Nine tips for keeping an urban garden well-watered despite El Niño

By Jane Villa

Someone who becomes an urban gardener will inevitably adopt sustainable practices, if it weren’t to those practices that drew them to gardening to begin with. In my case, I first wanted to grow a few herbs, until I wanted to grow my own food by planting leafy vegetables like pechay and lettuce, and fruiting vegetables like gourd, squash, tomato, and pepper.

In the process of learning how to grow the said crops, I found that the key to growing healthy plants and in developing the so-called green thumb is maintaining a good ecosystem on my balcony garden, where beneficial insects eat harmful pests. I am learning to reuse a lot of available materials in my garden instead of buying them. For example, single use cups can be reused as seed starter, disposable spoon and fork and chopsticks as plant markers, empty wine bottles as water reservoir, spent coffee grounds and food scraps as compost, and the list goes on.

Gardening has made me more conscious about my consumption habits and somehow has led me to practice reducing, reusing, recycling, and conserving more consistently. What’s more, it’s not the reduction on the use of resources per se, but the efficient use of resources, like water, for instance.

Anything can be used as pots. Here, I am growing habanero seedlings in reused disposable cups.

As we feel the effects of El Niño and the occasional water interruptions around the metro, gardeners could be facing a moral dilemma – how can we continue to water our plants when it could come to a point where we wouldn’t have enough water to use for basic human consumption?

However, plants, like any living things, need water in order to survive. It is somewhat synonymous to the question whether I should give water to my pets. As someone who plants edibles in the hope of growing my own food, I know that water is indeed a necessity for my plants. That said, there are ways to increase efficiency in the use of water in the garden and avoid wastage.

Below are some of the practices I have adopted:

1. Reuse water. Pre-used but clean water, such as water used to rinse rice and boil eggs, can be used to water plants instead of fresh water. Pasta water can also be used if it does not contain salt and oil. Just use them when they’re down to room temperature and within 24 hours as “used” water can develop bacteria. Leftover coffee (black, without cream and sugar) can be heavily diluted and given to plants that love a touch of acidity, such as tomatoes and peppers. Avoid using water with soap and any other additives.

2. Bigger pots conserve moisture longer. Smaller pots dry out faster, so it is more efficient to use the biggest pots you can get. I use a variety of small, medium, and big pots in my garden because these are used depending on the size of the plant, but for its final home, I use 12-inch x 12 inch pots. The longer the soil stays moist, the fewer times you have to water the plant.

3. Catch excess water and reuse it. Many plants hate “wet feet,” a condition where the roots are submerged in water all the time. This happens when the soil does not drain well and the pot does not have adequate drainage holes. This is why pots are designed to drain and that means a lot of excess water will seep out into the ground during watering. Many pots come with their own plates to catch this excess water.

4. Self-watering raised beds. I had two 2 x 4 square foot and one 3 x 3 square foot raised beds, all at least 12-inch in depth, made for the bigger plants I’m growing such as squash, gourd, tomato and pepper, as well as root crops like radish, beet, and carrot. You can imagine how much water they would require, and how much excess water I would be wasting every time I water the plants, which is done once or twice a week. To prevent this wastage, these raised beds have been custom-made as wicking bed-style raised beds, so that they will collect the excess water in a reservoir underneath, but also wick water back up and water the plants from the roots. The design is meant to reduce hours I spend watering the plants and to allow the plants to manage themselves when I am travelling.

Sometimes I forget to water the plants for over a week. I noticed the insulin plant edges starting to turn brown so I used an old wine bottle to make this pot self-watering. Not to worry, the insulin plant is one plant that refuses to die even after days without watering.

5. Self-watering hacks in individual pots. For the individual pots, I repurpose empty wine bottles or liter-size plastic bottles to make self-watering planters by filling them with water and sticking the neck in soil so the water slowly drains. To control water flow better, you can also poke small holes in the caps, fill the bottle with water, and screw the caps on before inserting the neck in the soil. The water will flow slowly into the soil, giving the plant consistent watering until the water in the bottle is used up.

6. Mulch. Mulching is the process of covering the soil with plastic or organic matter to conserve moisture and keep the soil temperature warm. Since exposed soil makes moisture evaporate faster, to retain and conserve moisture as long as possible, cover the exposed soil at the base of the plant with organic matter such as rice hull or shredded cardboard, newspaper, and brown paper. When I began using leftover brown paper bags as mulch, I noticed the soil dried up more slowly, even for the smaller pots, and I water them less often than I used to.

7. Use clear plastic bags to simulate a greenhouse effect. In my garden, maya birds peck and destroy young seedlings. To protect the plants, I cover them with clear plastic bag packaging, which I never throw away precisely for this purpose, and puncture holes on the bags for ventilation. This technique lets the seedlings grow in peace, with the added benefit of conserving water as long as possible through condensation.

8. Do not overwater. When I was a newbie, I tended to overdo caring for the plants, causing many of them to die. The truth is, the more you watch the plants and tinker with them, the more they will fail to thrive. I have since learned to let go and not be panicky about every single whitefly sighting, or yellowing leaves. Instead, I have learned to read the signals and give the plant what it needs, at the time they need it. Many edible plants should not be watered every day. What they need is infrequent but deep watering, and you’ll know this when the top two inches of the soil is dry, or the plant is drooping a little.

9. Incorporate a rain collector. Lastly, part of the plans for my garden is to incorporate a rain collector. I still have to figure out the space for it and how it can be part of the garden design, but I do know this is essential. In fact, rainwater is more recommended for plant use than our piped-in water.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s July 2019 issue. 

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