physical challenges is described as an accessible garden. The design typically emphasizes raised beds, tall enough to provide easy access to the gardener who cannot kneel, or finds it difficult to do so. (Rising from kneeling could be just as challenging.) There are also convenient tools, e.g., rolling seats, tools with long handles, telescoping pruners, for gardeners who have grown to be less than spry.

Other kinds of accessible gardens are designed for gardeners with partial or complete loss of sight, emphasizing blossom fragrance or plant texture over appearance, to favor smell or touch.

No garden, however accessible or well intentioned actually effects any healing or restoration. Only the gardener who desires to be healed or restored can achieve such outcomes. In this perspective, the garden is not the cure, only the gardener’s tool.

The focus on the gardener is the same for meditation and contemplation gardens, which offer only nature’s calm environment to invite the gardener to forget for the moment personal stresses and the busy world’s demands, and to consider issues greater than “why snails?”

There’s one more type of therapeutic garden: the motivational garden, which helps those who may be bored or having difficulty in focusing.  Once we have begun gardening, and experienced the satisfaction of seeing plants grow under our hands, even a brief visit to the garden stimulates the urge to pull a weed, deadhead a faded blossom, or move a misplaced specimen to a better spot.

Gardens are valuable tools for many special purposes; many gardeners find them therapeutic on all occasions.

More

The American Horticultural Therapy Association provides its definitions and positions regarding therapeutic gardening.

The American Society of Landscape Architects offers an interesting essay, “The Therapeutic Garden— A Definition.”

Pinterest (which collects photos on various topics from many sources has several unorganized groups on topics related to therapeutic gardens. A search on “horticultural therapy ideas” yields this collection, which demonstrates the wide range of ideas that people associate with “horticultural therapy.”

 

Plants for Rock Gardens

Many different plants could be included in a rock garden. The usual design approach limits plant selection to low-growing varieties, but this is not a necessary constraint.

A brief study of the vegetation on a naturally occurring rocky landscape would help in designing a realistic rock garden for a residential landscape.

Some travel could be required to locate one or more good examples; this could be a pleasant weekend excursion with a clear purpose, especially if one knows where to find rocky landscapes. Ask around!

Once found, rocky landscapes might include one or more trees of various sizes, as well as shrubs and smaller plants. Clearly, proximity to rocks does not limit the size of plants.

A rock Garden in July

A late July scene in the rock garden of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden; photo by Todd Boland.

The assumption that rock garden plants should be low-growing specimens probably relates to alpine gardens, which have inspired many rock gardens. Alpine gardens feature plants that grow naturally in high-altitude, mountainous areas, which typically have large stones and much gravel, low temperatures, low moisture, and poor soil nutrition. Plants that survive under such conditions might very well be small in overall size and low growing.

Developing an authentic alpine garden, however, involves reproducing the challenging conditions in which alpine plants are found. There are alpine varieties of some familiar garden varieties, e.g., Campanula, Dianthus, Geranium, Phlox, Primula, Ranunculus, Sedum, Sisyrinchium, Thyme. If such plants were to be grown in a moderate climate, in rich soil and with ample moisture, they would respond with more lush growth and greater size than they would in a true alpine garden.

Rock gardens should not be confused with alpine gardens. In fact, rocky landscapes can and do occur in a wide range of climates, with the only common characteristic being exposed rocks. So, in planting a rock garden, the gardener should first select plants that will thrive in the local environment. The Monterey Bay area’s climate supports a wide range of choices.

The rock garden designer still might want to emphasize low growing plants to keep the vegetation in scale with the surrounding landscape and the rock garden itself, and to keep the rocks visible (they might have required a significant investment).

Another consideration is the relationship of the plants to each other. This perspective might lead to developing a plant community, i.e., a grouping of plants that grow together in nature. Other possibilities include a thematic approach, e.g., a white garden or an analogous or complementary color scheme. In our moderate local climate, the designer also might plan for year-round seasonal color, or for interesting contrasts of foliage or structure.

