Putting precious water to use in an edible garden
It’s a fact that kitchen gardens, food forests and homesteads are not eligible for the water agency conservation rebates that are offered for replacing a lawn with drought-tolerant plants. This is because growing food takes a lot of water. But are our victory gardens just a big fat water suck? Of course not. Growing food is a legitimate use of clean water, whereas flushing toilets with it is more than just a little questionable.
Just by applying smart water-saving practices to growing your food, you can buy less commercially grown produce that may have been grown with wasteful irrigation methods. And importantly, when you use conservation-minded watering practices and organic methods, home edible gardens help reduce runoff that pollutes our aquifers, waterways and ocean.
Unbelievably, as much as 75% of a household’s total water use during summer is in the landscape. Now, with spring rains long behind us, it is the time to lose your lawn and create a beautiful landscape that will feed your body and spirit for years to come. With a little care and planning, including harvesting rainwater and greywater (see related story on p. 58), maximizing efficiency with drip irrigation instead of sprinklers and by installing “smart” controllers, we can apply water more generously to our edibles without driving up our water bill or weighing on our conscience.
Here are some strategies for edible gardening that will help you make the most of your water.
Start by sheet mulching over the area of your lawn that you’d like to plant: In contrast to simply ripping out a lawn, covering a lawn over with “sheet mulch” can save time and energy and it puts the offending grass you’re replacing to work in building up the health of your garden’s soil as it decomposes. There are many good “recipes” for sheet mulching; the simplest is to cover your lawn with a few to several layers of cardboard or newsprint (go thicker if your lawn contains invasive weeds like bermudagrass). Overlap these well so that the lawn is completely covered, preventing sun from shining through. Next, spread an inch or more of compost over the area. Finally, cover the compost with 3–8 inches of mulch. At this stage, you can cut holes in the cardboard or paper to plant directly into the ground, or walk away and come back after it has decomposed to find improved soil.
Note: If you suspect that chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides were used on your lawn, before you start to prepare your ground, have the soil tested by a professional lab, such as www.EarthFort.com or www.SoilandPlantLaboratory.com, or simply build a raised bed for your edibles.
Add compost:Whether your garden is new or established, on the ground or raised, improving your soil’s tilth—its fluffiness—by frequently adding organic matter provides the soil with a potent organic fertilizer and increases its water-holding capacity. If you don’t already have one, start a compost pile or bin. Worm compost is black gold, and a worm compost system takes up less space. Some people take it a step further by making or buying compost tea.
Mulch your edibles: Catch, sink and store moisture by top-dressing the soil around vegetables with organic matter like grass clippings, straw, fallen leaves, prunings, deadheads or shredded cardboard. Wood chips work well around fruit trees, fruiting shrubs and vines. The mulch helps prevent runoff and evaporation by improving permeability and protects plants against extremes of heat and cold. It also suppresses weeds and draws worms and beneficial micro-organisms, feeding the soil-food-web.
Plant cover crops in the off-season:Many legumes act as a “living mulch.” They shade soil and reduce evaporation while fixing nitrogen, adding fertility naturally. A favorite, the fava bean, is also delicious. Expensive at the store, favas cost pennies as seeds. They grow effortlessly, bees love them and they attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, which eat aphids. They also produce a beautiful, fragrant flower.
They are available in bulk at feed stores like Mountain Feed and Farm Supply in Ben Lomond and Westside Farm and Feed in Santa Cruz. Try dry farming: Dry farming is an ancient practice that is still used today in Spain, Greece, France and Italy, and it is experiencing a resurgence on Central Coast farms. (See EMB Fall 2012, “The Cult of the Dry-Farmed Tomato.”) Dry-farmed produce has intense flavor, is nutritionally packed and sells for a premium. Drought-resistant crops like tomatoes, grapes, potatoes and cucumbers are planted in a special pulverized mulch that helps prevent evaporation of moisture from the soil. However, yields can be a quarter or a third lower, and the produce is smaller. Also, dry-farmed plants—which can look yellow and withered— don’t make for a lush look in the garden.
