It’s going to be a long, hot summer, which means water conservation is more important than ever. In fact, in states such as California, homeowners are facing strict water restrictions. But your precious cherry tomato, pepper, and cucumber plants need water to thrive. What’s a gardener to do?
“Remember that water is a valuable resource, so we don’t want to waste any of it. We want to apply just enough so that vegetables thrive and are productive without being wasteful,” says Cindy Haynes, professor in horticulture and CELT faculty fellow at Iowa State University. “Vegetables will need more water during the growing season than some other plants, but they may not need it every day.”
When first creating your vegetable garden, experts recommend planting garden plants closer together to maximize garden space and minimize wasted water. They also recommend referring to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for more information on your plant’s water needs.
Additionally, here are a few smart ways to keep your vegetable garden thriving while also using the bare minimum amount of water.
1. Mulch the soil
Mulch is any organic material that covers the soil’s surface. The most common types of mulch are wood chips, leaves, and grass clippings.
“Straw or leaves are also great solutions that are readily available for cheap or free in most places,” says Roslynn McCann, sustainable communities extension specialist at Utah State University Moab.
Many people tend to throw their leaves away, she says, but leaves provide nutrients to the soil when applied as a mulch layer.
“An inch or two of an organic mulch, straw, shredded newspaper, composted grass clippings can do a wonderful job at conserving moisture so you don’t have to water as often,” says Haynes. “Mulch also does a great job of preventing weed competition for water and nutrients so you don’t have to hand-weed as often.”
2. Build a dense layer of compost
Composting is a natural way of recycling organic matter—like leaves and food scraps—into fertilizer that can benefit soil and plants.
“No matter what the environment is, blending the soil with compost, natural fertilizers, and then covering with mulch will help plants thrive with minimal water usage,” says Joe Raboine, director of residential hardscapes with Belgard. “The compost and mulch will break down and also foster healthy bacteria/microorganisms in the natural soil biome.”
3. Water only when needed
“Some soils will hold on to more water than others. Therefore, you might not need to water as often,” says Haynes. “Check the soil, and if the top inch or two is dry, then it might be time to water.”
And make sure to water between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., recommends Bob Westerfield, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension consumer horticulturist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Watering during this time frame will minimize evaporation that will happen if you water during the day.
And be thorough with your watering technique. The key is to penetrate the soil 4 inches deep or so. Water only the roots, not the leaves, since it’s the roots that absorb water.
“Water on the leaves is often wasteful—it usually evaporates—and can help spread disease,” says Haynes. “Sometimes, this means using a soaker hose or drip irrigation to water larger areas. This could also mean just doing a better job when hand-watering the root system and avoiding getting the leaves wet.”
4. Use drip irrigation
Drip irrigation provides small quantities of water and helps conserve soil nutrients and minimize water waste.
Chris Gorne, aka the Plant Dr. on Thumbtack, says a drip system is the best method for saving water while caring for your vegetable garden.
“These systems can help you save up to 90% of water when compared to a standard sprinkler system,” says Gorne. “A drip system waters directly to the plant’s roots, which results in overall stronger growth.”
The typical drip system puts out about 0.9 gallons of water per hour, Gorne says. That’s significantly less than a standard sprinkler system, which puts out about 30 gallons of water per hour.
“Some folks also use 1-gallon milk jugs filled with water and a few holes punched in the bottom. Kind of a minidrip system,” says Westerfield.
5. Capture rainwater
It might seem a bit old-fashioned, but collecting rainwater provides a valuable resource you can use on your crops.
“Consider collecting water in a rain barrel or something similar,” says Haynes. “Then you have a great and free water resource—even if you only have enough to water vegetables in containers.”
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