There are many possibilities, but the most successful and satisfying landscape plans always are based on a plan of some description, rather than a series of impulsive decisions.

More

Alpine Garden Society – Plants –This is a thoroughly amazing website, a vast treasure trove of images and information about alpine plants. At the site, click on “AGS Encyclopedia” then on either “Families,” “Genera,” Species,” or “Authors” for encyclopedic information. (I found “Genera” most useful.)

sizedClass-1-second_SAXIFRAGA PANICULATA_Class1-1_ MANNLICHEN, BERNESE OBERLAND, SWITZERLAND JUNE 201228882

 

The image above came from Images/Photographic Competition/Previous Winners/AGS Photographic Competition, 2012 – Winners

The website invites—and requires—exploration to discover its many riches.

North American Rock Garden Society – Another good source of plant images and descriptions. Not as extensive as the Alpine Garden Society’s website, but helpful as an introduction to rock garden plants. At the site, click on “Plants” for the entry to lists and images.

Rock Gardens & Ground Covers A page of unorganized photos submitted to Pinterest. Interesting to scroll through, to see some very good plant pictures, some attractive designs (more or less naturalistic) and some truly bad designs (but that’s one person’s opinion).

Scottish Rock Garden Club – This website provides free access to many back issues of The International Rock Gardener, an excellent publication.

Rock Gardening

Garden renovation projects might include mounds to add visual interest in an otherwise flat terrain, and also to provide drainage and other benefits of raised beds. A particular form of the garden mound is the rock garden, based on a natural or simulated outcrop of rocks.

An outcrop could occur in a flat area, but are most common—and look most realistic when created—on a slope, where erosion over time would have exposed the underling rock formation. If your property includes an area that has a slope of ten degrees or more, and full exposure to the sun, you have a good site for a rock garden. Never mind if it lacks rocks: they can be trucked in from a stone yard.

Lacking a sloped area, the gardener could develop a rock garden on a mound, and should not be reluctant to do so, but should avoid the look of “a dog’s grave,” which results when an isolated bump is placed in a lawn. A mounded rock garden will have a naturalistic appearance when is has substantial size appropriate to the setting, and a backdrop of shrubs, trees, wall or hills.

Another contributor to a natural look is a scree boundary. The base of a natural rock outcrop often will have a loose accumulation of smaller stones and rock chips, called “scree.” So, where sufficient space is available, include a scree bed about two feet wide between the rock garden and the adjacent lawn or pathway. The scree bed should have a foundation of about eight inches of scree compost (1 part topsoil, 1 part compost, 3 parts gravel). An edging would help to contain the stones.

Acquiring and placing rocks will be the most expensive, strenuous and aesthetically challenging part of the project. Here are recommended guidelines:

  • Use one kind of stone, preferably one that occurs naturally in the area. Traditionally, rock gardens use limestone or sandstone, but in the Monterey Bay area Sonoma fieldstone, an igneous rock (basalt or rhyolite), is widely available and popular.
  • Commit to the project. Include boulders (stones too large for one person to move) even though they can be difficult to place in desired positions.
  • Contract with the stone yard deliver materials to as close as possible to their eventual location.
  • Position stones for a natural appearance: larger stones will be uphill of smaller stones; some stones might be close to other stones.
  • Bury stones one-third to one-half of their vertical dimension. Stones rarely are found atop the soil.

A rock garden is just one use of stones in garden design. Stones are also used for walls, borders of beds, walkways or patios. All such uses can be attractive in the garden, partly because of the contrast between the surfaces of stones and plants. Recognize, however, the differences between naturalistic rock gardens and these other uses, in which stones are used as building materials.

More

20 Fabulous Rock Garden Design Ideas —from Decoist.com. These images show fine designs that demonstrate a variety of uses of rocks in the landscape. Not all designs could be called naturalistic.

 

Rock Garden Ideas — 112 images of rock gardens, ranging from naturalistic designs to “whimsical” ideas. Test yourself on whether these designs follow or violate the five design guidelines listed in this article.

