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Does It Make Sense to Grow Your Own Food During the Drought?

Watch the California Matters episode about UC Santa Cruz Farm, a pioneering, organic farm that's benefiting an entire community.

In light of California's mandatory 25% water cutbacks, many gardeners are wondering how they can conserve at home while keeping their gardens green — and we're not just talking about lawns and landscaping.

Vegetable gardens need a fair amount of water to thrive in the summer, so is it still possible to plant our favorite tomatoes, peppers, and melons when we're told to restrict our water consumption everywhere else?

The answer is yes — but we have to be smart about it. It takes far less water and energy to grow a tomato in our own backyards (or front yards or even newly legal parkways) than it is to produce the same tomato on a farm and transport it to a supermarket. (Hooray for local food!)

To reap maximum yield with a minimum of resources, follow these six water-saving tips for vegetable gardening when times are dry:

1. Place plants with similar water needs together.
Shallow-rooted plants like lettuce and sweet corn need a lot of water, while tomatoes and squash establish deep root systems that can draw moisture from below, even after the soil surface is dry. If Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage are part of your edible garden, plant them together, as these perennials are drought-tolerant.

2. Put your potted plants in the ground.
Though it may not be possible for everyone, if you have the space, you should get your plants in the ground. Container plants dry out more quickly due to evaporation, especially if they're grown in clay pots instead of plastic pots. They generally need watering when the first inch of soil feels dry, while in-ground plants only need watering when the first four inches feel dry. For small space dwellers, you can reduce your container garden's water needs by increasing the size of the containers; more soil means more water retention.

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3. Amend your soil before and after the planting season.
Amending your soil with compost improves its texture and increases water retention. This ensures the water you give it will actually go to your crops, rather than draining too quickly (as with sandy soil) or water-logging the plants (as with clay soil). Before planting, spread a layer of compost (at least three to four inches thick) over your garden bed, turn it into your existing soil with a fork or shovel, and water it in thoroughly.

4. Make it a point to mulch.
A layer of organic mulch like straw or shredded bark can cut your water use dramatically by reducing evaporation and run-off. It also keeps weeds down, which can take water away from your vegetables. Don't forget to mulch your containers as well.

5. Irrigate wisely.
Instead of sprinklers, opt to install soaker hoses or drip irrigation to water your vegetable beds. They deliver water right where it's needed (at the roots) and reduce the chances of water loss through evaporation and wind drift. Irrigate your garden in the early morning hours, when the soil has time to absorb all the water before the midday sun hits it, and irrigate for longer durations (at less frequent intervals) to encourage healthier roots that develop deeper into the soil.

6. Grow only what you'll actually eat.
If you end up composting most of what you have, that's a lot of water wasted in growing that vegetable. Plant only what you like to eat or what you're excited to try. If you can't keep up with the harvest, donate your excess to a food pantry (you can find your nearest one on a site like Ample Harvest), participate in a crop swap with your neighbors, or even sell what you can't use (through a site like Ripe Near Me).

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