Dealing with a Surprise Water Shortage

Suppose you are growing a conventional, irrigated garden and
something unanticipated interrupts your ability to water. Perhaps
you are homesteading and your well begins to dry up. Perhaps you're
a backyard gardener and the municipality temporarily restricts
usage. What to do?
First, if at all possible before the restrictions take effect, water
very heavily and long to ensure there is maximum subsoil moisture.
Then eliminate all newly started interplantings and ruthlessly hoe
out at least 75 percent of the remaining immature plants and about
half of those about two weeks away from harvest.
For example, suppose you've got a a 4-foot-wide intensive bed
holding seven rows of broccoli on 12 inch centers, or about 21
plants. Remove at least every other row and every other plant in the
three or four remaining rows. Try to bring plant density down to
those described in Chapter 5, "How to Grow It: A-Z"
Then shallowly hoe the soil every day or two to encourage the
surface inches to dry out and form a dust mulch. You water-wise
person--you're already dry gardening--now start fertigating.
How long available soil water will sustain a crop is determined by
how many plants are drawing on the reserve, how extensively their
root systems develop, and how many leaves are transpiring the
moisture. If there are no plants, most of the water will stay unused
in the barren soil through the entire growing season. If a crop
canopy is established midway through the growing season, the rate of
water loss will approximate that listed in the table in Chapter 1
"Estimated Irrigation Requirement." If by very close planting the
crop canopy is established as early as possible and maintained by
successive interplantings, as is recommended by most advocates of
raised-bed gardening, water losses will greatly exceed this rate.
Many vegetable species become mildly stressed when soil moisture has
dropped about half the way from capacity to the wilting point. On
very closely planted beds a crop can get in serious trouble without
irrigation in a matter of days. But if that same crop were planted
less densely, it might grow a few weeks without irrigation. And if
that crop were planted even farther apart so that no crop canopy
ever developed and a considerable amount of bare, dry earth were
showing, this apparent waste of growing space would result in an
even slower rate of soil moisture depletion. On deep, open soil the
crop might yield a respectable amount without needing any irrigation
at all.
West of the Cascades we expect a rainless summer; the surprise comes
that rare rainy year when the soil stays moist and we gather
bucketfuls of chanterelle mushrooms in early October. Though the
majority of maritime Northwest gardeners do not enjoy deep, open,
moisture-retentive soils, all except those with the shallowest soil
can increase their use of the free moisture nature provides and
lengthen the time between irrigations. The next chapter discusses
making the most of whatever soil depth you have. Most of our
region's gardens can yield abundantly without any rain at all if
only we reduce competition for available soil moisture, judiciously
fertigate some vegetable species, and practice a few other
water-wise tricks.
_Would lowering plant density as much as this book suggests equally
lower the yield of the plot? Surprisingly, the amount harvested does
not drop proportionately. In most cases having a plant density
one-eighth of that recommended by intensive gardening advocates will
result in a yield about half as great as on closely planted raised
Internet Readers: In the print copy of this book are color pictures
of my own "irrigationless" garden. Looking at them about here in the
book would add reality to these ideas.

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