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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Water Conservation is Saving Me Money

Yesterday Garry shared the news that our water conservation efforts this summer have been paying off! I will share what I have learned this summer about reducing the amount of water you use, recycling some of the water you have, and using water more efficiently.

During the summer months our water bill usually goes up 100$ a month due to extra watering of the yard and gardens. Extra water is needed because it is much hotter and it usually does not rain much during June, July and August. This summer when I expressed a desire to more than double the size of our vegetable garden, Garry was reluctant due to the extra water we would need, especially since the cost of water here had just gone up. We set ourselves a challenge to conserve water anyway we could.

The first thing we did was heavily mulch all flower and vegetable beds. The mulch was "free" from a dying tree we had cut down. This reduces the amount of water you need since it reduces evaporation. It also eliminates competition for water by suppressing weeds.

The next thing was to install three connected rain-barrels to the only rain-gutter we have on our property, which is on our detached garage. This is making use of available water that is normally lost to you as run off.

Two empty 55 gallon barrels cost $7.50 each, and the parts needed cost about 25-30$. So about 23$ each to make a rain-barrel is quite a bit of savings over a store bought ($150 each) barrel. The third barrel is actually just a trash can stuck under the over flow from the other two. This one is handy for dipping my watering cans into for hand watering.

The rain-barrels have spigots for filling a watering can or attaching a garden hose to. We only need about half an inch of rain to fill up these three barrels, and they are good for several waterings of the new vegetable garden.

The next thing I did for water conservation is to stop watering the Bermuda parts of my lawn. I continued to water a few shady spots that had Saint Augustine grass only when the grass actually wilted. St. Augustine really doesn't need a lot of water to keep it looking nice, since it grows in the shade, but Bermuda needs a lot of water to keep it green in the hot summertime. My lawn did not turn completely brown as I had feared. In fact it still look pretty green even with no water, and it didn't look any worse than any of my neighbor's lawns.

Another thing I was already doing was using soaker hoses in all my flower and vegetable beds. Soaker hoses use a lot less water than overhead sprinklers because overhead sprinklers loose a lot of water to evaporation, and they water the ground indiscriminately instead delivering water directly to the plants roots. Watering with overhead sprinklers encourages weeds and really is a big waste. I snake soaker hoses through my beds so that mostly only the plants get the water, and I cover them with mulch to further protect from evaporation.

Next I did some research on, just how much water does a plant really need? I found that with drip irrigation a tomato plant only needs two pints of water a week! (I'm not sure if this holds true in Texas heat or not, but it was still way less than I had imagined!) This tells me that most of the water we are pouring on our gardens is wasted to run off, evaporation and migration down deeper than the roots of the plant. What a plant needs is moisture kept close to its root zone.

Even though I had been using soaker hoses in all my gardens, I still had the idea that the entire bed needed to look wet, so I was turning the water on strong enough to get the entire bed good and soaked looking. I learned something very important from the rain-barrels. Rain-barrels have very little water pressure. When hooked up to the existing soaker hoses overnight (a 50 foot hose) they would only release about 5 gallons of water. The area directly under the hose was good and moist, but a foot away was completely dry (I'm talking bone dry and cracked) - and my garden plants loved it! I began watering my flower beds (most of which are out of reach of the rain barrels) with much lower water pressure, so that the bed itself still looked dry but the plants were happy.

I also did some research on sub-irrigation which is applying the water below the soil surface directly to the plant root zone. In many parts of the southern-hemisphere farmers water gardens with buried porous unglazed pots. Water seeps out of the porous pots very slowly and waters plants growing next to it. These pots are so efficient that they use 10 times less water than a soaker hose! The reason for this is that the buried 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 slowly enough that it does not flow down too deep for the plants to reach.

I made my own pots by plugging the bottom holes of existing clay flower pots I already had and buried then in the new part of the garden that had no soaker hose yet. Next to the pots I planted pumpkins and squashes. These plants are growing huge with only the water from the buried pots! I top off the water in the pots only a few times a week when the water goes down a few inches.

I also learned that wilting plants do not necessarily need water. If the reason that they are wilting is because it is over 100 degrees outside, and not because the ground is dry, then leave them alone. They will perk back up in the cool of the evening.

Using rain-barrels, soaker hoses and sub-irrigation is using water more wisely. Now for water recycling. Water recycling is taking water you have already used in your shower or laundry, and reusing it in your garden. We accomplished this by putting another 55 gallon barrel setup outside under the laundry room window, and running the exit hose from the washing machine out the laundry room window into the barrel. One load of laundry almost fills the barrel. Once this was accomplished I felt I had more water than I knew what to do with! I really only need the laundry water when it is not raining at all.

So how much water did we save? My wonderful Hubby has kept a spread sheet for the last couple of years that has the amount of water we use each month and the amount we paid each month. (Don't ask me why he would spend the time doing this - that's just the way he is. Lucky for me.) Last July, when I watered per the old way, was unseasonably cool. Only a few days were over 100 degrees for the whole summer. This July we had 100 plus temperatures for weeks at a time. Even though it was so much hotter, my vegetable garden was two thirds bigger, and we added a separate herb garden, we used almost exactly 4,000 gallons less water in one month! The actual amount we paid between the two Julys was only 5$ less for this one comparison month, but when you consider that the price of water had gone up for this year on all the water that we use for everything else (laundry, dishes, bathing) in addition to what we used for the garden, then we saved quite a bit more.

