The floating clouds of white dogwood, the appearance of dandelions in the lawn, the forty shades of green that make up JP’s lush landscape,– a gardener doesn’t need to look at a calendar to know that it’s time to begin. The birds know it – they are already patrolling backyards and plots in the community gardens looking for the tasty seeds gardeners are planting. So whether you are planning on growing herbs in a container, flowers to attract butterflies to your balcony or backyard, or a family size vegetable garden… it’s time!
Something we may need to consider in particular this year: the experts tell us that we may be in for a drought this summer. Which means we may want to change the way we garden.
John Lee and Helen Glotzer, gardening gurus of Allandale Farm, shared some water conservation wisdom with me. They pointed out that one of the best long-term ways to cut down on the amount of water you use on your outdoor space is to plant trees and shrubs. After the first couple of years, Helen explained, “well established shrubs and trees that are native to our part of New England can get along without any watering.”
But what about a window box? “Well, with a window box you are thinking annuals, and annuals usually take more water than perennials,” Helen admitted. “But there are options.” Helen led me to a table of the kind of salvia that is a perennial further south; in Boston we plant it as an annual. She explained that because these plants developed in the desert (southern Mexico), they are very sturdy in dry weather. (Note: And I’ve heard they attract butterflies.) While I was busy admiring the delicate blue flowers and lacy white ones, Helen added, “And if you really want to cut down on water use, you can learn to love succulents.”
John cut in: “Mulch, that’s the way to cut down on watering. All kinds of mulch -- bark mulch, compost, stone mulch... Just an inch does the job -- prevents the moisture from evaporating.”
“Not all kinds of mulch! It needs to be good quality mulch. There is a lot of terrible stuff out there,” warned Helen.
I asked about various polymers that can be incorporated into the soil to absorb water and then release it slowly, which prompted John to tell about the potted plants he keeps out of doors at his place in Vermont. He said the soil moisture polymers are in the soil in each pot at the beginning of the season; he starts out by giving the plants a good watering, and then returns to water them about every six weeks. That’s reduced watering!
This year almost every garden catalog is brimming with water-saving ideas: rain barrels to catch the run-off from your roof, self-watering containers, water retaining polymers in gels, crystals, mats, and cones. JP’s Boston Building Resources, the City of Boston go-to source for recycling, offers rain barrels and is hosting a workshop on Rainwater Harvesting on May 19 focused on small residential systems.
A really cheap way to keep moisture from evaporating in the garden without a large investment is to put four-sheet layers of newspaper down. Then you can cut holes in the newspapers for your plants, and add a thin layer of mulch on top to keep it from looking tacky. (Gardeners used to worry about the heavy metals in the inks, but for the last decade newspaper ink has been soy-based, so it is safe to use in compost or soils of edible plants.)
Some folks like to meditatively water their gardens, observing how the water sparkles and makes rainbows in the air and interesting patterns as it runs down the leaves. But watering in a drought means changing the way we do things. You need to consider what really needs water: not the air, not the leaves, but the roots.
Here is my personal testimonial to the efficacy of just watering the roots: One year I got ambitious and built big mounds to grow my green beans. It turns out that I could go to the community garden just once a week to water and harvest. While I was picking beans I stuck the hose deep into each mound before I turned on the water, and I let it run in each mound a good while. It may seem counter-intuitive to say running the water is good for water conservation, but the once-a-week deep watering used less water than I would have used in more frequent sprinklings, and it was certainly more effective. That year the bean plants would not stop producing – each week we picked another huge heavy tote bag full.
Of course that deep watering took a lot of time. An alternative for folks gardening at home (unlike community gardeners who have to share the hose) is putting drip irrigation or a soaker hose in place. The soaker hose “weeps” gently and continuously on the roots of plant; drip irrigation is a system with little watering devices mounted on the main hose for low-pressure watering of the roots of specific plants, so that you are not making water available to weeds inbetween your plants. You could even use that leaky hose from last season, with a hose cap at the end and little holes drilled or pierced into it. Soaker hoses can be buried a few inches deep to ensure that the water is getting to the roots and is not evaporating or running off somewhere. If you are making your own soaker, you have to make sure that there are not so many holes that the water has all run out before it gets to the last holes.
In any case, if you are not installing a soaker hose or drip irrigation, you will want to make your watering count by watering less often and more deeply in order to encourage the deep root growth that will help plants survive the drought. And if you are using a hose, you will want to use it early in the morning (to avoid the evaporation that comes when you water in the heat of the day and the fungi that may develop when the leaves are wet at night-time).
Here in JP we’ve been pretty lucky, avoiding the kind of water restrictions that many of our suburban neighbors have to deal with. When our family lived in California we had fierce restrictions on watering; we became inventive, and had a hose system rigged up that got our upstairs bathwater (“gray water”) out the bathroom window and down to the vegetable garden. We just tried not to think about what made the swiss chard so lush…
If you want to prioritize your water use, the most important things to water are new trees and shrubs and perennials – you’ve invested in them and once they are established they are going to pay you back for years to come! And you want to water vegetables that are flowering if you want to harvest from them. You probably don’t need to water the lawn, even if it turns brown and looks dead. It’s just hibernating. (Roger Swain, long-time red-suspendered host of PBS’ Victory Garden, had a standing bet that no one would be able to show him a New England lawn that died because of lack of water.) You can help your lawn grow deeper roots by watering it less often but more intensely and setting the mower bar higher.
