Edible Landscapes In Low-Water Environments



Victory gardens have always provided a way for gardeners to keep their minds and hands busy while making a productive contribution to the war effort. Since mid-1999, Americans have been under emotional, economic, terrorist and environmental bombardment.

First came the uncertainty of the millennial New Year, then the collapse of the ". coms," followed by the terrorist attacks of 9-11-2001, and throughout the Southwest, forest fires and drought have taken their toll.


Small fruit trees benefiting from downspout runoff in a rocky swail.

A therapeutic remedy might just be found in nurturing our soil and bodies by growing at least a small percentage of what we eat.

In light of the recent passage of the updated water ordinance by the Payson Town Council, however, water conservation measures surely will become a way of life in the Rim country.

Is it possible to conserve water and grow vegetables too? A little research into the subject, observation of nature and Yankee ingenuity can provide us with plenty of tools to get us going. As most gardeners are conservative by nature, the leap into water saving edible landscape shouldn't be too hard to make.

With water running everywhere we look this week, the first step is to observe how rainwater and snow melt run over the land. By modifying the contour of the gardening area, water can be channeled to exactly the place it is needed, and allowed to pool in shallow depressions. Water harvesting swails, or little mini creeks, beginning under downspouts and meandering through a planted area can slow the water down to allow absorption as well as provide an aesthetic feature to the hard-scape.

Rethinking the design of vegetable gardening, from square beds with raised rows to a meandering and terraced landscape surrounding the house will allow the home gardener to use rainwater runoff in an efficient way. Captured rain and snow melt in barrels placed under downspouts can be used at a later date, by hand dipping, or installing a spigot and hose connection at the bottom of the barrel.

Recycled water is an almost untapped source of additional water for the home gardener. By capturing clean sink and shower water while waiting for the hot water to get to the tap, several gallons of water each week that would otherwise run down the drain can be used to hand water fruits and vegetable.

Grey water systems designed to fit the individual home and garden can use washing machine and shower water, but not dish water as it could contain grease and food particles. Grey water should not be applied to edible plant parts, and should never be sprayed or allowed to puddle. Do not water root crops such as potatoes, radishes, or carrots with grey water.

Improvement of the moisture-holding capabilities of the soil and minimizing evaporation are integral to low-water use vegetable gardening. Working plenty of well-rotted compost into the planting hole, and layering 3 to 4 inches of organic mulch around the base of the plant will protect roots from drying out, and keep the soil cool. As the mulch breaks down, it becomes the compost for next year.

Installing a drip system for watering between rainstorms and captured water availability will ensure minimal evaporation and a way to measure the amount of water applied. Micro-sprayers and misters should be avoided due to the high evaporation rate, and their inability to deliver water to the root zone of the plant. Automatic systems should be outfitted with a water miser to prevent turning on during rainfall.

A rain gauge installed in the vegetable garden will indicate how much rain has fallen, and how much, if any supplemental irrigation is necessary. Xeriscape water references indicate that no more than 1 inch per week of water should be necessary to grow a garden in this climate zone. This figure takes into account the moisture holding quality of the soil, and the use of plenty of mulch. One inch of water for a vegetable garden 12 feet by 12 feet amounts to about 360 gallons per month.

Europeans frequently plant large-leafed vegetables, such as zucchini squash in fruit tree wells. As trees are watered, the vegetable roots benefit and as they grow, shade the tree roots to keep them cool. Many vegetables benefit from full sun morning to midday, and cool afternoon shade, so placement on the east or north side of a building, or where large trees will shade them in the afternoon is helpful.

Some seed catalogs will indicate the drought-tolerant capabilities of plants. Seeds of Change can be found at www.seedsofchange.com, which gives the water requirements of every seed in the catalog.

Another technique that is proven to be helpful, is to cut the bottom out of a plastic plant pot one gallon or larger based on the overall size of the plant to be grown. Plant seeds or seedlings in a compost mixture of garden soil, place drip emitter in pot, and cover with mulch. If a drip system is not available, water can be directed to the plant root zone by placing a plastic jug with a hole punched in the bottom next to the plant. Periodically fill the jug with water, which will slowly drip from the jug and be absorbed by the soil.

The Payson Water Department has information on grey water safety, rain water harvesting, emergency water storage and other devices available to help gardeners save water, free for the asking.

As soon as the soil is workable, seeds of cool season vegetables such as beets, carrots and turnips as well as lettuce, onions, and peas and can be sown directly into the ground. Be sure to dig in a few inches of well-rotted manure or compost before planting. Many varieties of drought-tolerant wildflowers will germinate in cold wet soil and can be scattered as soon as the snow is melted. Try lupine, annual coreopsis and native asters.

There will be a boulder-setting workshop at the High Country demonstration garden at Gila County Community College at 1 p.m., March 15.

Call Linda Nannizzi at 474-5354 for details.

Barb Bourscheidt is a longtime resident of Payson, a member of the Rim Area Gardeners and a participant in the Gila County Master Gardener program. She serves on the board of directors of the High Country Xeriscape Council of Arizona, and she researches and writes articles on the subject of water conservation through creative landscaping and climate-appropriate gardening techniques.

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