This weekend we’re beginning the process of setting up our rainwater harvesting system. We’re upgrading from our two little 50 gallon decorative barrels to four 320 gallon IBC totes.
The city gives a rebate for water saving measures like installing rain barrels and low water landscapes. When I bought the house, I immediately ran out and bought a couple of little rain barrels, stuck them under the downspouts and waited for the next rain. It’s Albuquerque so we had to wait a little while. But when it finally did rain both barrels overflowed. Which was cool but didn’t really help catch all that precious, free water.
How much water can you really catch in the desert?
Average precipitation in Albuquerque is about 9 inches per year. Our roof is about 1000 square feet, so we can collect 5580 gallons a year. It’s definitely not enough to meet our household needs but is enough to manage the garden. Tucson gets about 15 inches of rain per year, so Brad Lancaster gets about 9300.
We live in a smallish house in the high desert. A bigger house in a place with more precipitation will collect even more FREE water! When we were living in MA, it was a dry year and there was not a rain barrel or cistern to be seen. Can you imagine how much rainwater could be collected in damper climates?
IBC totes are BPA-free plastic cubes wrapped in a metal cage. We found ours on Craigslist and had them delivered. Always check to be sure the totes that you buy were used for food. Ours held enzymes. Companies that used these for storage used to give them away but now they are starting to recognize a potential market and it’s harder find freebies.
Installing these babies is going to be a little more complex to set them up than just sticking barrels under the downspout. Fortunately we’re still a few weeks out from the start of our monsoon season which is when we get the majority of our precipitation for the year. We’ve got plenty of time to get it all set up.
This weekend we’ll start with the gutters. Our current gutters are vinyl and have not held up to the strong UV radiation that we get at this altitude. They were installed about 3 years ago and are already sagging. They’re also angled in the wrong direction.
Frank, who is an engineer by training, has been watching youtube videos for months on the best ways to set up our collection system. While it’s frustratingly slow for me (the name of this blog was almost going to be “The Impatient Gardener”), everything he does is well-conceived and meticulous.
For more details on harvesting rainwater for your home, check out Brad Lancaster’s book. This is a link to my Amazon Affiliates account and I will receive a commission if you decide to purchase it.
There really isn’t much to do in July. Here in zone 7, the tomatoes, squash and peppers are starting to come in. It’s really too hot to do much planting outdoors and pruning is too stressful on the plants. However, beans, corn and fast maturing squash can still go in the ground. July is really about observing, maintaining and thinking about fall.
Start thinking about cool weather veggies like kale, lettuce, and other greens as well as carrots and some root vegetables. Make a wish list of what you’d like to eat fresh in the winter months and keep it on your fridge.
It’s a good time to order seed potatoes.
Plant fast maturing squash, melons, beans and corn if you live in zones 7 and plus.
The bulb catalogs are coming out and some of them are give pretty steep discounts. None of us want to think about February and March while we’re lounging under the shade tree with a cold beverage but you’ll be glad you did when those first spring flowers come poking up out of the ground. Get your daffodils and tulips ordered now. Breck’s is my bulb company of choice right now, though I’m always looking around for other eye candy.
Keep an eye on your plants for caterpillars and other bugs that might do serious damage to your garden and remove what you can.
Read a new gardening book. I’m waiting on a book on landscaping with native plants by Judith Phillips. She’s a local garden designer and expert on using plants that are appropriate for the Southwest.
Try new recipes for your fresh veggies. Really. You need to figure out what to do with all that zucchini.
Sit in your garden and watch. Keep a little diary of what’s working and what needs to change for next year.
Even though it’s hot, don’t overwater your trees and perennials. Once every 10 days is still fine. They’ll be forced to develop a sturdier root system.
Put a bird bath or small fountain in your garden. Having a water source nearby will keep the birds from devouring your fruits and juicy tomatoes. Its also fun to watch them splash around and stay cool.
If you haven’t already done it, mulch! We have bark everywhere we have plants right now but are going to be removing the bark around the veggies and replacing it with straw. Mulch will keep the roots cooler and slow down evaporation so that water stays where it needs to be.
