Stage 1 watering restrictions went into effect in Vancouver on May 15, two weeks ahead of last year. So far, the rules apply to lawns and car washing only, but I’m not taking any chances. 2015 saw Stage 3 watering restrictions, which affect vegetable gardens, in effect by July. If the same thing happens this year, I want to be prepared.
I used to take it for granted that Vancouver has rainy springs and mild summers. The May showers that others complained about made it easy for me to maintain my garden. I didn’t think very much about irrigation because the typical eight weeks of hot, dry weather from July to September fell during a time when my plants were well-established enough to get by with just a few waterings per week. Now, we live in a city where, this year at least, shorts have dominated Vancouver street fashion since mid-April.
Gardening makes climate change personal. For me and others who grow food, the warming world isn’t an abstract concept. It’s a reality that requires us to adapt our planting practices. Last year, by the time we realized that the warm weather would require us to spend extra time watering, our garden was already well underway. My family and I bought as many irrigation supplies as we could find, with many pieces being sold out across the city. I struggled to thread soaker lines through beds that were already overrun with plants — a nearly impossible task. Our garden survived, but it was a scramble to get things ready.
This year, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. Our irrigation lines went in in the early spring, before we planted our first seeds. We’re expanding our system this year and making lots of small adaptations to reduce our water use.
When it comes to water, gardening is not a neutral activity. Gardening uses a surprising amount of water, and it’s our responsibility to deploy it wisely. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from last year.
How to prepare for watering restrictions
- Install irrigation lines now, if you haven’t done so already. I was intimidated to get started last year, but the time and water saved have been so worth it. Speak with an irrigation supply specialist to determine the best setup for you. Drip irrigation is the gold standard for saving water, while soaker lines are less expensive and can be better for newly planted seeds. Be sure to set your system on a timer to make things convenient. Systems exist for patio gardeners too!
- Consider low-tech alternatives such as terracotta irrigation urns. These can be a great option if you’re not ready to install irrigation lines or are working in a community garden. These systems truly save water and require little maintenance.
- Water early in the morning. This allows roots to absorb moisture before mid-day evaporation sets in. This is where an automatic timer really comes in handy. If mornings aren’t an option for you, try the evenings after the sun has set.
- Determine how much water your garden needs. This is one of the most challenging questions for gardeners. In general, well-established vegetables (like those big tomato and kale plants) can get by with three waterings per week, even in fairly hot weather. Perennials often need less water than that, just a couple of times per week. Meanwhile, delicate greens and newly planted seeds do best with a daily sprinkle. Keep an eye on things and let the health of your plants be your guide. A general rule of thumb is to moisten the top inch or two of your soil with each watering.
- Start seeds in small containers rather than direct-seeding. Newly planted seeds need continuous moisture to germinate. Save water and increase your chances of success by starting seeds in small containers (available at garden supply stores, or cut clean yogurt containers in half and poke holes in the bottom) rather than in your garden beds. Transplant them once their “adult” leaves have formed. The exceptions to this recommendation are root vegetables such as carrots and beets, which don’t do well with transplanting.
- Use mulch! By reducing evaporation, mulch is one of the most important tools to keep soil moist. Bonus: it suppresses weeds.
- Avoid overhead watering. As tempting as it can be, setting a sprinkler on your vegetable garden isn’t a good idea. The water will inevitably go places it doesn’t need to (like onto paths and the lawn), and will evaporate quickly due to its airborne nature. What’s more, you can end up harming your tomatoes, which don’t like to have wet leaves.
- When washing your veggies, pour your washing water back into the garden. The extra work is well worth it, as washing and cooking use a surprising amount of water.