Despite all the heated back and forth surrounding climate change, as to who or what the catalyst may be, it is quite clear there are changes afoot. Temperatures are trending upward, severe weather is more frequent and rainfall patterns are proving erratic. No matter where on the political debate you hang your hat, changes are impacting us all and adapting to this new normal is the only thing that will ease the transition.
Warming trends lead to far-reaching changes, changes not just limited to the weather. Rainfall patterns shift, or change altogether, which extends already fearsome wildfire seasons. Shifts in temperature and rainfall alter plant growth, growth patterns on which many insects’ life cycles revolve. Plants may blossom earlier or later causing significant problems for pollinating insects, for the food crops they pollinate and the people those crops feed. These changes also allow pest populations to spread further and cycle through multiple generations that would normally have been restrained by the onset of colder, seasonal temperatures. But with warmer nights, warmer winters, shifts in rain and snowfall reducing water resources normally stored and released from seasonal snowpacks, water availability becomes the immediate concern.
For homesteaders, reduced water supplies directly impact food production, the food grown in family gardens they rely upon year round. This raises the question, What is the key to adapting to less water?
When it comes to drought adaptive gardening, soil is the first place to start. Go organic. Supplement soils, for both in ground and planter growing, with organic material. This can be from home-brewed compost comprised of anything from kitchen scraps, yard clippings, leaves to even newspaper. Or there are a plethora of commercially available soil options at local nurseries. The important takeaway here is organics absorb and retain water better. Organic soil also provides garden plants with plenty of nutrients for strong growth which goes a long way to help them survive changing conditions.
In addition, to the organic material incorporated into the soil use mulch on the surface. Composed of organic ingredients like straw, dry leaves, grass clippings, shredded bark or newspaper, mulch is spread around and over plants. A three to four-inch layer will aid with water retention, insulating the soil and roots, and reduces weeds which compete for water and nutrients.
Another adaptive strategy is to choose plants wisely. Focus on drought tolerant plants like squash, peppers, chard, eggplants, arugula, dry beans and artichokes. Avoid, carrots, onions, green beans, lettuce and melons as they require more water than other vegetable crops.
What about watering? Traditional over the top watering tends to be wasteful and inefficient while hastening runoff. Consider installing a drip irrigation system. Such a system can be as extensive as running piping just under the surface aligned with planting rows to laying tubes in and around swaths of the garden. But the concept is the same with either version you decide on. Water slowly drips out-diffusing through the soil using 30-50% less water than traditional, over the top watering. Additionally, this watering strategy reduces disease common with over watering, reduces watering time, problems with weeds and slows erosion from runoff.
The catch-all term for repurposed water is gray water, which is any water that comes from sinks, showers, washing machines as opposed to “black water” or water that comes in contact with feces including toilet water and what is used to clean diapers. Now as for household gray water, what can it be used for? In drought conditions or simply to use water more sustainably, gray water is a viable option for irrigation. This method saves money through the reuse of what has already come out of the tap. During a drought, capturing and using gray water is about the most effective way to utilize all the water piped into your home.
Often there is concern about gray water safety. This is not water you can drink. It is waste water from your home associated with cleaning. Whatever is used for household cleaning will be dissolved in the gray water. This includes chemicals used for cleaning countertops, the soap used to wash in the shower and the detergent used to wash clothes, many of which are not friendly to plants. Bleach, dyes, salts, soaps with ingredients that leave you tongue-tied and products with borax are toxic to plants. Many laundry detergents are sodium-based, as well. Sodium will keep seeds from sprouting and ruin the structure of clay soils. Switching to products with natural or biodegradable ingredients will make more household gray water safe and available for irrigation.
Gray water is safe for watering lawns, ornamental plants, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. But gray water may contain bacteria so avoid using it directly on fruits or vegetables that will be eaten raw (apples, plums, turnips, onions for salads). It can be used to water fruit trees but don’t spray or water from the tops of plants.
Even with the outlined exceptions and precautions, gray water will repurpose a significant amount of household water that would normally flow down the drain. It reduces the volume of water sent for treatment to public sewage facilities or strain on home septic tanks. You will become acutely aware of your personal water usage and encourage the use of nontoxic products. And most importantly in times of drought which may well become the new normal, gray water use will reduce the drain on natural aquifers already strained from overuse.