Saturday, April 26, 2014

W Is For Water

Water tanks linked to our borehole
April is not a good time to plant watermelon and I have no plans to grow watercress, watercelery or waterchestnuts, so I'd rather focus on access to water, a critical aspect of growing your own food in any month.

Most urban gardeners have to rely on municipal water, so they are limited in how much they can grow unless they don't mind having an exhorbitant water bill.

In South Africa, we have a limited number of litres we get free, then a capped amount to use at a specified rate. If you exceed that cap, the municipality charge you an exhorbitant rate. The objective is no longer just to charge you for your usage, but to punish discourage you from exceeding the cap.

Even if you live in a rural area or municipal by-laws allow you to have a borehole, there is still a cost to install the borehole and water tank infrastuctures, but to run them, whether they run on gas/petrol or electricity. Then there are the maintanence costs...

The third potential source of garden water is rain water.Unfortunately, the tanks are not cheap either.  The fourth source is grey water, waste water from baths, showers, laundry and hand basins which you can recycle to water your garden.

As for us, we use the first three water sources: the borehole, municipal water and rainwater.  Unfortunately we don't have tanks to capture rainwater yet, so my strategy so far is watching the seasons and planting extensively in rainy seasons and scaling back a bit during dry seasons.

The major hiccup with that plan is that we've been going through drought the past couple of years, and it was only earlier this year that it started to rain enough to make a difference in the soil. As for redirecting our grey water, that too is still in my wishlist.

My water-saving tips for the garden

1. Mix in lots of manure and compost to improve your soil
Have you ever gardened in heavy clay soil? It doesn't retain water well, and when it's dry, it's like a brick. Hard enough to kill your poor plants. When it's wet, it's heavy. So I'm working hard to add organic matter to it, mixing in manure and compost in it, and then throwing in grass clippings whenever we or our neighbours mow our lawns (yes, we do ask for neighbours' grass clippings:)

2. Include water crystals in your soil
I admit that so far I've only read about this from my fellow food gardeners at the Down To Earth forums, but they had good things to say about it. The way they work is that you mix them with the soil and when you water your garden, they hold onto the water for an extended period of time, slowly letting it out into the soil by transpiration. That means that when you water your garden, the water evaporates from the soil more slowly when the soil has the crystals, giving your plants' roots a bigger opportunity to drink it up.

3. Plant drought-resistant and/ water-wise plants
Unfortunately, this is one principle I didn't think of when I first started my garden here. I'd been living in Johannesburg for more than 20 years and well... we had rain throughout the year. The region is also slightly cooler. So while I knew in theory that this region was much hotter and drier, I didn't understand the implications until I lived here day in and out.

The climate has completely changed my gardening strategy. I am now conscious of whether a plant is water wise and /drought resistant and I'm very cautious of thirsty plants. Water from the borehole means that I do have a bit of leeway, but there have been times when water from the borehole is better saved for household use, especially when the municipality starts rationing water during drought periods.

4. Mulch as much as you can
Mulch protects the garden bed from the sun and helps the soil retain water. Unfortunately, I've only recently started doing it on a large scale, now that I managed to buy a mulcher. Before, I was limited in the quantities of mulch I could get as I was unwilling/unable to spend too much money on the gardening venture.

5. Collect rain water for your garden
Earlier this year while it was raining heavily and non-stop, I wished that I had water tanks to collect water for future use in the garden. Unfortunately, I don't have the resources to make that investment yet. But in time, it will happen.

6. Water your garden wisely

  • Where possible, water your garden in the  evening so that the water can have a chance to seep into the soil without the sun evaporating it.
  •  Be aware of the watering needs of your plants. Some plants need more water than others; others need to be watered frequently while others need a deep soak every now and then. Giving your plants what they need means you won't waste watering plants that don't need it.
  •  Make sure that your watering system is very targeted, so that there is very little water that hits non-planted areas of your garden/beds. 
  •  When you water your garden, aim for the base of the plant, so that water can easily seep into the soil and into the roots, instead of giving your plant leaves a shower.
  •  Remove the weeds so they don't drink your plants' water. When you have less weeds in your garden beds, your plants have access to more water, as there is less competition for it.


  1. excellent post- we are in a sever drought here so I printing out all your suggestions! Thanks!

  2. Hi Kathe,
    Good luck with your garden.

  3. Good post. Reminds me to be thankful for rainfall. I'm using the compost from my wormery to add to my clay soil. On top of clay, things that limit what I grow are sunshine, snails and slugs.

    1. That must make gardening very challenging for you.

  4. Excellent post. I have often complained that homes where I live should have been plumbed so that when municipal water became available it was only used inside and that the well water would remain for outdoor use. How wasteful to water your lawn with drinking water. I too, have often thought about rain barrels.

    1. You are so right! Part of the challenge, I think, is that we went through that phase when the majority of people were not aware/chose to ignore that water is scarce actually.

      For me then, water came from the municipality... and THEY were obligated to provide what we wanted, and we as citizens could use however much we wanted, as long as we paid the bill.

      But then it dawns on you that your water supplier is actually limited in how much they can provide and the challlenge is not whether you can afford to pay for higher usage.. it's that the overall supply is limited.

  5. W for water - what better usage could it be... Water is going to be a scarce resource if we do not act immediately. The points made of conservation are very valid..

    1. Im afraid it's already a scarce resource for me/my community. We've gone through a bit of drought, and last year municipality even had to ration water. It helps that we have a borehole though.