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Drought Watering: Home to Garden

August 07, 2015

In the mid-1970s I won second place in a drought watering solutions contest at my Willits, California middle school; the first place winner was a much better artist than I. My idea-rich poster is long gone, but many of the lessons I learned as a kid growing up in drought have become a way of life for me, particularly in this year’s record-breaking Seattle hot and dry streak. If you’re struggling to keep your garden watered and  keep your water bill from breaking the bank, consider these creative ways to use “waste water.”

drought stressed sedum

Even drought-hardy sedums like this need a drink in times of high heat & low rainfall, but they’re less likely to croak than many other plants when grown in hot, dry situations.

Morning showers bring evening flowers!

If you haven’t already, start by changing out your shower heads and faucets to low flow models that can save you many gallons each time you turn on a faucet. Of course, showering with a buddy and not showering everyday (or multiple times a day) can really cut down on water use too. And, baths are lovely, but what a lot of water those use!

bucket in shower capturing for drought watering

Keep a bucket in your shower to capture clean water that otherwise just goes down the drain.

If you don’t already have a bucket with a spout, buy one and keep it in your shower or tub. When you turn on the faucet to heat your morning shower, capture those otherwise wasted gallons into your bucket. In our household of two adults, we at least fill one bucket this way each morning, which in turn fills a couple of watering cans for garden plants and bird baths! Or, within a couple of days we’ve added a few buckets of this water to our galvanized tub for a cooling foot bath or a doggie bath. And, if you’re taking baths rather than showers, use a siphon or scoop up most of the dirtied bathwater into your bucket to pour into a tree gator or onto the base of a thirsty shrub or tree. Just be sure you’re using biodegradable soaps in your tub.


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Dishwater makes great gardening water too!

Consider keeping a couple of tubs or bowls in your kitchen sink. One filled with soapy water for washing; the other filled with clear water for rinsing. Again, use a biodegradable soap. When the dishes are done, or as the water gets to that point where it needs to be refreshed for cleaning, pour it into your garden! Just be sure it isn’t filled with chunks of stuff that will attract unwanted critters to your garden beds.

And, before the dishwater comes the cooking & cleaning water…

boiled egg in water for drought watering

Save water from boiling eggs & pasta or from blanching & canning. Cool it watering with it!

Don’t pour another pot of pasta, blanching or boiling water down the drain. Either use a slotted spoon to extract your cooked goods, or place your colander in a large bowl to capture the water as it drains from your cooked food. Who knows? That egg boiling water may even have some calcium from the shells that’ll help your crops suffering blossom end rot – just let the water cool before pouring it on your plants!

And, if you’re washing veggies, fill a bowl or tub with water for soaking and scrubbing rather than letting the faucet pour water down the drain as you clean your crops. When you’re done washing, empty the tub of silty water back into your garden.

Washing machine water for your thirsty garden?

Capturing the water from your machines that wash laundry and dishes can be a little trickier. But, as my friend Dave, aka “Riggy,” has shown, it can be done, and it’s worth the effort. Dave’s family of four does a lot of laundry, so much in fact that when he ran the washing machine grey water hose out a nearby window where it would flow into a long-emptied rain barrel, he realized his family would fill that barrel at least twice a week.

laundry overflow hose into rain barrel

Here’s Dave’s laundry overflow hose ready to pour water into his rain barrel for use in an ornamental bed rather than on edible plants. (Image courtesy Dave “Riggy” Haavik)

They take care to use bio-friendly soaps and wash only when they have a full load, but with a sports-oriented family with teens, full loads happen quite a lot. While Dave hasn’t managed to run his dishwasher brown water into a capture system, that’s another option if you have the access and wherewithal.

How often should I be watering my garden to keep it alive?

That’s a question we’re getting almost daily, and while we’d love to give you a magic formula that works for every garden in every location every day of the year, there just really isn’t one. Instead, be sure your garden is well mulched before things dry out completely. Then, stay in touch with your garden by sticking your finger into the soil where roots live. Sometimes soil looks dry on the top or wet on the top when exactly the opposite is true down in the root zone. And, keeping the roots moist is key. Another way to stay tuned into your plants: watch them for curling, shriveled leaves. If that happens, give’m a drink. And, give them that drink early in the morning or late in the evening after the major heat has passed for the day.

wilting cucumber plant

Cucumber wilting in mid-afternoon direct sunlight. Wilting in this situation is a natural response, but it also means the plant has slowed fruit production too!

Keep in mind that some plants, like hydrangeas and cucumbers, will wilt in high heat and direct sunlight; no amount of watering during these wilts will immediately turn them around. However, come evening, plants like these almost always bounce back. Simply put: what we see as a wilted plant is really a plant that’s closed down its food-making factory in the heat of the day. And, many plants can withstand long periods of drought even if they shrivel and curl up or begin to show signs of autumn as early as July or August. Not sure what’s going on with your particular plant? Get in touch for help!

What can I do for the future?

Capturing and retaining water on site may be the next big thing you want to invest in. If you don’t have rain barrels, get them. You’ll tap them out fast as soon as seasonal rains stop and your watering schedule ramps up each year. But, that’s when you site them to capture waste water from your washing machine and buckets of water from your shower. And, if you haven’t looked into a cistern or bladder system, give us a shout to set up an appointment to evaluate your unique opportunities.

Plan to get your beds well mulched during fall clean up. This is a great time to lay down a thick layer of protective chips that will help hold and meter out the water throughout the year.

Katsura fall leaves in July

If your trees can’t handle the drought & are turning fall colors & dropping leaves in mid-summer like this Katsura, perhaps its time to consider trees more able to withstand the long, hot, dry periods climate change may bring. Trees defoliating early under stress doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll die. Many mature trees can withstand stresses like these for several years before giving up the ghost, so you don’t need to immediately rip them out & replace’m.

Rethinking the plants you install might be wise as well. Where thirsty annuals pooped out this year, try adding water-conserving sedums instead. Have hydrangeas that spent the summer sucking up water and looking like the end is near anyway? Maybe it’s time to try something like a Ceanothus or manzanita instead. And, of course, if you’ve given up dumping water on your lawn to no avail and you’re sick of crunching along on a time-sucking golden brown lawn dotted with flowering tap root weeds, there are any number of ways to rethink your space with any number of materials — including a permeable patio that never needs to be watered, even in a drought.

Now that I’ve written this up, I realize that quite a bit of what I learned in my youth for my drought project has stuck with me. I’ll admit that over the years I’ve slacked off on some of these suggestions, but growing up in the 1970s hippie culture of showering with a buddy, making rain capturing containers out of cooking oil barrels, and mellowing yellow in the toilet really did ingrain conservation in my imperfect heart and soul.

-Robin

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