With drought and heat everywhere, many gardens are suffering. Towns are restricting or banning watering with hoses or irrigation, and suddenly gardeners find themselves in a new world. It is very likely that this is going to be the shape of the future for gardens, so what to do? There are many useful strategies to help your garden, so let’s take a look – all is not lost.
Divert Household Water
Every day gallons of water that could be growing your garden is instead going right down the drain – literally. Plants enjoy the water from showers, baths and washing machines, in fact some kinds of soaps work as fertilizers, and soap helps water penetrate deeper and moisten the ground faster, because soap reduces the surface tension of the water. This ‘gray’ water is especially useful for watering trees, shrub beds and lawns, but be careful what you put onto vegetables and fruit, to be sure not to contaminate something you will later be eating.
The simplest way to divert this water is to use a hosepipe to siphon out your bathtub after using it. Anchor one end of the hose in the tub, take it out through the window and down to the ground. As long as the bottom of the tub is higher than the soil, once water begins to flow through it, the whole tub will drain. You can get it started by filling the hose with water from either end. Or you can suck hard at the bottom until it begins to flow. There are also a range of simple hand or electric gadgets, some run with your drill – check out the internet to see what is available if sucking isn’t your thing.
If you can have your bathroom and laundry room drainage diverted into the garden permanently, then you can access many gallons of water to keep your garden going indefinitely – it’s a worthwhile small investment. Make sure you have a valve in there, so you can turn it on or off. Just don’t divert the toilet or kitchen sink, for obvious reasons, or your dishwasher, which can release harmful chemicals. Avoid diverting any bleach cycles too, or washes of diapers or other soiled items.
Check with your city to make sure they don’t have restrictions on which kinds of gray water must be put into the sewers – rule vary.
Mulch – and then Mulch Again
I know, everyone says this, but guys, it really works. Just about anything placed over the soil will reduce direct evaporation from the surface, which can be more than the water lost through plants – called transpiration. In the vegetable garden you can anchor paper over the roots, or use plastic sheeting. In the landscaped garden that probably isn’t acceptable, but there are lots of alternatives.
What about Landscape Fabric?
A popular practice by landscapers is to put landscape fabric over the soil, and then use a decorative mulch, live gravel or bark to hide the fabric. While this is a quick and easy method, and does conserve water, it has some serious drawbacks.
The main problem is that despite the promises, weed seed will germinate in the mulch, or the soil beneath the fabric, and penetrate the fabric. Grasses in particular can be a big problem, because once this happens you cannot remove them. Over time they spread, and become a bigger and bigger problem. So avoid doing this, if you can.
The second problem is that you are doing nothing for your soil. Organic material of any kind increases the capacity of the soil to hold water when it is available, instead of losing into drainage. That means more water available for longer, shortening periods of drought, and so reducing their impact.
The third problem is that it takes a lot of continuous rain to penetrate the mulch and the fabric, so a lot of water that may fall is wasted, and doesn’t get to the plant routes.
So we don’t recommend landscape fabric under mulch, and we don’t recommend gravels and barks, although gravel mulches are fine with some plants that like good drainage, like collections of dwarf evergreens, or rock garden plants.
Take the Organic Route
The best mulch is organic, and something that will decay into the soil in time. Here are some possibilities, with pros and cons.
- Peat Moss – popular as a mulch at one time, as well as for potting, this is not a good product from an environmental viewpoint, as it is extracted from peat bogs, areas rich in plant and animal life and biodiversity. Anyway, as mulch it breaks down too quickly, and needs renewing, and it is very low in nutrients, so doesn’t help your soil much. It is good for acid-loving plants, though, as it helps lower the pH.
- Rotted Leaves – a great material, as even slow-rotting leaves of broad-leaf evergreens will rot eventually, and for mulch you want a long-lasting material. All those fall leaves you collect can be kept. Invest in a shredder – some blowers will do it – or run the mower over the pile a couple of times. Once broken up you can spread this directly onto beds, and it will conserve moisture and gradually rot down into the earth, turning poor soil into rich, water-retaining soil that is also well-drained.
- Compost – if you aren’t already making compost, you should be. When you cut down perennials, take our annual flowers, or empty pots and boxes, the plant pieces can be piled up and will rot down into garden gold. You can add vegetable scraps from the garden, and other things too. For details on compost making, see this post, or this one, which is even more detailed, with everything you need to know.
- Manures – if you have access to a farm, you are very lucky. Animal manures from stables or cow yards, once left to rot for a while, are the best mulch of all.
- Bark chips – although widely used, these are not good options, as they take too long to break down and if they become mixed with the soil – which they will – the rob it of nutrients while slowly decomposing. Shredded bark is OK, and best if it has be composted before use.
- Other materials – all sorts of things, from rotted sawdust to the nuts from cocoa making can be available – it really doesn’t matter what you use, as long as it rots down in a few years.
Apply mulch to a depth of at about 2 inches. Don’t overdo it, as you will lose the benefit of light rain and thunderstorms if that water has to wet a thick layer of mulch before it reaches the soil. In cooler areas, mulching in spring is best, once the soil has warmed a bit, or some plants will be slow to get started. If you only have time in fall, do it then. In warmer areas you can mulch in spring or fall, but do it before hot weather arrives, or the soil will already have lost much of its water.
Create a Xeric Garden
If you live in an area where water shortages and dry summer are rapidly becoming the norm, then consider transitioning your garden into a Xeric, or Water-wise garden. This involves changing the plants you grow to a selection of drought-resistant plants. Many of these come from Mediterranean countries, where summer are always long, hot and dry. Some great plants, from lavender to olive trees, can make a fabulous garden that will survive in extreme conditions. There are of course also cactus and succulents for the driest places. Take a look at this previous post on gardening this way, and this one for some plant ideas.