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!!!!!!!! Reduce your garden's watering needs  RSS feed

 
gardener
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Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
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Russet potato grown with no supplemental watering in woodchips

Do you want to reduce how much you water your garden?

Do you wish you could water your garden less? Even if you enjoy watering I'm sure there are other gardening tasks you could do with the time you would save. Or just sit back, relax, and observe the abundance of your awesome low water garden.

In my blog post 5 Ways to Transform Your Garden into a Low Water Garden I cover 5 methods you can use to work with nature so nature does the watering for you.

The methods are:

- Stop tilling your soil
- Garden with perennials
- Use mulch
- Block summer winds
- Create late-afternoon shade

In this post I'm going to discuss 1 of these methods and also talk about how soil holds water.

One method the blog post does not talk about is creating what is known as a hugelkulture bed (buried wood beds). These are great for reducing your water needs but for this post I'm focusing on what you can do to make an existing garden a low water garden.

You might be saying to yourself - Daron you live in the rainy Pacific Northwest, of course you don't need to water! It is true it rains a lot here but it all comes in the fall/winter. In 2018 over the course of May, June, July, August, and September my homestead got less than 1.5 inches of rain.

Despite only getting 1.5 inches of rain over 5 months, I only watered my garden twice in May just to get seedlings established. Otherwise I never watered and still got great harvests including those potatoes in the top pic.

If you live in a hotter and drier region you may not be able to stop watering but you can still reduce the amount of watering your garden needs by using these methods.

Are you ready to learn how to start transforming your garden into a low water garden? Let's get started!

Storing Water in the Soil



Healthy soil contains organic matter, (pieces of dead plants and animals, plus the millions of microbes, fungal networks, and bacteria that thrive in healthy soil) that increase the water-holding capacity of the soil. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), every 1% increase in organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available water per acre.

So how does that translate to your garden?

It roughly means that for every 1% increase in organic matter in your soil you get the equivalent of 1 week of recommend watering (1" of water over the surface of your garden tends to be the go to recommendation).

If your soil had 4% organic matter you would have a full month worth of water stored in the soil! That is awesome!

These are rough numbers, but I'm using them to give you an idea of how much benefit you can get from increasing the organic matter content of your soil.

The key for the methods I outline in my blog post is to increase the organic content of your soil (no-till, and mulch), reduce the amount of water needed (Garden with perennials), and reduce evaporation of water from the soil (block summer winds, create late-afternoon shade).

Block Summer Winds


My new hedgerow during its first year that will one day be 15 feet tall providing privacy, wildlife habitat and block the summer winds.

Air moving over your garden can dramatically increase how fast your soil dries out. It is the same reason that a hair drier works so well - the heat is part of it but the moving air is critical.

Great for drying your hair, but bad for your garden.

But you can block at least some of the wind if you plant taller plants as a screen around your garden. If you are worried about getting too much shade from the screen then just move it further away from your garden. If you plant in the right spot, the summer sun is high enough that it will still reach your garden but the winds will be deflected up and over the garden.

To help figure out how far away the wind screen should be planted I recommend using this free tool: SunCalc.org

You can use SunCalc to figure out how far a shadow will reach for any object (just enter the height in meters) for any day and time. Makes it really easy to plan where to plant your wind screen or where to put a green house to make sure you still get winter sun.

There is also an app version you can download for you phone but I have not tried it yet.

You might be wondering what should you plant in your wind screen?

There are multiple options depending on what you like the best. You could go with a bunch of semi-dwarf fruit trees with some shrubs at the base to get a nice full screen. I decided to plant a bunch of native shrubs and trees that will get no taller than 20 feet to form a nice wind screen.

The native plants will also support a wide range of beneficial insects and birds that will help keep pests down in my garden.

Another option is to plant some taller vegetables like orach or climbing beans in the beds that the winds tend to hit first. These would also function as a wind screen though not quite as effective as planting trees or shrubs.

What ideas for wind screens do you have? Leave a comment below with what you would plant in a wind screen around your garden.

What Do You Think?


This young hedgerow is planted on the west side of my property. It will provide privacy and late-afternoon shade once it grows taller.

I would love to hear from you! Please leave a comment in this thread and don't forget to check out my blog post that this thread was based on. If you are one of the first to leave a comment you might even get a surprise in the form of pie or apples

The blog post covers the other 4 methods I mentioned in this post to help you reduce the amount of watering your garden needs. There is also a cheat-sheet you can signup to get on the blog to help you get started today.

Thank you!
 
