There’s no way around it. Vegetable gardens are water guzzlers, especially in the early stages when young plants are working hard to become established. Even after that, edible plants need lots of water, not to mention sun, which has a tendency to cause water to evaporate! That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t use your water wisely — even conserve water — when growing veggies.
“Whether your veggie garden is in-ground or above ground, it’s all about getting the basics right,” says Steve Warner, landscape designer and director of OUTHOUSE design. “The best way to have a waterwise veggie patch is by ensuring your plants have all they need to thrive, so they don’t have to rely solely on the water you give them.
“Hardy plants become hardy because they’re gaining support from multiple sources, such as the nutrients, microbes and minerals in the soil,” Steve adds, “so you need to create a complete package of support services, which includes water, if you want a healthy and productive veggie patch. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t build a house on bad foundations, so set up your veggie patch for success with the right soil foundation.”
Glenice Buck, horticulturist and founder of Glenice Buck Designs, agrees good soil prep is key. “You need to ensure the soil has a high level of organic matter prior to planting out your vegetables. Vegetables need to draw on the organic matter to form their crops; also, a high level of organic matter will ensure that the soil has a good water-holding capacity.”
Having ensured the soil is nutrient- and mineral-rich, friable and well-draining, yet still able to retain moisture, you need to add a layer of mulch. “This will help reduce the water evaporation from the soil and it’ll help keep the soil insulated on the hottest days, which means overall the garden beds will require less water. Mulch also has the added benefit of reducing the amount of weed growth, which is good because weeds compete for water.”
All seedlings require more water than mature plants, so you need to water them regularly and thoroughly. Once established, the plants still need regular, deep watering but not as frequently — perhaps two or three times a week (more during very hot weather, less if you get some solid rain). Also, look into the individual water requirements of the plants you intend to grow. Veggies such as broccoli, celery, cabbage and asparagus will need an ample supply of water, as will naturally shallow-rooted edibles such as sweet corn and lettuce. Others, such as beans, needless.
“If you live in an area of low rainfall or one that’s prone to long, dry summers, look around your local area and see what’s growing well,” Steve says. “Talking veggies is a great reason to say hello to the neighbours. Once you make friends, you open the way to sharing seeds and cuttings, and let’s face it, if that seed or cutting came from a plant that was thriving, it’s already hardened to local growing conditions so no reason why it won’t do just as well for you.
“Also look for naturally hardy veggies if you have an unreliable water supply,” Steve advises. “There really aren’t many veggies you could outright call drought-tolerant but there are some, such as the artichoke and New Zealand spinach, which can fare well with significantly less water than others. And don’t forget the Mediterranean herbs such as oregano, thyme, sage and rosemary, which do fall into the drought-tolerant category.”
“Most vegetables will benefit from longer, less frequent watering rather than frequent short bursts of watering,” Glenice says. “The deep watering allows the moisture to soak down to the lower layers of the soil. This encourages the plants to develop a deeper root system. The result is stronger plants that can cope with temperature extremes more readily and plants, once they’re established, that need less water.
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