So, I expanded my gardens, learned a lot about water, and saved money!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Natural Control of Insect Pests (Spider Mites, Cucumber Beetles, Flea Beetles, Aphids, Fireants and Red Bugs) With Predatory Nematodes

Spider mites, Cucumber beetles, flea beetles, aphids, fire ants, and Red Bugs (chiggers) have been the bane of my existence this year in the garden. I would have to say that this location has been the most challenging place in which I have ever tried to garden, due to the heavy clay soil and an abundance of insect pests that come back on the same plants predictably each year. I have been doing some research on natural control for various insect pests and came across predatory nematodes.

Predatory nematodes are basically microscopic "worms" that live in the soil and prey on the larval stages of hundreds of pest insects that have a life stage in the soil. You buy predatory nematodes in a powder or liquid suspension which you mix with water, apply to the soil, and water in. There they multiply and spread out attacking the larval stages of many many pest insects. Unlike some pest predators, predatory nematodes won't fly off to someone else's garden.

Its best to apply them in the spring or the fall when the soil is cooler.

I had forgotten I had used predatory nematodes in the past to deal with a stubborn flea problem in a rent house we once had. The house had been repeatedly bombed and the yard was treated by a professional exterminator twice to no avail, but once I sprayed the yard and the carpet indoors with predatory nematodes the flea problem went away. What I didn't know is that predatory nematodes are not just for treating flea problems.

Just a short list of some of the pest insects predatory nematodes prey on includes all kinds of beetles, such as cucumber and potato beetles, Japanese beetles and flea beetles, borers such as corn borers and onion borers, moths such as coddling moths and meal moths, weevils such as corn, and strawberry root weevils, worms such as cabbage worms, corn earworms, and hornworms, in addition to gnats, aphids, fireants, loopers, cockroaches and termites!

Most of everything that is bugging me can be treated with these predatory nematodes. Since I have used them before I have confidence that they will help me again. I am very reluctant to spray anything on my plants that will hurt natural predators such as lady bugs, or that might harm bees, so this fall I am planning to apply predatory nematodes. The plants that are heavily infested now will just be pulled and counted as a loss.

Predatory nematodes are sold in quantities that describe the "millions of nematodes". So you buy them by 3, 4 and 5 million which is just a small container of powder or liquid, which, as I said, you mix with water. They cost about 18 to 20 dollars and can provide protection for years. If you are interested in using predatory nematodes just do a web search and you will find many companies that sell them. This is the link that I think I will buy mine from http://naturescontrol.com/nemavictims.html

Monday, July 13, 2009

Keeping The Garden Going In The Heat

The last couple of weeks have been blazing hot! In the last 12 days it has been over 100 degrees 9 times. Yesterday it was 104! Needless to say I am struggling to keep everything watered and alive. The Laundry room water has been a great help in this, plus the 1/2 inch rain that filled 4 rain barrels. Most everything is doing alright, except the tomatoes which usually dont survive this time of year anyway.

I am in the process of getting the fall garden planted with new tomatoes, peppers, and various squash. Most everything has taken the heat just fine except for the new tomato  transplants - they were wilting badly every afternoon even with good water. My solution for that was to rig card board shades on the west sides of their tomato cages. I simply cut up some cardboard and used clothespins to attach them to the west side of the cages. This way the tomatoes get shade in the hottest part of the afternoon.

I am happy with what I have been learning in the water conservation area. What with rain barrels, grey water, and sub-irrigation pots I have drastically reduced my usual water bill, while actually doing a better job of keeping everything happy.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Grey Water, Blue Water

Our grey water laundry barrel is finished and we have been using it for about a week. We opted for the most low tech system - a hose out the laundry room window into the top of a 55 gallon drum equipped with a hose bib. I attached a panty hose leg to the end of the hose with a rubber band to keep lint out of the barrel. A full cycle of one load of laundry gives us about 45 gallons of laundry water. 

I wait for the full cycle to finish so that the laundry soap is diluted, then I hook up the garden hose to the barrel and to the soaker hoses in the garden. The soaker hoses are covered with mulch, so no water is puddling on the surface of the ground.

It takes many hours to empty the barrel this way, the pressure is so low that it takes an hour for a few gallons of water to go through the hose, but I think this is actually better water conservation  and better for the plants.

We were really blessed this week with half an inch of rain. It fell very slowly, so all of it was absorbed into the ground (our usual rain is a 10 minute downpour that all runs off.) Now I have full rain barrels as well as the laundry water to use. Only one small section of our house has gutters, so I dug out a bunch of tubs from the attic and set them under the eves to catch the rain. All of these tubs you see, plus the child's pool, were filled by that half inch of rain. I have already used most of that water up except for what is in the kiddy pool. (It has been close to, or over, 100 degrees every day for a few weeks now!)

I certainly felt like a pioneer woman lugging around buckets of water all over the yard. Hopefully we can get gutters and more rain barrels as time goes by.