Beginning Gardening Series – Water Part I

A plant needs sun, soil, water, and air.  We’ve covered sun in the last installment.  Now let’s talk about water.

Water is a precious resource.  Below is a graph courtesy of the Department of the Interior, Geological Survey.  If you’ll note the last two lines, only .31% of fresh water is ground water less than 1/2 mile deep.  That’s all the water we are working with !

There are two sources of water for your garden – the tap and rainwater.

Tap Water

Water piped to your property by the city or municipality is the main source of water for home and community gardeners.  There is some concern about the chlorine in tap water, because chlorine can be toxic and kill off some of the micro-organisms in the soil.  Plants do grow better and soil is healthier with fresh rainwater.  Although you can have a thriving backyard or community garden watered by tap water, if this is an issue that concerns you greatly, there are filters that can be installed on the tap or on the garden hose to filter out chlorine. RV stores carry them, as well as major retailers.  They vary in cost from $37 to $100.  It depends on your budget.  A good brand appears to be Gard’n Grow that is made for attaching to a garden hose. An internet search can give you a variety of choices.


Rain is the best water source for your garden.  Capturing rainwater from roofs entails use of gutters, downspouts, and rain barrels or cisterns.  Depending on what you have available already (e.g., gutters and downspouts), installation of rain collection can be budget-friendly or expensive.  There are adapter kits available at the hardware store to divert rainwater from existing downspouts, into food grade (NOTE:  must be food grade) barrels which can be obtained online or through municipal water collections classes.  A rule of thumb is that a one-inch rain will deliver .6 gallons (that’s 6/10ths)/square foot of roof to your collection point.  So, a 2000 sq. ft. roof would be expected to give you 1200 gallons of runoff in a one-inch rain event.  A 50-gallon drum would be overflowing in a heartbeat.  So plan storage accordingly.  When I attended a class at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, we were told to plan capacity to hold water equivalent to usage for 30 or more days, depending on the longest average time without rain in our area.

Another way of capturing rain, called “harvesting rain,” is through building soil with organic matter, creating rainwater diversion channels, and use of mulch.  We’ll talk about these methods of harvesting rain in the next module, which will deal with soil building.

Conservation of Water

Whichever way you plan to water your garden, conservation of water is important.  The way in which you water your garden can play a big role in the amount of water you use.

              Rows and Ditches

The old way of planting a garden has been to form raised rows, divided by ditches, through which water flows.  Although it gets water to the root of the plants, a lot of water is evaporated before the water can soak into the soil.

             Hand Watering or Sprinklers

This method is with a hose and spraying by hand.  It is time and labor intensive, and water tends to evaporate on the journey from hose end to ground.  In addition, some plants prefer to be watered at the ground level.  If you hand water, bear in mind that the best time to water is in the morning, to allow moisture on leaves to evaporate during the day.  If you water in the evening, some water stays on leaves, and on the top of the ground, and can promote disease and attract pests.

Watering with sprinklers is similar to watering by hand.  There is lots of water evaporation between sprinkler and plant/ground contact.

            Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation delivers water at a slow rate, directly to plant roots.  This is the preferred way to water plants.  The slow rate of delivery allows water to soak in rather than puddling around the plants.  Drip irrigation kits complete with hoses and emitters can be purchased at hardware stores.  They can be as elaborate or expensive as you want.

I tend to favor a ½” porous hose, called a drip soaker, which can be purchased at hardware stores.  They last me about 2-3 years before the sun deteriorates them and I have to replace them. The soakers come in varying lengths.  I usually get a long one, with some hose coupling hardware, and then cut the hose into the lengths I need for whatever garden I’m irrigating.  I use “Y” couplings for adjacent beds, and can direct flow to one or the other or both beds at will.

What’s Ahead

In our next post, we’ll continue discussion of watering methods – highlighting the “olla.”  Stay tuned ….


Beginning Gardening Series – Design Considerations

As with any venture, it pays to plan beforehand.  Here are some considerations to take into account when planning your garden.

Sun Requirements

First to consider is sunlight.  Plants need sun.  Most plants need up to 8 hours of sunlight, some can make do with 6 and some with 4.  But you won’t be able to grow tomatoes and peppers if you don’t have at least 8 hours of sun.

Garden Accessibility

Placement of the garden is important.  Is the site easily accessible?  If it’s not, then you probably won’t be visiting it very often.  And gardens require frequent checking.  The ideal spot is close to your kitchen door, or where you will walk every day.  That way, you can eyeball the plants and see if they are thriving, if they need water, if weeds are encroaching, and what can be harvested.  Okra and squash can go from edible to gigantic and woody within a couple of days.  It pays to keep an eye on them daily.

Start Small

What sort of space is available in that sunny area?  Is it small?  Is it large?  The temptation for a large area is to turn it into a garden immediately – and then it gets away from you and grows weeds and you get discouraged.  Even if your family is excited about a garden, how excited will they be when it is hot (for a summer garden) or cold (for a fall/winter garden) and the garden needs watering, weeding, and harvesting?

