Debbie Arrington

Seeds: To plant or not to plant? Coping with dry times

Zucchini is prolific, even during drought. Its prolific habits make it a good choice to grow when water is at a premium.
Zucchini is prolific, even during drought. Its prolific habits make it a good choice to grow when water is at a premium. Los Angeles Times

As California grapples with another dry and dire forecast for the growing seasons ahead, home gardeners wrestle with their own personal dilemma: Should we plant anything this spring?

“I’ve read the Bee’s various garden sections and columns for years,” wrote reader Kathy Myers. “Lately, however, what I’ve been reading bothers me. ... It’s Spring! Plant more! That advice ignores the scary reality that we’re in the middle of a (four)-year drought. Isn’t it a mistake to continue advising readers to plant new gardens?

“We need to reduce garden-water use,” she added. “Our first step was to install a drip-watering system. Not every gardener can afford to do that. But, our next step was free: Don’t add new plants!

“Now, we’re ready for more water-saving tips,” she said. “Please don’t tell us to garden like there is no drought.”

Myers’ concerns are universal in our gardening community.

“Everybody is asking: Is there going to be enough water?” said Eric Trygg, a Nevada County master gardener and weekly radio host. “Last year (during the drought), people stopped buying plants. They let things die. It becomes a mindset that sets in. They start to give up.”

That’s not good news for nurseries and other garden-related companies. They’re dependent on spring sales. April is their Christmas season, a sales period that can make or break their businesses.

It felt like a holiday rush at the new Green Acres nursery in Elk Grove. For its recent grand opening, crowds mobbed the new nursery on Stockton Boulevard, a good sign that the drought hasn’t drained our love of gardening.

California’s nursery industry was hard hit by the Great Recession. Several garden-related businesses did not survive, including such local institutions as Capital and Windmill nurseries. Now, the four-year drought has pushed some surviving businesses – especially smaller specialty nurseries – to the breaking point.

Don’t let the drought be a death knell, Trygg urged. “I’m encouraging people, ‘Don’t give up! Keep gardening!’”

Trygg plans to tackle this topic today on his radio show, “Master Gardener and Friends” (noon-2 p.m. Saturdays, Grass Valley’s KNCO/830 AM).

Your garden may not be as big or diverse as past summers, but you can still plant something.

In the vegetable garden, opt for lower-water crops such as legumes (garbanzo beans, limas, tepary beans, etc.), cucumbers, melons, cantaloupe and squash. Skip the corn (it takes more water than lawn), but concentrate on crops that produce a lot of food with what water they get. That includes peppers, eggplant and, of course, tomatoes.

Always prolific, cherry tomatoes tend to need less water to produce a lot of fruit. Juliet and Sun Gold remain bountiful even with restricted water. But you can have full-size tomatoes, too, with some water management.

How much water do tomatoes need? Or more specifically, how much does a full-size fruit-bearing tomato plant need to get through a Sacramento summer while providing a good crop of flavorful tomatoes? The average is 5 gallons a week – less than that needed by a square foot of lawn.

Or think of it this way: One 5-gallon shower bucket of water will keep that tomato plant thriving for another week. That bucket can be filled as you wait for the water to warm up for one shower. Save water from seven showers in a week, you can provide for seven tomato plants – without missing a drop.

The keys to success are deep watering and mulch. Build a little berm or basin around your tomato plants so the water can soak in slowly. Mulch the entire vegetable garden to retain as much moisture as possible.

Other drought-tolerant crops to consider include Jerusalem artichokes (actually a sunflower with edible roots), Swiss chard, okra and (once established) rhubarb, asparagus and most herbs.

While water restrictions and drought are with us, edit your summer vegetable garden list to fewer plants; grow two or three tomato plants instead of 12. You may not have a bumper crop, but you’ll still have the satisfaction of homegrown tomatoes.

And your water isn’t “wasted,” because it’s producing food for you to eat.

As for the rest of the garden, concentrate on keeping trees and shrubs – your most valuable plants – alive. The Sacramento Tree Foundation recommends putting down a lot of mulch NOW while the soil still has some moisture. The ground – and roots – haven’t gone dust dry, thanks to some March rain.

Keep that moisture around a little longer with a thick mulch blanket under trees and shrubs. The foundation recommends 6 inches deep of organic mulch such as wood chips, bark, needles or straw in a 4-foot circle under trees. The mulch slowly breaks down, adding nutrients, while insulating tender roots from summer heat. Make sure the mulch doesn’t mound around the trunk; that may cause crown rot.

Consider transitioning into a more water-wise landscape, Trygg suggests.

“I’ve become a convert to native plants,” he said. “They use less water, they’re easier to grow. You can be a sensible gardener and still save water.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at sacbee.com/debbie-arrington

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