Are you interested in growing your own food and flowers? Do you have a particularly difficult gardening situation? Are you interested in learning more about plants, bugs, and how to take care of what you’ve got with the resources at hand?
Gardening in the high desert is not for the faint of heart. We have 30 degree temperature swings daily, rock hard, alkaline soil, and often go long stretches without rain. On the bright side, we get 280 days of sunshine per year and have a blissful 6 months between frosts.
We have a lot of the same problems here that gardeners around the world deal with: how to choose plants that are right for your garden, how to take care of plants once they are started, and what to do with all the beautiful produce when it’s ready to pick and how to deal with pests. We’re learning something all the time about the best way to use water in our garden, how to prune our apple trees, and what to do about squash bugs (I think the answer to that is bourbon. It doesn’t kill the squash bugs but it can ease the pain of watching all your pampered squash and cucumbers withering away).
I also love to see what is going on in other people’s gardens including botanical gardens and public spaces. The trend towards using native plants in landscapes rather than European imports in a climate that just won’t support them gives us a sense of place. We can have our romantic cottage garden but need to use plants that will survive in our unique biome.
I hope we can make our journey together. If you live in the arid west or in a similar climate, I think you’ll find plenty of useful information. If you live elsewhere, not everything will apply to your situation but I think you’ll still find some pearls to take to your garden.
Albuquerque gets about 9 inches of rain per year. That’s less than Tucson, Arizona. City ordinances restrict the watering of lawns and gardens to 3 days per week in the summer months. That is not nearly enough to keep tomatoes and cucumbers happy and producing. Consequently, we’re always looking for ways to get water to our plants cheaply and efficiently.
When I bought our house it had sprinklers and an attempt at drip irrigation which promptly fell apart during the first spring irrigation. We’ve been watering by hand every legal day during the long growing season. Thick layers of mulch keep the moisture from evaporating in our dry heat but during high temps we need a little extra help to keep our veggies happy.
Last winter I read a book called Gardening With Less Water by David Bainbridge and was introduced to the miracle of ollas (oi-yas). Ollas are unglazed clay jars which are buried in the ground and filled with water. Since the clay is porous, the water gradually seeps out into the soil irrigating plants directly at the roots. This style of irrigation has been used all over the world from China to Mexico for thousands of years to allow increased farm yields during dry years.
So far, we have 16 ollas in our garden. I bought a fancy one (read $$$) at Plants of the Southwest and made three in my pottery class. I made a few more on the potters wheel but they are waiting patiently to be fired. Since we had a week of 100+ degree heat, I decide that our poor little garden couldn’t wait for a full kiln load to get water to their roots. We purchased a bunch of 6 and 8 inch terra cotta pots at the big box store along with some silicone caulk and tin caps that used for roofing. I put them together in about an hour and buried them in the garden this morning.
For the first couple of weeks after the ollas are installed, we still need to hand water with the hose. This gives the roots time to find their new, on demand water source
We’re in USDA zone 7b which means we’ll have the occasional freeze, with lows averaging 5-10 degrees in the winter. We will need to dig up our ollas in the winter so that they aren’t damaged. If you live somewhere like Phoenix or Southern New Mexico where you don’t really get a hard freeze, then the ollas can live in your garden year round.
Why should you bury clay pots in your garden?
It is 50-75% more effective than surface watering, even drip irrigation, since the water is going directly to the roots of the plants..
2. After the plants are established around the ollas the soil surface isn’t getting wet. Therefore, the weed seeds – and in my case, the millions of elm seeds that end up everywhere – won’t germinate. Your days of bending over to pull the weeds is over.
3. You can’t overwater! The water moves out of the pot by means of capillary action, so if the soil is damp the water stays inside the olla. When the soil is dry, the water moves through the walls of the olla into the soil, only giving your plants what they need.
Instead of hand watering 3 days a week, we check our established ollas once or twice a week and top off the water.