A CALIFORNIA GARDEN IN THE FOURTH YEAR OF THE DROUGHT

Sep 26, 2015 by

The hummingbird zooms in over the fence about 7 every morning, while I’m watering.  It’s a male Anna’s hummingbird, identifiable by his iridescent rose gorget.

He hovers a foot above the hose spray, singing his high-pitched rusty gate greeting, hangs for a few seconds in front of me, and then rises and soars away to a branch in the madrone tree.  I raise the hose and lay some water drops on the leaves for him and return to the arithmetic watering of each garden bed.  In order to approach maximum water efficiency and minimize water waste, I’ve worked out a method for watering in this fourth year of drought in California.

I put the moisture meter’s sensor down into the root zone of each row and planter box.  When the display shows that the root zone is dry, I lay the hose onto the soil.  The soil is pretty good after all these years of learning about compost, worms, mulch.    I’ve covered the surface around the vegetable rows with rice straw six inches thick.  Except for days when the air temperature rises above 94F, I can water the entire 940 square foot garden in 15 minutes, which comes to 56.6 gallons.  On days that are forecast to rise above 94F, I water for 20 minutes, which comes to 80 gallons.  As the garden is on its own water meter, that’s the total daily water use, and in keeping with the daily house use.

I built this garden in 1994 with my then husband.  We hauled the lumber and fencing from town and rigged up a pulley with a bicycle wheel and a couple of wooden posts to get all the materials across the creek.  I would have built on the creek bank behind the house, but he said no, the watering would add too much weight to the soil and we’d have subsidence and foundation problems.  So we built across the creek, and it has worked out well, after all these years.

We built eight- foot-high wire fences to make the site deer-proof.  We built the planter boxes with gopher wire bottoms.  We took old man Martin’s advice and built the boxes no more than 4 feet across, so we would be able to reach from one side to the other for cultivating.  We had the soil delivered and it took us the best part of a week to get the soil across the creek in 5-gallon bucket loads, and then another week to spade it into the planter boxes.  First thing I planted was a one-gallon climbing Peace rose.  It’s now covering part of the 8 foot high fence.

I put in a Northern Spy apple tree

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and a Cox orange pippin.  I planted four kinds of grapes and two kinds of plums.  Back then, a house across the street was on the market for about 18 months, and I pruned and watered the peach tree in the front yard.  It came to me that whoever bought the place would likely cut down the tree, so I started some new ones from seed.  I opened some peach pits and removed the almond-like seed, and planted each one in a one-gallon container of straight compost.  The seeds sprouted, every one, and the peach trees are 20 feet tall now.  The new owners did cut down the parent tree. It turns out this is the uncommon French peach, thesanguinole, also known as the Indian peach, the Cherokee peach, and the blood peach.

My trees provide a crop of juicy purple fruit every September, and I give largesse to our neighbors.  I have started a dozen trees for other people in this town since then.This year, I put the tomatoes and bell peppers in 5 gallon containers, to save water and nutrients.

I put Nantes carrots in containers too, which worked out well, strangely enough.  The warnings had been that the carrots would deform into forked and twisted shapes, but they did not.  Early in the season, I put in snow peas, lettuces, and radishes, and they all did well.  But as the summer came on, I shifted to thicker-leaved plants that can better withstand long hours of bright sun.  I put in two plantings of kale, the second of which is now growing, and will go through the winter.  In the hot shade bed, I planted yams and sweet potatoes, for pretty as much as for food.  I haven’t harvested yet.

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Right now it’s sunflower time.

Grapes and peaches are in and apples are reddening.  They should come ripe in mid-October, depending on the weather.  Tomatoes are still producing.  If we get rain this winter, I will put in clover and snow peas, for nitrogen and food.  If we don’t get rain, I won’t put in winter crops.  If we don’t get rain, I probably won’t put in any annuals.  I’ll save our water allotment for the perennials, the trees, vines, lavender.  I might have to cut them back severely.We might not get rain this winter.  Data show that Ninos tend to dump heavy rain in Southern California, not in Northern California.  And a study published in Nature this month concludes that California is in a dry spell the like of which has not been seen for 500 years.  We are in the Big Dry.  The last time it was this dry, according to analysis of Blue oak tree rings in the Central Valley, Henry VIII was decapitating his wives, Columbus was on his last Caribbean voyage, Balboa was gazing upon the Pacific Ocean.  Another study by Stanford University researchers concludes that more droughts are a near certainty now, because temperatures are rising, so that even if precipitation rates held steady, increased heat overwhelms the available moisture.

I have no intention of letting this garden die.  The trees and vines want to live, and I am their caretaker.  But you can’t fight reality.  I realize we might have to move hundreds of miles north for reliable water.  These peach trees originated in Persia and were a French landrace.  They can stand cold winter better than I can. France is at latitude 47 and we are at latitude 38.  I can imagine moving to British Columbia with down parka and a sack of peach pits.  One way or another we will survive.  But I’ll miss the hummingbird.  I wonder if he’ll miss me.

Originally posted to Martha Ture on Tue Sep 22, 2015 at 04:34 PM PDT.

 

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