Happy New Year!
We start this year with unprecedented garden conditions. People are asking – how much to water now? Should I prune my fruit trees? Should I even have a garden this year?
It’s possible that we could still get significant rain in the next few months. Or we could be in what’s being called a “megadrought” cycle, with little rain coming for several years. Our garden – and county wide – planning would be wise to be prepared for the extended drought potential. If little rain comes soon, major water conservation will be needed by everyone.
Yes, I think we should still grow some vegetables and keep food producing perennials alive. In addition to all the water conserving tips Sara and I have been mentioning in previous blogs, (and summarized in Water-Wise Food Gardening), this year’s garden planning should include even more water conserving measures. Last month I suggested installing a grey water system, greywater system and Greywater Action. I’m a renter so can’t do this, but I am willing to haul some 5 gallon buckets from the shower/bathtub to my garden. And although most rainwater catchment systems can’t hold enough water to last very long, some 5 gallon buckets and or larger barrels can at least capture a bit more of any rain we get. Please see Stormwater Management for more information on making the most of whatever rain we do receive.
Normally at this time of year I’m advocating planting bare root fruit trees and other perennial food plants as well as discussing pruning – my favorite winter task! But do consider that young fruit trees need regular watering when it is dry out, so assess your water situation before investing in new plantings. When choosing fruit varieties, remember that dwarfing root stocks are great for providing some limitation on the size of a tree, but they do so by being less vigorous. This means that they are not as good at pulling water from the soil, so are likely to need more consistent irrigation than trees on a standard root stock (depending on soil, how large the tree gets, and other factors). Also, some people are recommending low chill varieties, as our winters are having less reliable temperatures and warm days may mean insufficient chill for good bloom and fruit set. Make sure that the fruit type you choose is suited to the specific site you have in mind. Beware not to put figs or persimmons in low spots that can get late frosts, and know that most stone fruit, (peaches, plums, etc.), prefer warm, dry air. I definitely am a fan of painting the bark of deciduous trees with white latex paint diluted half with water. Special attention should be given to painting the south side of the trees throughout their lives, as this will help prevent “winter injury” from freezing and thawing on these desert-like days and nights, as well as sun burn during heat spells.
As to pruning fruit trees, it is important to dormant prune as usual during a drought. Pruning reduces the size of the tree and the number of fruit buds and can strengthen remaining branches, which is important for strong growth and a limited number of quality fruit. Perhaps pay more attention to thinning spurs or other fruit buds, as fruit formation takes a lot of water. Summer pruning, which can start in late spring, will be even more important this year to reduce transpiration (loss of water through leaves).
When planning your vegetable garden, spacing plants father apart and adding at least a light mulch right at planting time will reduce their water needs. Raised beds are great for concentrating nutrients and water in a small space. They are a good method of protecting from gophers when they are underwired and make the beds easier to reach. But they also dry out faster, especially if very high and/or a light soil mix is used. In the Southwest, gardening is sometimes done in slightly sunken beds to conserve water. I like gardening in amended native soil at close to ground level and still have gopher wire under most of my planted area.
When warm afternoons draw you outside but it’s still too early for planting, attention to tool maintenance is time well spent. Clean, sharpen and organize your tools. Linseed oil is good for any bare wooden handles. If tools are not in a good location, consider making a shelter near the garden.
May 2014 bring joy with each other and our gardens, and may we have gratitude for the water that sustains us.