Smarter gardening for dry climates, making the best use of rainwater

Dolmen Editing

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If you live in an area with a dry climate, keeping a healthy thriving garden in the long dry months can seem almost impossible without running sprinklers throughout. Though it is a little more difficult to garden in dry climates than in places with regular year round rainfall, there are a few tricks you can utilize to help your garden retain more water.

In times of water scarcity, we realize that it is a very precious commodity and we shouldn’t take it for granted. When we need to water our gardens, it is best to do so during the evening so as to avoid unnecessary water loss. If we water in the middle of the day, the sun can evaporate a huge amount of that water before it ever makes it down into the soil.

Plants and vegetation

If possible, plant more trees and vegetation to create shaded spots in the garden. The simple act of creating cooler shady microclimates by removing the direct heat of the sun can drastically decrease the amount of water lost from evaporation.

If you have sandy or dusty land, you may need to build up the soil quality in order to begin planting. The good news is that the roots of your trees and vegetation will begin to hold the soil in place, making it less likely to wash away next time there’s heavy rainfall.

Try planting fast growing tree varieties that can tolerate dry conditions, such as cedars, oaks and pines. Look for varieties native to your area to ensure they can cope with the conditions.

Though it’s not always popular to say so, decreasing the size of your lawn is another good way of minimizing water use. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that in the US, 9 billion gallons of water are used everyday just to keep our gardens irrigated.

Decreasing lawn sizes drastically and/or planting drought resistant grass alternatives, such as yarrow or buffalo grass, could go a long way to reducing this.

Store water in the soil

It is important to improve the soil structure and quality to make sure it is retaining as much moisture as possible. This can be done by a simple process of heavy mulching, which is simply covering the surface of the soil to protect it. You can use straw, hay, wood chips, fallen leaves or compost mulches.

Mulching has multiple benefits. The mulch covers the bare soil and slows the evaporation of water. Organic mulches from decaying plants also break down and add nutrients to the soil which feed the nearby plants. A thick layer of mulch serves as insulation for the soil and can help regulate temperatures in the soil. This protects the delicate plant roots from harsh heat or frost.

A chunky mulch, rather than a fine one, is best for slowing the evaporation of water, as fine mulch can actually draw moisture out of the soil.

Swales

When long droughts are followed by heavy rainfall, the rainwater tends to flow straight over the land down to a low point where it is usually directed into underground drainage. In some instances, it can cause flooding. A swale is essentially a trench that can be positioned to slow rainwater runoff and increase infiltration of the water into the ground.

Swales are often built on sloping land where the effect of rainwater runoff is most extreme. However, they can also be utilized on flatter land as a method of storing more water in the ground. They are simply a trench with a slight bank or berm on the lower side to catch and stop the flow of water.

Swales on flat ground are usually wider and shallower than on slopes with a wide berm.

The berm should be planted with trees so that the roots will create structure in the soil and hold the bank together. The trees also benefit from the greater amount of water in the ground.

Build a catchment container

Some areas get much of their yearly rainfall in a short period of time and rainwater can be stored for use in the drier months. The state of Nevada gets on average only about 9 inches of rainfall each year. However, even in this extremely dry climate, a relatively small roof of 1,000 sq ft can collect up to 5,607 gallons of rainfall yearly.

This might not be enough to sustain a garden entirely, but it is still a significant amount of water saved. Nevada is also the most extreme example. The majority of states get at least double the amount of rainfall that Nevada does, according to government data collected since 1971.

Rainwater catchment systems can be very straightforward indeed. The simplest types require little more than diverting the rain from your gutters into a large tank, rather than straight into the sewers. Rainwater tanks can be buried in the ground or surrounded by trellises with climbing plants to disguise them.

In Colorado, it is illegal to harvest rainwater due to antiquated laws. In other states such as Utah, Oregon and Ohio, rainwater harvesting is legal, but there are regulations that must be followed.

Needless to say, harvesting rainwater should definitely be encouraged. Some states provide incentives for doing so, such as Texas where you do not pay tax on the equipment for rainwater harvesting.

Ponds

An aesthetically pleasing rainwater harvesting method is a pond or miniature wetland area. Ponds naturally cool the environment around them and can be used to grow water loving plants such as cattails and reeds.

When building ponds in hot dry climates, it is best to build them smaller but deeper to reduce the surface area and evaporation. A good way to ensure the pond is fed with a plentiful supply of water is to implement a grey water recycling system from your house.

Grey water is water that is not clean enough for reuse by humans but is perfect for garden use. Household grey water sources could be from the kitchen sink, washing machine or shower—basically anywhere but the toilet. It might have scraps of food or a little soap, but your garden will not mind.

The majority of water we use in our homes is still usable but is treated as waste. Clean water comes into our homes via the faucet, then goes straight down into the sewerage when it could be better used in our gardens.

A grey water system can be fed into a swale, creating a moist and fertile piece of land. This can then go through a filter of rocks and reeds to clean out the debris, and into the pond as pure clean water.

Creating a pond not only can be an aesthetic focal point in your garden, but also can function as a miniature oasis that attracts local wildlife.

It's a win-win situation. No water is wasted and your garden will thrive, so put that water to good use.

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