Gardening is such an integral part of my life, that I can’t imagine not doing it. That’s why I cringe inside whenever I hear someone say, “If we have a drought and water restrictions this spring and summer, I just won’t plant my garden.” Drought and water restrictions may force us to act differently. It may even force us to do some things that we should have been doing anyway, but it should not stop us from gardening. In times of plenty (in this case plenty of water) most people tend to forget how to get by in lean times. Drought has been an unappealing but regular part of life all over the world for centuries. People have coped in all but the most prolonged and severe situations. We can cope now.
There are a few outright “no no’s”, and most of them are common sense. Unless we get a lot of rain in the next month to six weeks, this is not the time to put in large plants such as trees and shrubs. This is not the time to put down sod or reseed the lawn. This is also not the time to fill or turn on that lovely water feature in your garden.
Fortunately not doing those things will give you more time and energy for the things that you can do. Support your local garden center in this difficult year by buying bags of mulch. Mulch all your beds, and around your shrubs and trees. Do not let the mulch touch the bark of the trees, but spread it in a wide and deep circle over each tree’s root run. Mulch insulates against heat and helps the soil retain moisture. It also reduces the need for the hand watering that you will have to do when restrictions on hose use are imposed.
Now, about that hand watering… It sounds like the most tedious chore imaginable, but it is considerably less tedious than pulling out the desiccated skeletons of expensive perennials. Most gardeners know perfectly well which of their plants require a lot of water and which ones sip sparingly. Try to use “gray water”—water recycled from the shower, washing machine rinse cycle or dishwasher—for watering chores. It will not harm plants that are not on their last legs anyway. Soap residue in dishwater may even have a slight insecticidal effect on the leaves it touches.
To make things less burdensome, get two or three plastic wash buckets. Put them in the bathroom in a place where you won’t trip over them. When you or a family member take a shower, put a bucket in the tub or shower stall to catch rinse water. Keep the filled buckets on a towel or bathmat in the bathroom until you are ready to water. Fill your watering cans from the buckets. This sounds like a mess, but you can carry out the operation right in the tub or shower stall. Fill buckets or watering cans only full enough so that you can carry them comfortably. Water your plants, giving the water-loving specimens more frequent drinks.
Keep another bucket in the kitchen. When you run the dishwasher, put in one or two plastic cups or bowls, right side up to catch rinse water. You won’t get a lot, but it might be enough for a pot plant or two. If you can fill a bucket from the water discarded after your washing machine’s rinse cycle, do that as well.
You will be surprised at how much gray water you can save by using any one of the preceding techniques. As for the time it takes to hand water, consider it a mild form of aerobic exercise and combine it with what should be a normal daily pleasure—walking around your garden.
Plant selection plays a role too. If you are buying annuals, focus on things like California poppies, nasturtiums, marigolds and salvias that can get by on less water. Put in some drought-tolerant perennials such as lavender, perennial sages, coneflowers, yucca, artemisia, coreopsis, thyme, or rosemary. Read labels on seed packages. Saavy retailers will be stocking up on drought-tolerant plants, so it should be easy to find them. Even drought-tolerant plants need water to get them started, so be sure to “water in” new plants when they are installed, and hand water for about the first six weeks.
New Jersey residents can find out the latest about drought and water restrictions by logging onto www.njdrought.org, or calling 1/800/4ITSDRY. If you are calling from outside New Jersey (for New Jersey information), dial 1/609/633-0560.
If you are a vegetable gardener, you may want to narrow your focus to varieties that you really like and can’t find in local farmers’ markets. Buy strong transplants or start your own from seed indoors. Hand water as necessary. If hand watering with fresh water is allowed, save that water for the fruits and vegetables.
While you are wielding the watering can, you will have time to think about garden philosophy and the enduring value of conservation—even when shortages are not a fact of life. If you are a vegetable gardener, look to your tomatoes. Once they have set fruit, a little water restriction will help concentrate the flavor. The summer of 2002 may be terrible for petunias, impatiens and parched human beings , but wonderful for tomatoes and peppers.