Alpine Garden Society – This society is based in the British Isles, where rock gardens first became popular. Gardeners in the United States have developed many rock gardens, but not with the enthusiastic commitment evident in England.

The Rock Garden – Very good how-to article by Alan Grainger, with sufficient information to guide a novice project.  Visit the website, The Alpine Garden for many related garden and plant photos, book reviews and other resources.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens A large and varied place, designed for visits (not so much for web browsing). This could be the most highly developed public rock garden in the United States.

How to Build Rock Gardens From About.com – This website illustrates a “rockery,” a garden design that is based on rocks, but which does not pretend to a natural look. This might also be called a “dog’s grave.”

A New Food Labeling Faceoff

The California Senate Health Committee recently approved Senate Bill 1381, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. This action is triggering new flows of facts and opinions by interest groups.

This bill renews the long-running debate between consumer groups and pesticide corporations and large-scale food producers. Californians for GE Food Labeling, representing many consumer groups, claims that grocery shoppers need to know what they are buying. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing the food industry, claims that labeling GE foods would be expensive and misleading.

This debate dates from 1992, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GE foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally grown foods and therefore do not require labeling.

Ten years later, Congress created the National Organic Program (NOP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NOP ruled that GE foods do not meet NOP standards and could not be labeled as “organic.”

According to SB 1381, more than 90% of members of the public want labeling of GE foods. Maine and Connecticut have passed limited laws requiring GE food labeling, and 20 other states are considering similar laws. Voters in California and Washington have considered GE food labeling measures, but the food industry waged massive campaigns opposing the measures and both failed by very small margins.

Sixty-four countries already have laws mandating labeling of GE foods.

Two other Senate committees—Agriculture and Judiciary—will debate SB 1381before the full Senate votes on it. While the bill moves through the California Senate, the California Assembly could consider a similar bill. Both bodies would have to agree on some version of this legislation before it could become law in California. This process could be lengthy, with vigorous arguments for and against.

At the federal level, a year ago, Senator Barbara Boxer and many co-signers introduced The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, but it hasn’t advanced at all.

The FDA has proposed regulatory guidelines for voluntary labeling of GE foods. Consumer groups have dismissed this approach as not helpful.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently recommended federal legislation that would allow voluntary labeling of GE foods, allow describing them as “natural,” and preempt state laws that have different requirements.

Meanwhile, grocery shoppers could either buy only certified organic foods, or simply ignore the issue. Home gardeners could buy seeds from “Safe Seed Pledge” companies (listed by The Council for Responsible Genetics) and grow their own non-GE foods.

Food policies have become complicated!

More to come.

Some Garden Thugs You Want Around

A weed is simply a plant growing in the wrong place, while a garden thug is a plant spreading without apparent limit, and overwhelming other plants it encounters. Garden thugs could well be landscape assets, given freedom to expand. Here are three examples from my South African succulent bed.

Thug #1: Aloe maculata (Soap Aloe)

Aloe-maculata-Soap-Aloe

Some 550 recognized species are included in the genus Aloe. One of them, the Soap Aloe (its sap makes a soapy lather in water) is among the most popular Aloe species in California gardens. The plant forms a rosette about a foot wide, made of pointed fleshy leaves about eight inches long. In the spring it sends up a two-foot long stalk topped by orange-red flowers in a flat-topped cluster called a raceme. So far, so good, but it also sends underground suckers that soon create a dense colony. I lifted ten plants for this month’s garden exchange, then put another eight in the green waste.

Related species in my garden include A. arborescens (Torch Aloe), also a vigorous grower; A. plicatilis (Fan Aloe), a slow-growing small tree; and A. ‘Christmas Carol’  (hybrid), a smaller plant with vibrant red colors in the leaves. In this group, Soap Aloe is the real thug.