If you are doing container gardening, you might want to consider self-irrigating containers. If you have already invested in pots that you want to make use of, some gardening outfits sell self-watering inserts that you can fit into your pots. Or if you’re starting from scratch, you can invest in Earth Boxes or their cheaper knock-offs, City Picker, Patio Picker, and other self-watering containers. (You can also make your own from online directions. After studying the diagrams online I was able to make an effective one in a five-gallon container myself a few years ago, so anyone should be able to do it!) You put water down a pipe into a separate reservoir on the bottom of the planter and soil wicks it up from there to the roots. A plastic cover around the base of the plants inhibits loss of moisture, so it uses water very efficiently. TIP: Be sure to check the drainage hole to make sure it doesn’t get clogged.
FAMILY-SIZE HARVESTS FROM YOUR YARD WITH A MINIMUM OF WATERING
One approach to gardening that promises to save 90 percent of the water usually used on a vegetable garden (as well as saving time, effort and space and increasing your harvest) is square foot gardening. Because plants are grown close together, there is less room for soil to dry out. This intensive growing method works anywhere, but it is especially valuable to urban growers with a limited amount of sunny space. (Note: you do need sun for a reasonable crop of vegetables: about 6 hours of sunshine for the leafy kind and 8 hours for fruiting veggies like beans and squash, and even more for tropical sun-lovers like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants).
Many Boston area gardeners use square foot gardening in raised beds. Raised beds can be placed anywhere; because they don’t rely on the site soil, they allow urban gardeners to grow food on rooftops or asphalt, even if the soil around their homes is contaminated with high levels of lead or is full of rubble just below the surface. Square foot gardening also allows folks to grow LOTS of food without a lot of watering (or weeding).
There are a few ways you can get started with square foot raised bed gardening. There are websites with instructions for building your raised bed yourself, complete with drip irrigation.
If you are not exactly sure how to proceed, you can consult with urban farmers such as JP’s YardBirds, who will talk you through the steps of putting your raised bed together, planning the garden that’s right for your household, and figuring out how to maintain it through the season. (The YardBirds are also looking forward to helping JP folks install garden extender systems to keep gardening late into the fall.)
The easiest way to enjoy the health benefits and water conservation of a raised bed full of vegetables in your yard is to call in the farmers from Green City Growers, who will install the raised bed you choose, and offer you a choice of maintenance plans. The GCG farmers can work with you – if you want – to teach you how to take care of the garden yourself. (Note: if you are insured with Harvard Pilgrim, you qualify for a hefty discount on raised bed garden installation and/or maintenance.)
You can watch the GCG’s work first hand in the coming weeks as they maintain the new raised bed vegetable gardens they have just installed at Ula Café at the Brewery here in JP. Ula’s is planning on growing all the herbs they need -- the dill for the egg salad, thyme for the basic vinaigrette, and cilantro for the guacamole in their best-selling turkey sandwich – as well as other fresh vegetables, according to owner Korinn Koslofsky.
Part of the motivation for the investment in the raised bed gardens comes from Koslofsky’s participation as a charter member of the Sustainable Business Leader program, which involves finding sustainable ways to solve the unique needs of different businesses. It involves tracking the business’ use of electricity, water and other resources. Having key ingredients grown locally in an energy-efficient and water-efficient manner is one way of reducing the cafe’s carbon footprint.
SPRING PERENNIAL DIVIDE (even though it doesn’t fit with the topic of saving water in the garden, it’s too good to leave out)
Finally, if you want to add some adventure to your garden, put Boston’s Annual Perennial Divide on your May 12 calendar. Here’s the deal: there are some perennials (plants that come back year after year) that expand over the years into a clump of roots; eventually the center of the clump suffocates and dies. So alert gardeners dig up the clump before it gets too dense and divide it into multiple plants. About 25 percent of the plants in the clump are replanted, and maybe another place is found for some of the rest of the clump. But often there are healthy plants left over; it seems a shame to just throw them in the compost heap.
That’s why the Spring Divide was started – to find a home for the plants that have been liberated from those overgrown clumps. After several years the event has morphed into a festival complete with music, face painting and low-cost compost and annuals. And free perennials. Be sure to have a good-sized container with you; you never know what plants you will be bringing home. The rhubarb plant I happened to bring home from the Divide years ago has become an integral part of the garden; we depend on it for the rhubarb pie we bake to celebrate our daughter’s April birthday each year. In fact, that rhubarb plant has gotten so big it’s time to divide it and take half to the Spring Divide.
It turns out that this year the Divide is the same day as Mayor Menino’s free tomato give-away; with careful planning you can pick up your free compact tomato at the beginning of the city event -- “while supplies last”, and still make it to the Spring Divide in time to pick up a plant you’ve never thought of growing.