"And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress and keep it". Genesis 2:15

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Water Conservation

Its close to the end of June, we can expect little to no rain from now until the end of August, and my rain barrels are all empty. About this time every year our water bills go up about 100$ a month. Even I can see that this is not self-sufficiency and that my garden is not saving me money. If we are to have an urban homestead that actually produces anything, then I have to find ways to conserve water.

I am already using a deep mulch on all my beds including the vegetable garden. I also use soaker hoses instead of overhead watering. Even with the soaker hoses I tended to waste a lot of water. I would forget that they were on and flood everything. I would forget to set a timer to remind my self to turn off the water. I bought timers that would turn the water off after a preset time. They worked for a while, then they started leaking. Then I had to remember to set a timer to remind myself to check the water timer to see if it was leaking! This is obviously not working the best.

I tend to think that plants really need a lot of water, but what plants really need is consistent moister. You can grow bean sprouts just by keeping them damp. Some hydroponics systems grow plants just by misting their roots. I need to find more efficient systems.

I remembered an old trick that I used to use. I took an old plastic milk jug, poked small holes in it with an awl, and buried it in the ground next to my newly popped up pumpkin seedlings. You fill the buried jug with water from the hose and the water seeps into the ground through the holes. None of the water is wasted on top of the soil where it will evaporate and encourage weed seeds to sprout. However with this system I am still left with the question of how often do I fill this thing?

Buried plastic milk jug.

I also remembered something I had read online once, about how in Mexico and South America farmers would burry porous unglazed clay pots in the ground and fill them with water. The water seeps out very slowly and waters plants planted next to the buried pot. I checked on the price for some of these pots and they really were too expensive for me. I thought that I ought to be able to use a regular clay flower pot with the hole plugged and something set on top to keep out mosquitoes. 

I looked online and found many people who had done just that. I also found many scientific papers on the benefits of using buried clay pots! I found out that a buried clay pot can save 10 times the amount of water over a soaker hose! The reason for this is that the pots keep the soil around them consistently moist. The water is not running along the ground where it evaporates and encourages weeds. It also seeps slow enough that it does not all flow down too deep for the plants roots to reach, as it may do with my buried milk jug.

So now I am running several experiments. I took one milk jug out and replaced it with a big 12" clay pot next to the pumpkin seedlings. I left one milk jug buried and will plant some cantaloupe next to it. I buried a clay pot in the center of a large plastic pot that I plan to plant lettuce in. I buried a clay pot next to a butterfly bush that always wilts when all the plants around it are OK. Yes it will be work to fill these pots up, but the few that have been in the ground for several days have lost very little water. I am anticipating the water lasting at least a week or more. As much as I have always wanted the ease of an expensive in-ground sprinkler system, I know such a system would definitely not meet my goal of saving water, so I am content to lug hoses and watering cans around to fill pots.

12" unglazed clay pot next to pumpkin seedlings, uncovered

I use clay or plastic saucers to cover the buried pots.

Clay pot in a plastic pot. You can see the moist soil around the clay pot. The pot actually is almost full of water, but it disappeared in the photo. 

We plan on adding more rain barrels and are on the hunt for a 275 gallon water storage drum. We see them advertised used a lot, but have no pickup to go get one with. There is a place we drive by that has them, but we need to figure out a way to contact then and see if they will sell us a used one. I know just where I would like to put it. Meanwhile in the absence of rain we are thinking now of grey water.

Garry and I are looking into ways to use the grey water in our home. Grey water is the water from your laundry and bath. This water is just wasted down the drain when it would be perfectly good for watering plants. In Texas its legal to use grey water as long as you are not just pouring it on the ground. It has to be going through a layer of mulch seeping from a pipe buried under the mulch, or be going directly into the ground. 

I have seen very simple systems that just utilize a hose out the laundry room window that goes into a barrel outside. More elaborate systems will use valves that let you choose if you want the water to go down the drain, or out to your garden. If you collect the water in a barrel it has to be used right away, after a few days it can go bad, so we plan to use a barrel with a hose spigot so we can connect a garden hose either to our existing soaker hoses, or I can use the water to fill buried pots. Our laundry room window faces the back yard right in a corner where I am planing to try and plant a Forest Garden. More on that later.

Laundry room window. This shady corner is the future Forest Garden.

Until we get this set up I am going to feel criminal every time I let my laundry water go down the drain!

The last thing I am still thinking about is using a shade cloth over the vegetable garden. Plants out of the direct sun, and the sun can be brutal here, use less water.

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