Build a hugelkultur bed: Hugelkultur is a centuries-old German and East European method to create a no-dig, mounded bed on top of a wood pile. The porosity of the wood acts as a sponge as it decomposes, providing habitat for soil micro-organisms. During the rainy season, the wood may absorb enough water to sustain plants into the dry season. Simply dig a 1-foot-deep trench over the surface area. Then layer logs, branches and twigs over the trenched area. Cover with organic matter like leaves, grass clippings, straw, seaweed (washed of salt), aged manure and soil or planting mix, creating a bed that is 2–6 feet high. The wood may alchemize into a crazily fertile area, so watch out!
Plant companionable plants: Companion planting works synergistically, maximizing resources for the benefit of all plants. The classic example is the Three Sisters, an ancient Native American method in which corn and sometimes sunflowers act as a trellis for beans, with squashes or pumpkins as a ground cover to naturally mulch the soil, keeping it cool and moist. Another example: To get a summer crop of cool season greens like spinach or lettuce, plant them in the shade of a tomato plant. Basil and tomatoes is a classic Italian combination.
Plant perennial edibles: Perennial edibles return yearly without fuss, unlike annuals, and many are highly nutritious superfoods. They establish expansive roots, which attach to beneficial micro-organisms like rhizobium bacteria and myccorhizal fungi—an amazing feat of nature that extends their reach to water and nutrients. Some perennials are familiar, like asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb. But there’s a whole new world of culinary possibilities: One is the opuntia cactus, which provides two superfoods from the same plant—nopales and prickly pear. The Cape Gooseberry is a prolific perennial and bears fruit that when dried are called goldenberries and are sold at high prices in health food stores. Some other relatively unusual edible perennials to consider are walking stick kale and tree collards (which taste like their annual cousins), tree tomatoes, walking onions, scarlet runner beans (with beautiful red blooms) and Peruvian root vegetables such as the potato like oca and mashua, and the superfood yacon, which makes a nutritious low-calorie sweetener. Sunchokes are easy to grow, as is aloe vera, a superfood for your smoothie.
And don’t forget that fruit trees, fruiting shrubs like blueberries, and vines like grapes, blackberries and kiwi, are also perennials. To round out your diet and increase your food security, an avocado tree is like growing fat on a tree. Unlike apples, which are essentially sugar and water, avocados can sustain humans for long periods. Olives are another fruit with high quality fats, and they are very drought tolerant and worth growing if the laborious artisanal process of curing your harvest sounds fun—which it is! You’ll want to invite your friends over to join you!
Grow potatoes: Potatoes are self-seeding annuals, but they act like perennials; a potato patch is forever unless you go out of your way to dig it out. Organic potatoes from the farmers’ market make good seed. Try different varieties. Peruvian purple potatoes can be weedy, but they are higher in antioxidants, so if you like them, it’s a good thing! Just put them in the ground and cover with soil. They appear to proliferate even if you don’t water them. Inland, part shade is advised.
Plant bee magnets: Bees and butterflies boost pollination in your garden, encouraging an abundant harvest—and some edible plants attract them. These plants may also attract beneficial predators, such as lacewings, hoverflies, soldier beetles, parasitic wasps and ladybugs, which eat aphids and other pests. Some edible flowers are so vibrant with color and visual interest that they also may boost the likelihood that we will get outside to attend to our garden tasks! For examples, see the “GROW” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com.
Don’t use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides: If you’re new to organic gardening, seek out the educational opportunities under the “GROW” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com to learn more about how to build up your garden’s natural fertility and resistance to pests and disease. You’ll grow cleaner, healthier food for you and your family, protect pollinators like bees from poisoning and help avoid polluting our land and waters.
Share with neighbors: Grow the right plant for the right place.
One neighbor may have a full-sun yard that’s great for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. The neighbor across the street may have more shade, where leafy greens like chard, kale and lettuces can tolerate the hot season. If that’s the case, consider doing swaps. It can save you a trip to the store, and you will get to know the person who grew your food.
Jillian Laurel Steinberger is a Bay-friendly qualified professional with Ecology Action’s new Monterey Bay-friendly program and manages Contra Costa Water District’s drought-tolerant demonstration garden in partnership with Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping and has written about gardening, water and other issues for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch and Edible East Bay.
RESOURCES: Under the “GROW” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com, look for helpful books and classes on water-retentive gardening as well as tips for growing plants that bees and humans both will love!