Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lessons From "Our" Droughts

As winter approaches, gardeners in the west now have three things on their minds—water, water, and water. Or, rather, the lack of it. The pale, arid shadow of a dusty drought now extends over much of the American west and southwest.

The drought, which has settled into much of the west over the past three years, doesn't make much noise. You can't hear the sound of the mud drying in the bottoms of empty reservoirs. You don't hear any noise from the leaves as they turn brown and fall off the trees in mid-summer. And you can't hear anything coming from the countless wells which have run dry.

The first drought for me, after moving to California, was the so-called Big Drought of 1975-1977. Our current drought, which has lingered for three long, parched years, has had its impact on wild lands, suburbs, and cities. Now, I get to improve my skills with gray water systems, drip irrigation, and xeriscape (drought resistant) planting techniques.

My first experiments with gray water systems—collecting water from sinks, showers, and laundries to irrigate fruit trees and ornamental landscaping—were during the 1970's drought. The systems I installed in the basements and crawl-spaces of clients throughout Marin county in those days were, in retrospect, a rag-tag, baling-wire collection of bizarre-looking gizmos. Now I’ve learned a lot more. See the photo on the left of a system designed with current “technology”.

In my experience, gray water is not a crisis-intervention scheme, but one of the many "tools" which allows my garden to flourish. The overwhelming feedback, and my personal experience, has been: "My plants are growing better with gray water than with any other water source."

I knew nothing about drip irrigation until the drought of the 70's. Again, the "Big" drought introduced me to a new gardening tool which has become commonplace in the 1990's. The technological advances in drip irrigation since I first started messin' with drip irrigation in 1975 have practically exceeded that of the revolution in the computer industry.

After experimenting with countless drip irrigation widgets and gadgets I've settled on my favorite emitter technology—in-line emitters. (As described in my updated edition of Drip Irrigation, For Every Landscape and All Climates. 2009) Unlike the more common punched-in emitter, which you buy separately and insert into a hole you've punched into solid drip irrigation tubing, in-line emitters come pre-fabricated inside the one-half inch drip irrigation hosing. On the right, see the interior of several emitters that become encased in ½-inch tubing. There is also a clear piece of tubing to reveal the emitter. All the real tubing is black or brown. Old-fashioned, punched-in emitters get brittle in the heat and sunlight and easily snap off during routine garden maintenance—which leads to tedious hours of repair. In-line emitters have nothing exposed to break off, are securely housed inside a sturdy one-half inch plastic tubing that'll take to abuse of weeding, gardening, and mulching, and are far less time-consuming since the emitters are preinstalled. With in-line emitters, I avoid the so-called "spaghetti" tubing which seems to somehow mysteriously move and knot itself and ends up resembling its namesake, a heap of tangled noodles.

The drought of the 1990's taught me how to plant so as to practically eliminate the need for drip irrigation. I've come to discover many ornamental Mediterranean plants are actually more drought-resistant than a lot of California native plants. There are small 18-year-old test plantings around my house which were planted at the beginning of our fall rainy season, and never irrigated again.

The first drought for me was the so-called Big Drought of 1975-1977. (By the way, how can a reduced amount of rain, be "bigger"? How can you have more of less?) Anyway, there have been plenty of "bigger" and longer droughts over the past 400 years. Tree ring analysis in the central portion of Santa Barbara county, the Santa Ynez Valley, indicates two periods of 60 years of drought (below "average" rainfall) since the 1500s

So, watch out, don’t count on a break in the drought.

Let me know what you think.

Visit my web site to learn about my new book on drip irrigation and other gardening books.

NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

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