Reasons Not to Plant a Veggie Garden
Box garden at the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility
Recent rain or snow has “improved” the California snowpack to the abysmal level of 27% of normal. Californians, however, are using water at a higher rate because we started watering our lawns earlier than usual.
Last summer’s heat was disastrous for my vegetable garden. Tomatoes, which do not set fruit above 100 degrees, sat still and didn’t grow. Zucchinis were aphid-riddled and unhealthy, not producing to their normally-prolific levels. My Merlot grapes (and the wild blackberries along the fence) dried on the vine before ripening. Red raspberries produced the fewest berries ever; the brambles almost didn’t survive. A master gardener friend erected an extensive shade cloth system but had no better luck.
This got me thinking about water use. Local reservoirs are expected to “fill and spill,” meaning we have sufficient water for this year. But, even “enough” is still cause for concern. If using so much drinking water for my garden (my drip irrigation turned on every 24 hours) did not produce abundant edibles, what am I doing? Should I reduce my own water use in favor of local growers who produce larger crops more efficiently and sell at local farmers’ markets? Should I support the local economy rather than feed myself from my own backyard?
To inform my decision-making, I turned to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) and Master Gardener programs. A publication, “Keeping Plants Alive under Drought or Water Restrictions” (https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8553.pdf) had this blunt advice: “Vegetables are not drought-resistant plants and are difficult to maintain during a drought.” Enough said!
During drought, focus water on long-lived trees and shrubs to keep them alive. When I discussed not planting a garden with a master gardener friend, she responded (almost in tears) with, “But the garden is our happy place.” I have trees, roses, vines, berry canes, salvias and succulents enough—along with drought-tolerant landscape shrubs I planted in the fall—to keep me happy and at peace in my garden. There are more than enough plants to use the “warm-up water” I will collect in a bucket in my shower. Annuals, including vegetables, can easily be replaced or grown during a more auspicious year.
Grow no more than you need. From Placer County Master Gardeners come these suggestions (https://ucanr.edu/sites/ucmgplacer/files/188486.pdf). Incorporate three inches of compost into the soil to retain moisture. Grow only what you like and will be able to eat. Stretch the time between irrigation cycles. Vine crops, such as cucumbers and squash, do much better than tomatoes and lettuce with a stretched irrigation schedule. Vines can be watered only once or twice a week during the growing season. Mulch with another three inches of organic material to reduce evaporation. Plant closely so those large squash leaves can shade the soil, further reducing water loss.
I’m going to be gone this summer. Retirement allows time for travel. However, Placer County MGs note: inspect irrigation often and check soil moisture. Even the most-humble drip irrigation system requires oversight. A simple blocked line, unnoticed, will result in the demise of plants that did not receive their supply of moisture. With extensive trips planned in June and August/September, this may be the year I forego my vegetable garden completely.
Rebecca Miller-Cripps is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who is conflicted about growing vegetables this year.