Late last week I received in the mail a Stage 1 Water Alert for my area. This was not unexpected. It has been ridiculously dry here and despite the few weeks of intense winter snow storms, the snow pack was negligible. The key restrictions for stage 1 are as follows:
No new in-ground planting
Outdoor watering restricted to 2 days/week between the hours of 6pm and 9am
The bad news is that due to unseasonably cold weather, I did not have a chance to plant my veggie garden before I got this message. The good news is two-fold. First, I did not have a chance to plant my veggie garden before I got the message, which means I won’t have to watch it whither and die. Second, it specifies in-ground, which means I can probably still plant a few more things in pots. Probably only a couple though. This is only stage 1, and none of us out here can see it getting any wetter.
We all know the old saying: “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” But what happens when the corporations take that one step too far, fishing the oceans and rivers to near extinction? And what does any of it have to do with gardening?
Two things, actually. The first, is that the big fishing question is just one more component of a much larger food security coin that growing our own food at home can help to address. The second, is the growing movement known as aquaponics.
Aquaponics is basically a hybrid of aquaculture and hydroponics, comprised of fish tanks and garden troughs. The waste from the fish fertilizes the plants. The plants purify the water for the fish. And because it all happens in a closed, water-conserving system, aquaponics is especially interesting for low-rain areas such as our high-desert. I hope to be learning and posting a lot more about aquaponics in the near future, but in the mean time, check out these videos from two companies dedicated to growing aquaponic culture, Friendly Aquaponics in Hawaii and Colorado Aquaponics in Denver.
Looking at my pictures you may be wondering why I plant everything in containers when I have that nice big piece of dirt just past the concrete patio. After all, planting in the ground conserves and retains water, gives plants more root-growing room, and in general leads to healthier, stronger plants. My reasons are three-fold:
I rent, and when it comes time to move, it’s much easier to take my plants with me if I don’t have to dig them out of the ground
I am not the first to rent, which means I have absolutely no idea what may or may not have been poured into the ground by previous tenants
My apartment is built on landfill and no matter how good the topsoil is that they imported, there’s no way to know what lies beneath, and with food crops, I’d just rather not risk it
This past weekend I went to a lecture given by Golden Gate Gardening author Pam Pierce. The event was part of a promotional tour for the launch of her third edition and focused on sustainable food gardening, specifically, creating a water-wise vegetable garden. Here are just a few of the tips she provided:
Group plants by water use: This allows you to spend valuable water (and the money it costs) only on the plants that really need it and helps prevent over-watering
Amend the soil with compost: The more organic matter in the soil, the better it retains water.
Mulch: Mulching helps prevent evaporation and keeps the soil cooler in hot weather.
Choose your plants wisely: Don’t waste money and water on edibles that end up rotting on the vine. Plant only what you will harvest and eat or share. My tip: Consider choosing smaller, less heavy producers or fewer plants if you can’t keep up with the harvest on something you really love.
And the last one for my fellow temperate climate gardeners: Take advantage of the rainy season by planting, for example, California spring veggies or bareroot trees in February so nature will do the watering for you for several months allowing your plants grow strong roots and first leaves.
In the addition to the great ideas she provides, she also brought a basket full of fruits, veggies, edible flowers and herbs she’d just collected or taken from storage including chard, salad greens, nasturtiums, oca, apples and Bolivian sun root (she even shared the last two). It’s amazing how much food even the smallest garden can provide year-round with the right choices, a little planning and some good storage. And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, pick up an updated copy of her amazing book. She has made significant revisions including new zone planting guides for San Jose/Santa Clara and Walnut Creek/Contra Costa and a ton more information on sustainable gardening practices.
In case you’re interested, the event was sponsored by the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA — a gorgeous dry garden planted on 4.5 acres of a former walnut farm. Planted mostly with succulents, cacti and South American and Australian natives, the garden is stunningly architectural and features a number of endangered and seriously endangered plants including a bristlecone pine. The garden is now protected by a conservancy and serves as an educational institution as well. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth checking out.
One simple way to save water, time and sometimes even your plants is with a self-watering container, but commercial versions can cost a ton of money. California gardener Ray Newstead has a solution for that: build your own.
Ray’s innovative EarthTainer(TM) design uses rubber storage bins, a plastic aquatic plant basket, and PVC pipe to create the perfect solution for growing great heirloom tomatoes, but could be used for other vegetables as well.