First the No News: Texas is experiencing a record drought that is expected to last through next year. The Clear Lake City Water Authority (CLCWA), the church’s water supplier, has declared a Stage 2 Water Shortage Condition which limits irrigation to two days a week.
Then the Good News: The Director of Utilities at CLCWA is a gardener and appears to understand that seedlings, new transplants and many vegetables need watering more frequently than twice-weekly, though the total water consumption may not be more than used in a turf lawn.
Now the Bad News: The CLCWA Drought Contingency Plan (PDF) does not exempt hand-watering from Stage 2 restrictions and the Director does not have latitude to issue a variance or special exemption for garden irrigation. In his words…
All watering, whether it be by landscape sprinklers, hose end sprinklers, buckets or hose watering alone is only allowed on assigned days.
This holds true for a Stage 2 drought condition. If the extreme drought conditions continue through next year and we move into Stage 3, then NO irrigation will be permitted.
What this means for the BAUUC Community Garden
We have two options: (1) delay the garden for a season and hope that the drought breaks in time for fall or spring planting next year, or (2) take advantage of the momentum we already have, find ways to mitigate irrigation restrictions and hope for rain. We’ve opted for the later, but it probably means changes in the design and management of the garden.
There are many options to help maintain a vegetable garden during drought restrictions. I’m listing only some of them here along with a few brief comments. We’ll be discussing their effectiveness, feasibility and cost in depth with the design team. Feel free to add your thoughts and questions in the “Comments” section below.
- Rainwater Harvesting – The garden site isn’t in a good location to access the church roof, and a rainwater system would have significant initial cost, but the design team will re-evaluate this option. One of our volunteers, Alison Steele, has a nice write-up about an rainwater harvesting system she installed at her urban homestead.
- Transplants Instead of Seeds – Some vegetable plants don’t transplant well, but some do. We would need additional volunteers to grow-out the seedlings to an appropriate size to give to the gardeners. Transplants may still need extra water, but not as frequently as seeds might.
- Vegetable Selection – We will need to pick vegetables and varieties that better withstand drought conditions while maintaining reasonable yields. This will take some research.
- Limit the Growing Season – Four-Season Gardening is the rage in many gardening circles, but maybe we should let the gardens fallow over the hottest summer months.
- Soil Selection and Conditioning – Soil that has a high fraction of quality compost will better hold water, so our soil selection might change. We will also need to put extra emphasis on the need for surface mulch. Another possibility for soil conditioning is the use of hydrogels (water-absorbing polymers), either broadcast in the bed or mixed in the planting hole. Hydrogels are a tempting product, but we need to do some more investigation.
- Ollas – Alison Steele is testing another potential method that can help during irrigation restrictions and describes a DIY method on her blog. These are essentially water reservoirs made from unglazed terra-cotta pots. They are buried underground and the water slowly seeps through the pot into the surrounding soil.
So these are just a few ideas about how we can address Stage 2 drought restrictions. If we hit Stage 3 and aren’t allowed to water at all, well…
If you have comments or questions about how the BAUUC Community Garden can successfully respond to the current drought conditions and watering restrictions, use the comment section below. We’d love to hear your ideas.
(1) I don’t recommend that beginners attempt vegetable gardening during the summer months in Houston – it’s too much effort and too much water for too few results with too few vegetable species. Peppers can be grown, yes, but they also do very well in flower pots which take much less effort and water and which are obviously not pinned to any particular geography. The Extension green-lights a few others as June starts, but the most common staples (beans, corn, onions, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce, chards, etc) are spring or fall starts. Spring is the big season for most vegetables. Fall also works but the lower sun angles drastically reduce some yields. Fall planting also has the added complexity that you can’t get by without row cover. Sunday and Monday nights this week, we had frost, and everybody’s gardens had to be covered. Row cover is another added expense and time sink, plus you need to size PVC or polyethylene hoops or stakes to support it. And in hard freezes like we had last year, it’s easy to lose everything. We kept our garden alive last winter by putting on heavy covers and using warming lights inserted under the covers.
