A Gardener’s Notebook

Now is not the time to throw in the trowel

Special to The CambrianOctober 16, 2013 

In the 1980s, there was drought throughout the West. Water directors where we were living in Marin County piped water from the Sacramento delta, across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, providing customers with enough water for basic needs. Like people here in Cambria, our family carried water from showers to water trees and used clean sink water from washing fruits and vegetables to water potted plants. When the rains came, the crisis was abated.

Any gardener or farmer worth his or her salt knew there was no water in the soil and that the shortage of rain over the past few years was going to affect local wells. Why the Cambria Community Services District spent the past year talking about granting water hook-ups rather than solving the problem of an alternative water source is mind-boggling.

But I’m way too practical to waste this space on my opinions. I’m a gardener. I’d rather discuss ways to keep our gardens alive in a water crisis.

Gardeners in Cambria are among the most resourceful I’ve met. Cisterns have been installed to catch roof runoff during rains. Friends on Marine Terrace have tanks under their house that catch spring water. Some folks have been hauling tanks in the back of their pickups for years, helping themselves to the free non-potable water that CCSD offers, using it to keep their gardens green.

There are those who’ve had the foresight to plant drought-tolerant plants that are California natives or are from Australia, Africa and Chile. They may die back a bit, but will live with little or no water.

Common garden plants will need some supplemental water but will survive this fall if you are creative in saving water from household use. Potted plants, except for succulents, will suffer the most without water. Move your pots to a shady location now to avoid increased demands during the inevitable “hot spells” of fall.

Plants need some foliage to manufacture food, but leaves “transpire,” giving off moisture. Native, drought-tolerant plants naturally shed some of their leaves in the summer to reduce moisture loss. Let leaves dry naturally on the shrubs. If you prune too early, you may cause the plant to put out new foliage, increasing the need for moisture.

Be rational and don’t panic. Be patient. Be diligent. We will get through this.

Hopefully, our gardens will survive and we’ll become “gardening fools” once again.

Tip of the month

  • Create furrows around shrubs and trees to catch welcome rain. Much water is lost to runoff when the soil is dry and fall moisture returns.
  • “Soft water” from your indoor faucets can be used on outdoor plants growing in soil. Rainwater will eventually wash salts from the soil. Mulch your entire garden. Mulch ericaceous (acid-loving) plants with lime-free organic mulches such as composted pine needles or composted bark to keep moisture in the soil and keep the pH low.
  • Don’t use water that has been used to wash dishes on your soil. It contains bacteria. Don’t use soapy water (sodium) on your plants, either. You are more likely to lose the plant from salts in the water than from lack of water.

Lee Oliphant’s column is special to The Cambrian. Email her at cambriagardener@charter.net; read her blog at centralcoastgardening.com.

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