Time Availability

No matter the size of the space, START SMALL AND SUCCEED.  What time do you have to devote to a garden?  A small plot, maybe two 4’x8’ beds, can be maintained in about 15 hours a day.  For a larger area, such as a 1200 sq. ft. garden, plan on devoting up to 4 hours a day.

In-ground or Containers?

Do you want to prepare an in-ground garden or go with containers?  If you rent and your landlord doesn’t want you tearing up lawn, then containers or straw bales might be the way to go. (NOTE: In the Resources section of this website is a summary of how to build a straw bale garden.)  Alternatively, if your sunny spot is on a patio or paved area, containers and/or straw bales would work well.

Physical Capability

What is your physical capability?  I’m of the age that working an in-ground garden is difficult, with all the bending required, and getting and down and then up again isn’t so easy.  I opted for containers and straw bales in my last house.  My next one, I’ll build raised beds (at least 24” high) to avoid stress on my back.


Another way to garden is to tuck edibles in and amongst your ornamental plantings.  Some vegetables can be very pretty and colorful (bell peppers come in purple, yellow, red, as well as green).   This is called “agriscaping.”


And then there’s money.  How much do you want to spend on building your garden?  There are ways of digging in-ground beds and building soil that are inexpensive, and there are methods that are as expensive as you want them to be – like building raised beds with timbers, bricks, pavers, or rock.  Look to your budget.

Width of Beds

If you are planning go build the garden in-ground (or even if you build wooden boxes for raised beds), consider how wide the beds should be.  Three feet wide is an easy width for accessing even the middle of the bed from either side.  A four-foot wide bed might be a stretch.  And why is this?  Because you don’t ever, ever want to walk on the planting beds once they are set up.  Walking on the beds compacts the ground and reduces the ability of the soil to absorb water and provide ease of penetration for plant roots.  We’ll get into soil building in another module.

What’s Ahead

In the next installment, we’ll talk about water for your garden.  Stay tuned ….


Beginning Gardening Series – Why Grow My Own Food

One of the questions I am asked, is “Why should I grow my own food? I can get what I want at the grocery store, even organic produce.”

I Eat Healthier

There are several reasons that I have always grown some of my own food.  One of them is that it promotes healthy eating.  I am much more likely to eat a variety of vegetables if I have just picked them from my own garden.  Sometimes I decide what to cook for dinner depending upon what is ready for picking.  I also find that the vegetables that come from my garden taste better. This is because they are picked just at their prime.  Vegetables at the grocery store, even organic vegetables, are harvested one or more days (sometimes weeks) before they are offered for sale.  Because they have to travel varying distances from the farmer to you.

Good for the Planet

And that brings me to another reason for growing my own:  food from my garden doesn’t travel so far.  Think of the use of fuel to transport vegetables and fruits from South America, or even across the U.S. There is no use of fuel to transport vegetables from my garden to my kitchen – just good ole steps for my fit bit to record!  I’ve heard it said that the average distance a vegetable or fruit travels is 1500 miles from farmer to plate.  That’s a lot!  In fact, it takes between 7 and 10 calories to produce and deliver 1 calorie to your plate.

Grow or Buy Local

That’s also why I urge folks to buy from local farmers what they do not grow themselves – the transportation distance is much less, and the vegetables are usually harvested within 24-48 hours of when they appear in the farmers market.

Better Nutrition

Getting back to healthy eating, a March 2008 report was released that said organic plant based foods are more nutritious and provide an average of 25% more nutrition than conventional foods at the grocery store.  This study was based on a comprehensive review of 97 published studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic vs. conventionally-raised foods, controlling for level of maturity, handling after harvest, and testing in the same form.  Further, there are more studies showing that pesticide and herbicide residues are still on the conventionally raised foods that are offered for sale at the supermarket.


Home gardeners often choose to grow heirloom and heritage varieties, as opposed to conventional varieties of vegetables.  This practice preserves biodiversity of our food.  We are losing biodiversity at an astonishing rate. As agriculture has become more and more the realm of agribusiness, crops are selected for their uniformity, ability to be machine harvested, and maturing at the same time for efficient harvest.  AS a consequence, fewer and fewer varieties are being cultivated.  According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN), 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost worldwide since the 1900s.


And finally, I garden because I experience a feeling of independence, even by growing one or two vegetables. I also get more vegetables for my dollar when I grow my own.  And there is the feeling of well-being that comes with digging in the dirt and watching a plant grow and the eating the food it gives me.  That feeling of well-being is also why gardening is used as “dirt therapy” for veterans with PTSD, as well as in prisons (there is a marked reduction in violence), and in people who are dealing with emotional and mental issues.

In short, there are a number of reasons to garden.

What’s Ahead

And in the coming installments, we’ll talk about what you should consider when planning a garden, what to plant, how to plant, and how to harvest.  Stay tuned ….