(2) At the opposite end of the experience, once that 100-degree heat sets in, it won’t matter in the slightest what your soil composition looks like or how much organic matter it has – it will dessicate down to its minimum moisture capacity within about three hours. There’s just too much surface area per too little volume in a raised bed, especially beds which are filled with soils having good amounts of sand and pore space, which is true of good garden soils. Even in my stock tanks, where the soils are almost two feet thick and the sides are impermeable, summer plantings will not last 24 hours without watering. I had hoped to minimize this problem specifically by using indulgently-thick soils to hold moisture longer, but it hasn’t worked. The incident radiation is just too relentless. Remember the east Texas fires of earlier this year? Tree stumps burned FOUR FEET below ground surface, an event that was unheard of in this area. That’s how relentless the drying conditions have been. With this in mind —
(3) Regardless of whether you plant seeds or seedlings, many species will need to be watered once a day when conditions are dry, whether it’s summer or not. Some may last longer, but you have to remember that you also have the complexity of wind with the BAUUC garden. On those nice winter days when the temp is about 75 and relative humidity is very low, my tanks will still dessicate in about 48 hours. The wind dries them out. My current broccoli crop is wilting every 24 hours on the hour when relative humidity is low. I’m experimenting with ground covers to minimize evaporation losses, but nothing is a clear winner yet. With that in mind —
(4) The ollas with which I’m experimenting show limited promise. The challenge is that ordinary clay flower pots were not designed for this function, and so their wall thickness is not optimal. The best water delivery is being demonstrated by the SMALLEST ollas – because they have the thinnest walls. Only trouble there is that they also hold the smallest volume of water, so I’m finding that they have to be filled every single day. Given their small size, it really requires at least one olla per vegetable plant, which is a lotta lotta overhead. And even with ollas, I still need to water every 24 to 48 hours. With this in mind —
(5) Is CLCWA planning to revise their DCP? They should be – most munis are doing that in prep for next summer’s expected drought. They should be able to write in a variance clause. It is becoming obvious to munis that the DCPs as written are basically both unworkable and unwise when the scenario we face is chronic drought – they were all written assuming that all droughts would be acute, and that has not proven to be the case with this drought (too long to explain here).
(6) There are probably ways to design a rain harvesting system that would help out with the BAUUC garden. I foresee no scenario in which such a thing would be easy, but depending on how conditions develop this spring with respect to rainfall, it may be the garden’s only (legal) option. If necessary, folks may have to use a wheeled cart or something to manually transport water from a tank near the church building to the garden plots across the road. This is primitive, time consuming, and generally rather wretched, but humans did manage that kind of thing for tens of thousands of years.
I garden in the summer using soaker hoses, watering no more than twice a week. I grew chard, eggplant, sweet potatoes with good luck last summer. The eggplant didn’t bear until fall but it grew larger. My okra didn’t germinate, but that is another drought tolerant food plant. At one point something ate a lot of my chard but the chard came back. Just saying, we don’t have to give up on gardening in drought, just be selective and water when we are allowed.
This is a good point, Susan. Part of the problems is that we were planning to provide seeds for the gardeners to direct-sow in the beds. Without frequent watering (from a hose or from the sky) the germination rates will be pretty poor. We’ll have to rethink what to plant, how to plant and when to plant. It might also require an educational component – both in gardening methods and in selecting/preparing different vegetable varieties.
One big difference between the community garden and a backyard garden is convenience. Watering limitations almost certainly mean reduced yield for most crops. If my backyard garden only produces 1/3 a normal yield, then I might stick with it. But if I have to carry my tools (and harvest) 1/2-mile each way to get to that under-producing garden, then I might start to lose interest in maintaining the beds – especially during the summer heat.
I’m sorry to hear that the ollas haven’t been working as well as you’d hoped. But even buying and extra day or two between permanent wilt could mean the difference between making it on twice-a-week irrigation or not for some plants. You’re right about the overhead, though. Even if we only put in 10 ollas per bed, that’s 200 terra cotta pots we’d need for the neightborhood beds.
The CLCWA is currently working off the 2009 Drought Contingency Plan, and they revise the plan every five years. I was given no indication that they were planning to do anything sooner. We should keep watch for opportunities for public comment during the revision process. I think that the responsible use of water for local food production should be allowed – at least as long as the car washes are still open.
I hope we can keep rainwater harvesting as an option. I know it’s not necessarily easy, nor will it be a cheap solution, but who’s to say that we can’t be a model for sustainable community gardens? We shouldn’t lose sight of the goal of engaging our neighborhood and helping our neighbors provide their own food, but if we can find ways to do that while being responsible with our resources, then that’s a win-win!
VERY ODD. I don’t know what is going on with Word Press but much of your blog and comments ended up as comments on my website. I started a company in March 2011 that makes OLLAS. I could not find a good source and saw them as a great option for gardeners, like myself, who have limited water sources. I would be happy to donate a few to your garden. Unfortunately, I am in the Austin area and cannot get them to you as trying to mail them does not work well! If any of you are ever this way and can pick some up let me know. Take a look at my website and contact me there if you are interested. DrippingSpringsOLLAS.com
Plant for All Seasons in Houston now carries them.