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What a great post Daron, Thank you for taking the time to post this information.

I would only add about the water retention in soil;
One of the things the USDA didn't really delve into about the organic matter content was how deep should organic matter go (below the soil surface) to get the maximum benefit of held water.
If you have any slope at all, once the water has traveled down past the organic materials it still has to go somewhere, usually it will find a barrier (could be rock or clay) layer and from that point it follows gravity.
This is how most springs are formed, and for those of us concerned with water both flow and holding it into our soil for plant availability, it is necessary to understand the mechanism of spring formation.

Why is this important to know? because if you did have that 4% organic material you mentioned and it was concentrated in the top 8 inches what happens to the water that continues past that top 8 inches?
If you practice total No-Till and want to increase your organic matter content you are not going to get your additions any deeper than that top 8 inches, it just isn't going to happen.
What will happen is that the "humus", that wonderful total break down of organic matter into small molecule sized bits which creates long term benefits to water retention, microbiome health, soil crumble (tilth) and worm attractant, will be what leaches deeper.
While this is truly awesome for soil building, it takes time for it to occur, which is why you can find quite a lot of writing about One Time Tilling.
True it is that you can get the same results but it will take far longer than if we help it along that first time, This isn't something you want to do even once per year, just that first time, and you want to be putting as much organic matter down deep as you can.
If you should be able to put that 4% organic matter from surface to 12 inches deep, then as the humus forms (it's a liquid) it will seep even deeper, giving your soil far more space to hold all the water the extra organic matter allows it to hold.

You can add organic matter strictly by planting deep rooting plants, then these have to decay and you are going to need to grow these plants for at least 3 years to get enough material down deep.
Daikon radish is well known for being able to put down roots up to 4 feet deep, but most don't mention that for the plant to be able to grow those super deep roots the soil has to be friable at least half of that depth.
I tried daikon in one area that had only 6 inches of "top soil" then came the second horizon which was heavy clay, the daikon put down radish root to a depth of 14 inches for the growing season (April thru October).
In another area, which had 8 inches of "top soil" followed by a loosened clay second horizon the daikon roots went down 28 inches for the same growing season.
My No-Till test area produced daikon of 10 inches long. This area has never been tilled, only mulched and cover crops that have deep roots (daikon, rape, alfalfa, crimson clover, buckwheat are the crops being tested in this area).

Redhawk
 
Daron Williams
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Thank you very much for your comment - I'm happy that you enjoyed it

You make a very good point about one time tilling and using that to get organic matter down deeper in the soil. I really like the idea of using deep rooted plants but I also get that if you have compacted soil it will be hard to get the same benefit.

When you did your tests with Daikon radish did you leave the radish plants in the ground to rot? I'm also curious - do you think they would grow deeper overtime if you planted them say each year for 5 years? I'm wondering if you start with poor compacted soil how long growing deep rooted plants would take to see noticeable changes to the soil below 8 inches.

Perhaps I will have to write a new post later on about using deep rooted plants to get the organic material down deeper. Would you mind if I take a quote from your comment and use it if I do write such a post in the future? I would link back to your comment and of course give you credit. I have a document with future blog post ideas and I think this could be a great topic.

Thanks for your great comment!
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I've done three years of cover crops, including daikon every spring, all of the plants are chopped and dropped in the fall. In the three years I've managed to move the second horizon down to 18 inches in the no till test area, it started out with a 4 inch first horizon.
The daikon and rape have done a good job of pushing the second horizon down and those first year radishes have completely decomposed now (end of third year).

Feel free to use any of the information I've posted in my soil threads.

Redhawk
 
Daron Williams
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That is awesome - thank you!
 
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:In the three years I've managed to move the second horizon down to 18 inches in the no till test area, it started out with a 4 inch first horizon.



That is incredibly encouraging!
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Oops, I should have mentioned that I plant very intensively and then use scissors to thin (very early chop and drop) so the deep root plants are about 4 inches apart.
If the plant tops I cut off make a comeback, I leave them alone, since they obviously are determined to grow.
This year I tried to pull one of the daikon at mid growing season, I failed to get it to come out of the ground but did end up with a bunch of radish greens in my hands.
 
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Very cool sun/shade calculator. Never seen one quite like that before. A fun new toy to play with during winter. Thanks.
 
Daron Williams
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Mike Barkley wrote:Very cool sun/shade calculator. Never seen one quite like that before. A fun new toy to play with during winter. Thanks.



You're welcome! Hope it proves useful!
 
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