The Water-Wise Vegetable Garden

Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/james_mann/">James Mann</a>/Flickr/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">Creative Commons</a>
Photo by James Mann/Flickr/Creative Commons

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

Last week, we wrote about the drought-tolerant herb garden as an alternative for water-conscious gardeners that still want a beautiful, edible garden. And while herbs can go a long way in the kitchen, they can't really compare to harvesting a salad right in your yard or bringing in a basket of beans for dinner that night.

While there isn't a truly drought-tolerant vegetable garden (if you actually want a good yield), there is the water-wise vegetable garden.

What does it mean to be water wise? It's a way of being mindful of our limited resource and making the best use of it for our needs. It's a simple fact that vegetable gardens require moderate to ample amounts of water, especially in the dog days of summer. But if it's planned wisely, a productive vegetable garden can still be had even when it hasn't rained a lick all season — you just have to take proactive measures.

It Starts With the Soil

Gardening is not about growing plants. It's about growing soil. Rich, healthy, nitrogen-rich soil helps trap moisture, improve aeration, boost microbial activity, and feed your plants, which in turn feed you all season long.

Few people in Southern California are blessed with the perfect blend of sandy loam that vegetables thrive in. Most of our soil is either too sandy (causing water to drain too quickly) or too clay-ey (causing plants to be waterlogged as they sit in heavy soil).

At the beginning of every season, amend your soil (whether you plant directly in the ground or in raised beds) with well-rotted compost before you plant and lay down at least 3 inches of organic mulch after you plant. Apply an organic fertilizer (such as compost tea, liquid kelp, fish emulsion, or an all-purpose mix designed for vegetables) throughout the season as needed.

Be vigilant about weeding (unless you plan to eat the weeds!), as weeds steal valuable moisture from the soil.

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Irrigate Wisely

Avoid setting sprinklers on your garden, which are often wasteful as the water runs off away from the plants, and can promote fungal diseases as the moisture hangs on the leaves and spreads spores through the air.

Water your garden by hand or install ground-level irrigation (like soaker hoses or drip systems), which puts the water where it's needed — right in the soil. Try to plant vegetables with similar water needs together: shallow-rooted plants (like leafy greens) need frequent stints of surface watering, while deep-rooted plants (like tomatoes) benefit from long, deep watering just once a week.

The University of California has more water-saving tips on irrigating a garden during the drought.

Plant for Maximum Production

Make the most of your garden by choosing prolific varieties of plants that will yield the biggest harvest for your water usage. That means forgoing space hogs like broccoli and cauliflower, which can span over 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall but produce only one major head per plant at the end of the season. Instead, go for summer squash and winter squash (a single plant will produce enough squash to feed you and your neighbors), indeterminate tomatoes (whose vines can grow several feet long and give you bushels of sumptuous fruit), cut-and-come-again crops like kale and chard (which you can pick all season long), and vegetables that are generally expensive to buy organic (like peppers, which often grow quicker than can you use them all).

Beans, peas, and cucumbers are all good examples of vegetables with hearty yields from just a few plants. Root vegetables like radishes and beets go the extra mile as you can harvest a handful of leaves each week while the bulb is growing underground.

If you plant wisely and mulch well, you can have a productive garden during the drought and, well, eat it too.

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