With drought officially declared across Washington and nearly half of Oregon, gardeners throughout the Northwest are feeling understandably sheepish whenever their neighbors spy them waving the water wand over their precious plants (see our PEMCO Poll on top drought concerns). Not since 2005 has Washington seen a statewide drought declaration.
Fortunately, now as then, there's no need to swap your vegetable patch for an Arizona-style rock garden! These water-wise tips from local garden gurus, Mother Earth News, and familyhandyman.com can keep Northwest Profile No. 52, P-Patch People, up to their green thumbs in zucchini – minus any water-wasting guilt.
Mulch more. Soil rich in organic matter holds water better. Add compost – grass clippings, leaves, and other organic matter – to the soil before you plant.
Don't water the weeds. Yes, we know weeding is no one's favorite chore. But not only do weeds crowd out the plants you want, they also compete for water. To get an unruly weed patch under control, pluck for 20 minutes every day and then stop. The short burst will save you from feeling overwhelmed (not to mention straining your back) and when you stick to it, you'll soon see results in healthier plants, less water consumption, and a prettier P-patch.
Water only where it's needed. Swap out sprinklers (notorious for watering sidewalks and driveways) for drip lines and soaker hoses. They slowly seep water right at the plants' roots and work especially well for straight rows on level ground. Since the holes in the hose are tiny, they sometimes can get clogged with soil, so you'll want to check periodically for dry patches in the garden.
Try milk jug reservoirs. Here's how to keep a steady water supply for plants like beans and peppers that you tend to plant in groupings. Fill a gallon plastic milk jug with water and freeze it. Then, drill tiny holes into the jug and bury it in the ground with the neck sticking out. Plant your seedlings around it, and keep topping off the water reservoir as the plants drink.
Consider a sunken garden. Make the most of summer rainfall (however scant) and provide a berm of shade around plants' roots. In two- or three-foot squares, excavate soil into ridges along planting areas (envision a giant dirt waffle) and scatter seeds in the depressions of the waffle. Those depressions will hold water better than a completely flat planting area.
Build your own rain barrel. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, consider building a rain barrel out of a plastic garbage can to collect precious rainfall from your downspouts. Among the basics you'll need: a heavy-duty garbage can, PVC pipe, valves, caulk, screens, and lumber for a base to elevate the barrel (putting gravity on your side to give you some water pressure). You'll also want to choose solid, level ground on which to construct your stand. Water is heavy and you don't want the barrel toppling over on anyone. Link to familyhandyman.com for the how-to's.
Do you have some winning water-wise tips of your own? Please pass them along! We may be able to share them in our online summer tips.