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The low-water garden

Growing up, my family went camping.  It was our annual vacation.  Then, for some reason, we sold the camper, and bought a crappy little boat.  A 26 foot boat for a family of four who were all giants by the time they were 10?  Winning idea.

One day, we were cruising to the San Juans in August.  Now, when you’re 10 and you hear “San Juan Islands”, you naturally assume you’re going to a tropical beach.  The disappointment level was high when I realized it looked exactly like the rest of Puget Sound – cold ass water, rock-based beaches, and huge trees.

On this particular day, my dad was driving the boat, and my mom was up with him reading, and my sister and I were down below deck (which sounds glamorous, but picture a refrigerator box, put a tiny toilet in it, and then a bench, and you have a great idea of this “luxury cabin”.  Being the pasty nerds we were, we were down there reading, cowering from the sun.  Suddenly, the engines loudly stopped and my dad screamed “GIRLS, get your life jackets on, holy crap, get up here”.  Being level-headed girls that we were, we ran around like moronic chickens looking for life jackets, throwing them on, and rushing up to the deck.

There at my dad, looking at his watch saying “that was a drill and it took you both too long to get up here”.


Fast forward to when I’m in the 9th grade, and my sister is…older(?) and we were downstairs at my parent’s house.  It was snowing outside, but because we had a fire box from hell (pellet stove) in the basement, we were sweating our butts off.  We were lounging and watching one of the three channels the crappy TV down there got…I’m probably guessing we were watching Renegade (don’t tell me you don’t remember Lorenzo Lamas’ amazing motorcycle detective?????).  Because it was as hot as Sasquatches nut sack on an August day, we were inappropriately dressed for the winter weather raging outside.  I was wearing my favorite pink Umbros (are those still around?) and a t-shirt.

Suddenly, we heard a loud yell from the garage (attached to the basement); it was my dad yelling “GIRLS, GET OUT HERE, AND HURRY”!!!!  We threw on our flip flops that we kept by the door, and rushed out expecting to find my dad pinned under a collapsed garage door or something.

Instead, we find him in the driveway, standing in the snow, with the back tire of my mom’s 1989 Ford Taurus (#respect) sitting in the freaking snow.  He then announces that we’re going to learn to change a tire.  We mention something about the fact that he was shit ass crazy, but in more polite terms like “OMG dad, you’re off your rocker” or something, and head back inside.

He reinforces that no, this is happening.  Now.

And we did it.  We learned to change a tire, in the snow, wearing shorts and flip flops.  We were then informed that if we could learn to change a tire in those conditions, we would never have a problem doing it by ourselves should we find stranded with a busted tire.

What in the hell does this have to do with gardening you ask?  Great question.

In my family, we’re taught to put up or shut up.  To stress ourselves the freak out to be stronger and more self-reliant in the end.  That is how I treat my garden.  I constantly tell my plants (when they start talking back, I’ll ask for help), “survive and thrive”.

Last week during my garden tour post, I mentioned I hardly ever water my garden, and I know a few of you called “BS” on that one, but it’s true!  And don’t assume that I get a free pass on watering because I live in Seattle and it rains here all the time, because guess what?  It doesn’t!  Our summers are typically quite dry, and while not super hot all the time, we get loads of sun and and nary a drop of rain between July 5th and the end of September.  So…how do I get away without 6,490 feet of soaker hose?  Read on my friends.

1) Start with hardy plants that are acclimated to your hardiness zone
Total no-brainer, but you wouldn’t build a brick house in an earthquake zone, and you wouldn’t build a straw house in a rainforest.  Give yourself a strong foundation, and your garden is already at least 50% on the road to success.  Plants that grow well in your zone will tend to um, grow well in your garden.

2) Plant during the magic time
It’s hard to learn when the magic time is, and it might take you a few years to perfect it, but once you do, it’s golden.  Learn your average last and first frost dates, and talk to gardeners in your hood.  In my climate, I follow the adage of “plant peas on Washington’s birthday, potatoes on St. Patrick’s day (which strikes me as slightly racist, but I digress), and my heat loving plants (tomatoes, etc.) around Mother’s Day.  To date, I’ve not been burned by following these “guides”.  Find an older person with dirt under their nails in your town (psst, they hang out at feed stores) and ask them their tips.  And then get comfy, because your new bestie is going to talk and talk and talk.

3) Amend
Your soil is a living, breathing being made up of bajillions (that’s a thing) of microbes, bugs, and other things (technical terms).  That stuff needs to eat, just like us.  This is where compost and other amendments come in to your life.  Would you believe me that I never do a soil test, I never buy bags of things like bone meal, etc.  I use compost that I made by dumping stuff in a spinning drum and promptly ignored for six months.  Now I use composted chicken shit, and that’s been fabulous.  Don’t have chickens (for shame)?  Try a lazy lasagna bed that requires little effort on your time, and will rock your dirty gardening socks off.

4) Mulch
Once you plant everything, you have two choices.  You can 1) plant stuff, cover it with dirt, call it good, and then spend the next four months pulling weeds and watering nightly, or 2) cover that crap up with something.  I top every lick of dirt I can find with straw.  Straw is cheap, and keeps my plants insulated and my garden pretty free of weeds.  Not completely free mind you.  Pretty free.

