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One of the more hotly contested debates in the world of science today concerns global weather change. This used to be called the global warming debate but no one appeared able to agree on the title so that too had to be argued over and then changed. From a non scientist’s view point the debate seems to hinge around whether climate patterns are changing due to man’s constant burning of fossil fuels or if this is just a naturally occurring cyclical event.
There does seem to be a broader consensus that droughts are going to continue to increase in both number and severity over the coming century. NASA even predicts an eighty percent chance of a mega drought taking place if we continue on our present emissions producing trajectory.
No matter which side of the argument you err on, it is important that we all start to pay more attention to our water consumption and recognize that water has become a commodity and is no longer a free resource. There are many areas of our day to day lives where water can be conserved. For example, 10,000 litres of water is needed to produce 1 kilogram of cotton and a whopping 15,000 litres to produce a kilogram of beef. Beer by contrast requires a mere 150 litres to produce a whole pint. Logic tells me therefore, if we became vegetarians and drank more beer we would be doing wonders for the planet, especially if we did this whilst naked.
With my miniscule intellect and complete lack of scientific wherewithal I am not going to enter the whole global warming/weather change debate but am instead going to restrict myself to the subject of saving water in the garden. Put bluntly, we gardeners are mean. It is almost built into our DNA. What is more this is one of our character traits we should be applauding, not apologizing for. Most of the gardeners I know are highly adept at recycling yogurt pots for planting seedlings, turning used pantyhose into tree ties and scrounging soft wood cuttings from their neighbors. We don’t expect our tools to break after a few months but do expect every seedling we ever plant to reach a flourishing maturity.
Having honed these money saving habits why would we then allow free water to run off our roofs into a drainage system and from there down stream to a waiting water supply company, only to have then have it pumped back to us and sold at a profit. No matter what your view point is on the change in weather patterns I am fairly confident that you have some concerns about the contents of your wallet.
CATCH IT WHILE YOU CAN.
One of the best places to start in terms of water conservation is at its source. By trapping rain water off the roofs of our houses and sheds we can reduce our garden water bills by between twenty and fifty percent. Fitting water barrels to down pipes is a relatively simple and low cost operation that soon pays dividends but one which is often neglected. Another area in which we can manage the water that drops onto out gardens is by managing run off. Most paths and drive ways are made of hard material such as concrete and are designed to run the water into the street. By redirecting that water to flow into our beds we not only save water but reduce the pressure placed on the drainage system of whatever town or city deals with that run off. You may also want to think about softer, more permeable materials for hard areas. Gravel and wood chips can often be used just as effectively and the water will then seep back into your garden. In many European cities it now requires a permit to build a hard surfaced parking area for exactly this reason.
DON’T BE MEAN WITH THE MULCH
Mulch is another area of water conservation that we tend to neglect or underutilize. There are dozens of different materials with which we can mulch our beds ranging from stone chips and pebbles through to porous plastic membranes. They all have their place but for the true tight fisted, deep pocketed gardener like me you can’t beat plain old home made garden compost. A layer of compost does wonders at reducing moisture loss whilst bulking up our soils at the same time. Richer soils lead to better moisture retention so you get an overall long term benefit and to put the final cherry on the cake, mulching reduces weed growth. Forget those old adages about mulching only in spring and autumn. Go ahead and mulch whenever you can see the garden needs it.
CHOOSE PLANTS WISELY
Native plants are more accepting of the local conditions they will face and will generally need less water. For those more thirsty plants that you simply cannot live without, try planting in clusters so that you can target them more specifically when watering and for even more ease, plant them near to your water source. When choosing plants, indigenous or exotic, it is a good idea to do some research before you buy. The size of a plant when mature is important even if it won’t reach maturity for some time. I know how tempting it is to walk out of a nursery with a large and quick growing shrub knowing that it will rapidly fill that bare space that has been bothering you for months. I also know what it is like to have to take a pruning saw to some shrub that is just a few years old and has already outgrown its welcome. Don’t buy plants that are going to get bigger than you want them to be when they reach final maturity. Sooner or later you will find yourself in the unenviable position of having to remove them or provide more water than they justify.
WHEN TO WATER
This section always seems so self explanatory that I would hesitate to put it in at all were it not for the fact that I so often drive down the road in the middle of the day and see sprinklers generously throwing out gallons of water that for the most part will be lost to evaporation. It is always preferable to water during the cool of the day and best if done early in the morning. Some plants are susceptible to mildew if their foliage remains wet over night. Trees and large shrubs can be surrounded by berms which is a rather fancy name for a donut shaped moat of raised soil around the base of the stem. When filled this slowly trickles water down to the roots and prevents it from running to where it is less needed.
PLANTING IN POTS
Pots can bring focal points and structure to large gardens and in really small garden such as those on balconies they may be the only way to grow plants at all. Potted plants require more water than they would if planted directly in the ground especially if they are made of porous material such as terracotta. There are numerous tricks to help retain moisture ranging from painting the insides of permeable containers with water proof paint to using water retentive cubes and crystals. For the less generous gardener not wishing to risk shoving his hand too deeply into his pocket there is the option of placing a disposable diaper in the bottom of each of his larger pots and a sponge in the smaller ones. The water is soon sucked up and then released much more gradually.
Like it or not, droughts and water shortages are going to start playing a bigger part in many of our lives and we don’t have to look much further than California and much of the American West to see how difficult things may become. This certainly does not mean an end to attractive gardens. It just means that a different approach is required.