Drought puts a decidedly dry spin on garden planning. The thought of water rationing can suck the joy out of seed catalog browsing; which veggies will grow without water?
Precious few, if any. But some varieties can still thrive with less water than their thirstier counterparts. And that consideration will be important this spring and summer as it appears Sacramento is headed into another parched year.
According to the first survey of 2014, the Sierra snowpack is only 20 percent of normal. That’s after 2013 went down in Sacramento recorded history as our all-time driest year with 6.13 inches of rain, less than one-third our annual average.
Could I find vegetables that can still produce on one-third the water?
Sorting out those water-saving varieties takes some diligence. In pitching their products, seed companies stress flavor, size, yield and disease-resistance over drought-tolerance.
Some vegetables are notorious water hogs. When facing a drought summer, don’t plant corn. Put off the giant pumpkins for a wetter year.
Instead, look for compact heat-tolerant varieties that put their energy (and water use) into producing edible leaves, roots or fruit – not vine. Vegetables developed for container gardening, such as Patio hybrid tomatoes or bush cucumbers, can thrive on limited water. They also grow well planted directly in the ground or in raised beds.
Many heirloom varieties can succeed with limited irrigation. Their natural drought resistance is what helped make these seeds keepers. Crops native to Mediterranean regions and Africa often succeed in low-water years when others struggle. Remember: We aren’t the first backyard farmers who had to cope with less water.
Seed sellers are beginning to catch on to drought tolerance as an asset. An example is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ mammoth 354-page The Whole Seed Catalog. Billed as the world’s largest seed catalog and priced at $7.95, this glossy commemorative edition (with a nod to the original Whole Earth Catalog, circa 1968) contains dozens of short articles in addition to thousands of rare seed listings. For folks who just want the seeds, Baker Creek also published its free catalog. Both are available at www.rareseeds.com.
Baker Creek’s range of drought-tolerant possibilities seems to span the globe: Sweet Passion melon, Gold Coast okra, German Foxtail millet, Navajo Winter watermelons, Whippoorwill cowpeas, Blue-Speckled Tepary beans, White Sonora wheat, Buffalo gourds and Shelly Black 25 quinoa.
Those are just the beginning. Heirlooms that trace back to Israel (such as Beit Alpha cucumber), Greece (Thessaloniki tomato) and Italy (Tropeana Lunga red onions) offer many tempting possibilities for a water-conscious garden.
Catalog giant Burpee has caught on to low-water needs as a selling point. Its website ( www.burpee.com/) features more than 140 flowers, herbs, vegetables and berries that have proven drought resistance. Some examples: Tendergreen mustard, Bluecrop blueberry and Autumn Beauty sunflowers.
Based in Grass Valley, Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply has at least 200 drought-resistant suggestions on its website (www.groworganic.com). Some that caught our eye: All Red and Viking Purple potatoes, Victoria Cherry rhubarb and Mary’s Granddaughter asparagus (developed at UC Davis for just the sort of dry conditions expected this year).
Even with rationing, one part of the kitchen garden looks safe: Many herbs – such as rosemary, lavender, oregano, marjoram, sage, thyme, borage and savory – thrive with once-a-week irrigation or less.
With some research and thoughtful choices, we gardeners can still grow our own food and save water, too. And if it finally starts raining, we’ll just have a larger harvest.
Prune, prune, prune
Like the old adage says, many hands do make quick work. More than 100 volunteers showed up last Saturday to tackle McKinley Park’s Memorial Rose Garden. In less than three hours, all 1,150 bushes were pruned and readied for another colorful spring.
OK, they got a head start. With recent warm and dry weather, rose garden volunteers had already given an initial cut to several hundred bushes. But the morning transformation from scraggly shrubs to neatly trimmed beds proved spectacular.
For people who want to learn about roses and pruning, more hands-on opportunities are available today. This morning at Maidu Community Center in Roseville, the Sierra Foothills Rose Society hosts its annual winter pruning workshop and chili cook-off, led by master rosarian Baldo Villegas. The retired entomologist grows more than 1,000 roses in his own Orangevale garden. Villegas will demonstrate his no-fuss method for pruning bushes – in three minutes or less.
The public is invited to this free event, starting at 9 a.m. (with chili tasting at 12:30 p.m.). In addition, Bear Wallow glove and tool company will be on site, offering its gardening products.
More rose pruning events are planned today in Woodland, Jackson, Roseville, Folsom, Sacramento and Loomis (see Page 2 for details).
Pruning now produces bigger, more-bountiful roses in spring as well as healthier bushes. And healthier plants can cope better with drought conditions. There’s another reason to get this chore done – just in case 2014 stays a dry year.