Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Gardeners show their resilience in face of drought

Reader Jim Langford had a bountiful crop of red onions, which he grew from seed.
Reader Jim Langford had a bountiful crop of red onions, which he grew from seed.

Drought can’t brown our green thumbs.

Sacramento gardeners will always be a resilient bunch. In the face of the fourth consecutive year of drought and mandatory water restrictions, many of us still enjoyed our home-grown tomatoes, peppers and other backyard favorites.

If it came down to saving the lawn or growing a beefsteak, we took the tomatoes. Maybe we didn’t harvest as many vegetables as in summers past, but those that we did produce proved extra-delicious.

That’s the consensus of readers who sent in their Summer of 2015 garden report cards. Whatever the yield, they all earned an “E” for excellent effort.

Dale Freeman of Carmichael “gave up watering his lawn,” he said. “Instead, the water goes to my garden of tomatoes, zucchini, squash, beans, eggplant, onions, strawberries and melons – a cornucopia of vegetables for the summer.”

“Drought is a challenge for us in the foothills of El Dorado County, too,” said Garry Erck of Diamond Springs. “A 28 percent mandatory reduction in water usage – without losing trees and other larger landscape items and still trying to have vegetables – is a bit of challenge.

“My raised beds have always been a heavy user of water, due to the fluffy nature of the store-bought soil – the water would just pour right through it,” he added. “So 2015 had me thinking how to significantly reduce my garden water needs.”

To help his tomatoes cope with less water, Erck added coir – coconut husk fiber – to his planting holes, switched his irrigation from sprayers to inline drip-emitting hoses and mulched with chips off an alfalfa bale.

“The goal for the summer was to water only twice a week, and for three hours (on a drip system) on the water days, which would be significantly less than what I had done before,” Erck said. “The results were positive; my tomatoes did very well. I planted four plants – three of which are producing enough tomatoes to keep us in business. … I am getting a nice Cherokee Purple crop, and the mulch is doing an excellent job of retaining moisture – with the added benefit that it will be shredded into the compost bin at the end of the growing season.”

Radio host and lifetime master gardener Farmer Fred Hoffman grows dozens of tomato and pepper varieties at his home in Herald. He saw varied results from his assortment, but one true standout – the Striped German tomato. The only trick with this giant yellow tomato was to tell when it was ready to pick.

“The Striped German heirloom tomato is our favorite this year,” Hoffman said. “It’s big, pretty and tasty, without being too sweet or acidic. One person I gave a plant to described the interior as psychedelic. The only drawback: It tends to get soft on the bottom if allowed to become overripe on the vine. Because of its soft coloration, it is difficult to eyeball ripeness.”

Albert Stevenson of Camino said he used his water to grow pumpkins “for the entertainment of children in the neighborhood, nieces and nephews.” Among the unusually colored and odd-shaped varieties that did well this summer: Porcelain Doll, Jardale, Musque de Provence and Naples.

“The square pumpkins were a surprise,” he said. “They were grown in a box.”

Gordon and Debbie West of Loomis concentrated on peppers. “The peppers were planted April 3,” Debbie West said. “We planted Yolo Wonder Bell, Anaheim chili, habanero and Mammoth jalapeño. Most of the hot peppers go into my homemade hot sauces.”

Rio Linda’s Jim Langford scored with onions, as well as other vegetables that will keep his kitchen busy.

“One of the success stories from this year was the onion crop,” Langford said. “I grew two varieties from seed (Expression and Cabernet), which were started in a cold frame on Feb. 28. They were transplanted into the ground bare root on March 25.”

From that modest start, he harvested hundreds of mature yellow and red onions on June 23.

But his summer garden was just getting started. Langford froze dozens of Zephyr yellow squash and Ambassador zucchini. They were planted from seed on St. Patrick’s Day; he started harvesting in May.

His tomatoes went in the ground early, too. “The tomatoes were started from seed on Feb. 21 in a cold frame and planted into the ground on March 26.”

By June 25, he was canning bushels of tomatoes. “Big Beef proved once again to be the best large tomato in my garden,” Langford said.

And he produced all that food with limited irrigation, watering his rows twice a week at most.

It just shows once again that you can have home-grown tomatoes and save water, too.