The straw keeps the water from evaporating too quickly after you water, or it rains.  When I’ve had part of the garden covered in straw, I could still find lush black soil underneath, weeks after a rainstorm.  The parts of the garden that were bare dirt, was bleached looking just a few days later.

5) Use water wisely
When we have a our traditional two weeks of 90+ degree temps, I absolutely bust out my hose and sprinkler, and give the plants a drink.  I’m not an idiot!  But, other than that, once a plant is established and looks healthy, I generally ignore it unless it is giving out some signs of needing a drink.  To give plants a drink without using excessive amounts of fresh drinking water, I use a few tricks like:

  • Emptying water bottles at the end of the day in to the garden.
  • Keeping a bucket in our shower because it takes about 26 years for our shower to heat up.  Capturing that water is a no-brainer.
  • I have a very classy bucket to capture water from our chicken coop.
  • Jack takes a bath every night, so during the thirsty garden months, I haul a few buckets full of water out to the garden each night.  It’s a good arm workout, and keeps me from having to ninja fight a naked five year old on my bed, because “mommy is busy you psycho”.  Double win.
  • I empty the chicken’s water each morning in to my potted mint plants.  They dry out the fastest, and therefore get a “free” half gallon of water each morning.
  • I water plants in the morning that easily “mildew” like pumpkin, cucumber, and squash.  Their leaves always get gross first, so if I water them in the morning, the water isn’t sitting on the leaves all night; it is dried by the day’s sun.  Other plants that don’t get that same powdery mildew are watered in late evening to prevent rapid evaporation.

You might think that “stressing” a garden a little bit would create low yields, and plant deaths.  And some times, you might be right, but overall, I have decent success each year. It is decent enough to keep me on the path of low water gardening.






I am not even kidding, that the end of that pumpkin vine, was at the solar light on the left on Saturday. It easily grew a foot in 5 days.

Ok, I’ve shared my tips, and I’d love to hear yours.  How do you keep your water alive in the summer when the temps are high, and the rain clouds are stingy?


It took you 22 seconds to come to my aid.  Let’s work on improving that response time, m’kay?

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7 comments on “The low-water garden”

  1. I seriously leave your blog posts the last ones to read at the end of my day…
    You make me sleep better!
    Now, on to the no-water-garden paradox. Which is no paradox at all, esp here in Greece with the 6-month-blazing-can’t-take-it-anymore sun! And very little rain…
    So, the best tomatos, grapes, cucumbers, zucchinis and many more come from the island of Santorini where it rains…oh…maybe 3 days per year.
    One of the islanders’ tips is to maintain the plants as low to the ground as possible.
    They taste absolutely perfect and a small garden like yours actually would yield quite enough for a family of 4.
    The same is true with olive trees (my family owns A LOT). The lesser you water the better the quality and the taste of the olive oil.

  2. Haha my mom once decided to test what we’d do in an emergency (it was soon after 911 started, I think). One by one, as we came home from our respective schools, she faked passing out and waited to see what we’d do. I was the second one home, and I came home to see my sister sitting on the couch rocking back and forth. While I asked her what was wrong, mom “collapsed” and I called her sister. We all failed her test, so she made her point, but the psychologically trauma never went away! heh

  3. I water the seeds until I think they are solidly established and then aside from weeding leave ’em to fend for themselves. Transplants get water til they look settled in and same thing. I’ m just starting to figure out the joys of heavy mulch and experimenting with putting a sprinkle of straw over newly sown seeds. Worked a miracle with the parsley so now trying it with newly seeded lavender and thyme. I inherited my MIL’s garden this year and her way was always close planting to avoid weeds so this is all new for me.

  4. Your stories are hilarious!

    I would love to have a garden one day. Maybe when we find a home that we can buy and that we will live in for more than two years. I have moved around a lot with my parents being in the Navy until I was 12 and now being married to my Navy husband. I can’t wait to settle down in one place, one of the biggest reasons being that I would love to try my hand at gardening. Hopefully I can refer to your tips when that day comes!

  5. I LOVE the tip about hauling buckets of bath water out to the garden. I also need to start catching my shower water while it warms up.

    We have a broken gutter and the water never makes it to the down spout. This is actually a good thing because I have a garbage can under the broken spot to catch the rain. I figured the owners wouldn’t like it if I cut up the down spout to catch the rain. We had some crazy rain a few weeks ago and that trash can filled up pretty quick. I just used up the last of it today.

    Right now our kitchen faucet is leaking (again). I’ve called the landlord twice and they have yet to come fix it. Last time it was leaking, I tried to fix it and made it worse. So, in the mean time, I am just catching the water in a jar and dumping it into a bucket in the yard.

    I’ve been thinking about getting some straw to use as mulch. As all of our plants are in raised beds, they tend to dry out pretty quick.

    I love the stories. Renegade was a good show, Lorenzo Lamas was so dreamy. And yes, I had some Umbros. As a soccer player, it was almost required to own a few pairs. Those were the days…

    Thanks for the garden tips!

  6. Hey, I see nothing here about the man over board drill you concocted at the Steward Island poop pump out barge by falling between the Owens and the pump station. Also thanks for not sharing the “Uncle Potty Face” incident.


  7. Hilarious…plus great tips!