17 February 2014

Water wise in the garden

It's been a long, dry summer here. The temperatures haven't been nearly as high as those down south, we've had only two very hot spells, but the rains didn't come this year and that was worse than the hot weather. Summer is our wet season and when it passes with very little rain in January or February, then it doesn't look good for the rest of the year. Our average rainfall in February is 405mm, so far we've had 99mm. We have town water and tank water here. We installed two water tanks to use on the garden. They hold 15,000 litres/quarts. We have a smaller tank on the front verandah that holds 500 litres, that water usually keeps my ferns and plants alive. Our annual rainfall here is just under 2000mm, and about half of that falls in summer.

I believe that if you're growing a garden full of vegetables, then you need to be collecting water to enable you to do that. Water is a hidden cost in vegetable and fruit gardening but if you're serious about supplying some, or all, of your vegetables, then you should think carefully about how much it will cost you to grow them. If you don't harvest your own rain water, watering will be your biggest cost. In Australia the average water use for two people is 360 litres per day. Hanno and I use much less than that at around 200 litres between us and that costs us around $200 every three months. If we used town water on our garden, I suspect we'd use the average of 360 litres and that would cost us just under $400 per three months. We save that amount of money because we harvest our own water. We want to be as self-reliant as we can be so buying tanks and being thrifty with the water we do have is just part of gardening for us. If we can grow a lot of the food we eat, taking no water from the communal dam to do it, then we see that as sustainable gardening. Saving vegetable seeds, recycling household and garden waste into compost, home-made fertilisers and harvesting water is part of the closed system we try to maintain here.

And then the question of managing the harvested water comes into play. I used to be a bit obsessed with the rainwater. I'd check the water level by tapping on the side of the tanks and I'd water with miserly amounts of water on the vegetables. I was fearful of running out of water. A few years ago I decided to stop watering the front gardens all together. I'd planted up gardenias, wisteria, roses, camellias, magnolias and a few drought-hardy species like callistemons and sage. To my surprise, most of the larger plants survived and it was only the smaller roses and daisies that died. We never water the lawn. I don't care if that dies or not. Grass is so resilient, it always comes back after a bit of rain.

Over the years I changed my ideas about conserving our tank water. I realised that even though the tanks got low, they've never been completely empty and even in drought years, rain would often come when we needed it most. Instead of being miserly with it,  now I water almost every day and the garden has survived summer and the drought quite well. I no longer have that feeling that we'll run out of water. I changed from a glass half empty to a glass half full and I'm happier for it. I never waste water, but I am giving all my plants and particularly the vegetables, the water they need to thrive, not just survive. I don't know if there will be a time in the future when we run out of tank water but I'm not worrying about that till it happens. I have plants here that need the water we have, I have to live this day, not worry about next month or next year.

We're still practising all the water-wise techniques such as planting vegetables with similar water requirements next to each other, making sure the drips from hanging baskets flow into the garden, using thick mulch to conserve water already in the soil and water storage crystals in the ornamental plant pots.

Those tanks have been one of our wisest investments. I'm pleased we can share the water we harvest with our chooks and all the visiting birds that fly though here as well as the wildlife that live here. I'm grateful I have a husband who could rig up the system of pipes, drains and tanks that makes our water harvesting a success because without those tanks I doubt I'd be as enthusiastic about backyard food production as I am.  What is your watering setup at home?

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