Thug #2: Senecio mandraliscae (Blue Finger)

Senecio mandraliscae

Senecio is one of the largest genera of flowering plants, with about 1,250 species that present many amazing forms. Blue Finger, which might be a hybrid, grows twelve-to-eighteen inches tall, with numerous four-inch long blue-gray leaves shaped like fat bean pods. It produces uninteresting white flowers in summer but the foliage is the main attraction. The leaves will drop easily from the plant, and root to form new plants. The spreading stems also quickly establish roots.

A nice-looking succulent plant and a welcome addition to the garden, but one that needs regular whacking to keep it within bounds. My other Senecios are S. rowleyanus (String-of-Pearls) (showing the variability of this genus) and S. haworthii (Wooly Senecio). There could be other thugs in this large genus, but Blue Finger certainly qualifies.

Thug #3: Cotyledon orbiculata (Pig’s Ear, Paddle Plant)

Cotyledon-LSCotyledon-CU

This striking succulent has gray-green fleshy leaves with red margins, and coral red, bell-shaped flowers on stalks in early spring. The leaves grow on stout branches growing any way other than straight. This attractive plant spreads over time, and is considered invasive in some parts of the world. The plant has medicinal uses, but its leaves are said to be toxic to livestock, poultry and dogs. It works well in containers, which might well be the best place for this plant.

These vigorous plants will prove you have a green thumb, but they require control.

Garden Priorities for March

Despite our current, most welcome rains, we remain below the normal precipitation level for this time of the year and water conservation in the landscape continues to be important.

Conserving Water

For long-term conservation, plant California native plants or other drought-tolerant plants from the world’s Mediterranean climates. Succulent plants are increasingly popular for this reason, and for their varied forms, textures and colors, and low maintenance needs. (Desert conditions are not ideal for succulents: all need some water and quick drainage, and many enjoy partial shade.)

Shorter-term water conservation strategies include composting and mulching to retain water, using drip irrigation for efficiency, selecting vegetable varieties for low water requirements, eliminating seasonal weeds to reduce competition for scarce water, and irrigating only when plants need water. See “More” (below) for water conservation tips from Master Gardeners.

Fertilizing

Garden priorities for March include fertilizing trees, shrubs and perennials when they begin to show new growth.

For roses, give each plant two cups of a balanced fertilizer, i.e., 10-10-10 or 12-12-12, plus a quarter-cup of Epsom salts, two cups of alfalfa, and a half-cup of rock phosphate or bone meal.

There are differing views for fertilizing some plants. With bearded irises, for example, some growers recommend just a generous handful of a balanced fertilizer for each plant; others advocate low-nitrogen fertilizer, e.g., 6-10-10, plus bone meal and superphosphate. (The thinking is that adding more nitrogen could encourage root problems.)

Pruning

March is a good time for pruning still-dormant trees and shrubs, following recommendations for each plant. Here are examples from my garden:

Thin a large Wild Mock-orange (Philadelphus lewisii) by cutting about one-third of the larger branches to the base of the plant.

Shape a large Milkflower Cotoneaster (C. lacteus) by removing old, unproductive limbs and spindly branches, and generally lifting the canopy to provide more sunlight to the understory.

Renew Salvias by cutting old growth to the ground when the plants begin to show early spring growth. Another shrub that responds well to this treatment is the Tree Daisy (Montanoa grandiflora), from Mexico, which can grow up to ten feet high in one season. This annual treatment might seem drastic but the plants otherwise will become scraggly.

A good book on pruning is The American Horticultural Society’s huge “A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants” (Revised edition, 2004), which briefly describes thirteen pruning categories and indicates which to use for each of 15,000 plants.

More

A thorough presentation on conserving water in the garden: “Guidelines for Managing Drought in the Urban Landscape,” was developed by Sonoma County Master Gardeners Susan Foley, Phyllis Turrill and Jerilynn Jenderseck, with input from Mimi Enright, Sonoma County Master Gardener Program Coordinator and Paul Vossen, UCCE Sonoma/ Marin Farm Advisor. (February 2014)

The following paragraphs, also from the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, provide brief recommendations for water conservation in the garden.

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.