Growing up in England, water was not metered, but it was treated as a precious resource. We used it sparingly and often used grey water for the garden because it was thought to be a waste to use drinking water for that purpose. When I moved to the California, which was already having some difficulties with water shortages, nobody really seemed to respect it. Sprinklers running everywhere, swimming pools, large gold courses…
Cost and value, especially when applied to water are not the same thing. I have often seen it said that the next major war will be about water. Even on a more local level, every summer there seem to be a growing number of disputes about water rights, pitting farming communities against urban populations.
Drought in Oceanside
Here is Oceanside, Oregon, we receive approximately 100″ of rain a year. In the first couple of years of gardening, I felt that I didn’t have to worry about water. I very quickly learned how wrong that was. I now consider that I live in a fairly extreme drought biome and that the first thing I have to consider with any new planting is the amount of water they require and when.
The drought comes from two primary factors. The first is that almost all of that rain comes between October and May with very little in the other months. This year has been one of extremes and we went from June through to the middle of October with only a few small rain events. The second is that when you have soil that is so free draining, in my case almost pure sand, very little water is retained by the soil. The first reaction may be to add organic matter, but that is not sustainable long term. I could never add enough to really make a difference. Instead, I started to think about plants differently and to evaluate if their water needs were worth it or not.
Another problem with sand is that when it becomes dry, it become hydrophobic. This means that water will run off rather than into it. That calls for some different watering requirements and methods.
Some types of irrigation, like overhead sprinklers waste a large amount of the water through drift and evaporation. Plus, water applied at a surface level can actually damage plants over time. It encourages surface roots and then if exposed to any kind of drought will die because they do not have a good root system that would enable them to find water at much greater depths of the soil.
Drip irrigation works better but is still something I consider to be a luxury for my plants. There is only one area of the garden where I do this. That makes it possible for me to grow a few plants with lush green, large foliage which I would otherwise have to do without. The goal is that for the vast majority of plants, they will receive regular hand watering during their first year but after that they are on their own. The possible exception is a deep watering if they are really showing real signs of distress. Plants that make a habit of this are unlikely to tolerated for too long. This is why I increasingly use Mediterranean plants, including those from Australia and South Africa. While many of them are difficult to find here, the hunt is worth it.
Planning for the future
Allowing water to go to waste in any manner is not sustainable. That includes water which is taken off the property and into storm drains. It is much better to find a way to keep that water on premises. Storage allows water to be applied later. Or just to let it drain into the soil in-situ where it may be held underground and potentially where some roots can get to it. Water is part of the ecosystem and some studies have shown that it can also help to control soil temperature.
While I do have a couple of rain barrels, it is nowhere close to enough. Next year I will likely be putting in a new staircase down the other side of the property. One thought is to place tanks all the way down under the stairs. This would make use of the dead space, and capturing more of the water from the roof of the house. It will certainly make construction more difficult, but will allow more of the water put on the garden not to come from a tap. If anyone has any other thoughts on ways to save water, I would love to hear them.