As farmers in California fallow more and more acreage, and water restrictions come to us in the cities, there are a lot of things that can be done to keep urban gardens going.
#1. Compost Everything. The best thing you can do to help your soil hold moisture is to mix it with composted organic matter. So no more tossing potato peels into the disposal. (Like you’ve got water to waste running the disposal anyway.) It is time to compost everything you can get your hands on. Food scraps, newspaper, junk mail, dryer lint, coffee grounds, egg cartons–the works. If it’s organic matter and it will break down, there’s a spot for it in the pile. And that pile needs to be in a shaded and/or covered spot where the sun and wind will steal as little of the moisture that goes into the pile as possible. Toss the dirtier grey water you should be saving from inside the house over it when you can but avoid adding soaps to the compost pile as they can inhibit the bacteria working their magic inside the pile. Build one pile and then start a second one while the first pile ‘cooks.’ As soon as it is ready, work it into the top layer of soil, just under your mulch layer.
#2. Mulch Everything. And I mean everything. Paths, empty patches where nothing is growing, all of it. Use a light-colored material if possible to keep the soil cooler. I started with a couple of truckloads of fruit tree chippings. Tree companies will dump them for you for the asking as it saves them paying to put them somewhere else. My entire yard is covered in a thick layer of this mulch that has been breaking down for a few years now. In the growing areas, I cover as much as I can with rice straw. It’s light-colored and it’s light-weight material that doesn’t compact the soil underneath and air still circulates well. And if it starts to break down too much, or if there is leftover straw that doesn’t get used, it goes right into the compost pile.
#3. Water Through the Soil–Not Through the Air. I use a combination of ollas and Plant Nanny wine bottle-style terracotta watering stakes to put moisture straight into the ground without spraying it through the air. This allows the soil to draw the water that it needs through the unglazed terracotta, so it’s never wasted. You can fill the ollas and wine bottles with grey water from the house and the clay will even provide a bit of filtering. And, if the top inch or even two of soil dries out, plant roots can still get water from the moist soil at the bottom of the ollas or Plant Nanny. I use brightly colored clay birds to top my ollas so that I can find them in the mulch to fill them again.
#4. Lower Raised Beds. If raised beds increase drainage and allow the soil to warm more quickly, well, that is exactly what we don’t want this year. In several spots in my garden I am growing in-between what would normally have been my beds. I took up the mulch from the paths between the raised beds, added compost and some of the nice fluffy soil from the taller beds, and planted in the low spots that used to be my paths creating ‘sunken beds.’ It is my theory that these will reduce drainage and slow the drying of the soil. I laid wide stones on the raised bed section so that I can walk on them with minimal compaction and go back to growing in them for the Rainy Season, should we get to have one this year.
#5. Start All Your Seeds Inside and Transplant. I know beans and squash and melons don’t care for being transplanted, but it is so much more efficient to water a small flat or a tray of seed starts than it is to water a whole bed with only a dozen or so plants coming up in it. And the even temperature and protection from wind inside the house will also help. I move peas and beans outside as soon as they have true leaves because their roots quickly extend through the bottom of even my deepest redwood flats. Once you have seedlings outside and are watering anyway, you could seed some companion lettuce or other greens nearby to germinate in the moisture available from around the seedlings.
What are your plans for food gardening this year? Please share your drought-survival tips with us all in the Comments.