This shovel digs deeply enough to pop most hardpans, allowing access for water and roots. (Mary Lowther photo)

This shovel digs deeply enough to pop most hardpans, allowing access for water and roots. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Conserving water in the garden

There are many methods to reduce water use and requirement

By Mary Lowther

Although stage two watering restrictions are now in effect here, I am already watering at stage four levels because it’s better for the garden and easier on the gardener. I have also prepared my sandy soil to better retain water and prevent evaporation. Compost, manure, rotting cover crop and organic fertilizers feeds soil life which then feeds plants, absorbing water like a sponge and acting as a reservoir for future growth.

Hard pan is a layer of hard-packed soil several inches, maybe a foot, below the surface, a layer caused by heavy traffic, and is impenetrable by roots, preventing plants from accessing water below. To break up hard pan one can drag a heavy tiller through the soil or do it by hand: dig down with a deep shovel or heavy duty fork and pop a small portion of the hard pan. Move over a few inches and pop the next section and so on. This is a good chore to do in the spring when the soil is softer and easier to dig.

There are many methods to reduce water use and requirements. Plants evaporate water from the soil, so when there are fewer plants there’s less loss of ground water. Planting crops farther apart than recommended allows plants access to more water because they develop more extensive roots. Topping the ground with a mulch of any kind will also keep the soil cooler by reducing evaporation, but I wait until the hot, dry weather to apply the mulch because by then the slugs and sow bugs will have crawled away to more hospitable neighbourhoods and won’t return until fall.

Finally, I use soaker hoses connected to a timer set to water during the wee hours of the night. My timer has four outlets so I attach a hose to each outlet that is set to run for half an hour each, so the first one goes from 3 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., the second one from 3:30 a.m. to 4 a.m., etc. They are set to water every second day and if I had to reduce that to every third day, the plants might need a bit of thinning out to accommodate less available water. My beds are three feet wide and I run a soaker hose down the length of the bed, attaching another one at the end as needed. I haven’t labeled the hoses yet but once I get this new garden established I’ll have a better idea where the hoses should go so I don’t have to re-invent the wheel every summer, as it were.

I bought my first soaker hose 20 years ago, bought the rest over time and found that if I drain them, carefully wind them up in the fall and store them out of the elements, they last for years. Because I’m not watering the whole bed, weeds and plant-eating bugs don’t proliferate so there’s far less weeding and squishing of bugs too, which should allow the vegans to dine with a clear conscience.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.