Have you ever set the morning alarm for 5:30am during summer to rise and water your garden? Caring for outdoor plants in the cool mornings or at sunset can be a meditative, nurturing experience, with a chance to commune with neighbors who are out walking their dogs and getting in their “steps.” It also gives landscaping, vegetables and fruit a chance to absorb water outside the hottest hours when some of the moisture will evaporate.

San Diego county’s reduced rainfall in January to June means we could be headed for the 6th driest year on record, going back 128 years. About a third of the county is now in “severe drought,” according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. The region is expected to experience continued warming and drying, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as included in the draft update to the City of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan.

A third of San Diego county is in severe drought. Map source: National Integrated Drought Information System. Image source: drought.gov.

With water concerns heightened, it’s still possible to grow an edible garden in San Diego County and it can be a joy. Here are some tips:

Landscape Design

To make a big difference in outdoor water use, we can remove lawns and take out water-hogging plants to replace them with natives or decorative stone, bark, artificial turf or a design feature. California Native Plant Society provides suggestions for your zip code.

Soils

The easiest and most accurate way to know your soil is to buy a test kit at a nursery or home improvement store. You can also talk to your local plant nursery, reach out to the San Diego Master Gardeners or another gardening group for advice. This region’s soil is prone to containing clay and decomposed granite, which can set rock hard and deter roots from reaching water and air. Vegetables, annuals and perennials have more difficulty with hardened soils than do sturdy trees with strong roots.

Adding texture with an amendment such as compost will aid circulation of air and water. Making your own compost by using raw vegetable waste from meal preparation, such as carrot tops, leaves, and potato peels, then letting them decompose in a closed bin (to deter critters and odor) is an excellent way to reduce water waste and improve a garden. For best results, take a workshop (more below), or research online. After you do your planting, add mulch on top of soil, to help reduce moisture loss.

Plant Selection

Find reliable guides that accurately break down San Diego County's microclimates because something that grows well in Carlsbad may not last long in Escondido. Native plants and drought tolerant species are ideal for this region. Note the word tolerant: While some plants can tolerate some drought, it doesn’t mean they can totally forgo water. When purchasing plants, always observe where they are displayed at the nursery. Hint: if they’re in full sun, it means they can handle that. If they’re in a shaded area, there’s a good reason. Also, check the tag in the pot for watering instructions before you purchase plants. Native plants are usually in a specific section at nurseries. Ask the store clerk for information.

Rosemary is one of several drought tolerant herbs.

Some herbs make good choices for a water-conscious garden. Rosemary, lavender, and sage are perfect examples. Remember that even if a plant is drought tolerant, it still needs to be watered and watched carefully when you first plant it. Choosing vegetables that offer prolific yields is another wise water use. Squash, indeterminate tomatoes, and peppers sometimes produce so abundantly that many gardeners end up begging neighbors to help consume the harvest. Cucumbers, peas, and beans can be hardy in warmer temperatures. Underground choices such as carrots and radishes should also fare well.

Peppers can be hardy and prolific during heat.

San Carlos Community Garden uses a rainwater collection system.

Watering

Joining a community gardening group may offer ways to share resources, such as water, compost, tools, advice, and some of the harvest. At home, macro changes can include installing gutters around the roof (with screens to keep out leaves) and a closed rainwater collection system (to avoid attracting insects). Graywater from your kitchen sink or bathtub can be used for watering gardens.

If you have sprinklers, make sure they’re set at a time that will reduce evaporation and check that each sprinkler head is working properly and is directed well at the plants, without a lot of wasteful overspray or leakage. Watering by hand is better directed and gives a chance to get to know your garden intimately. Is a plant wilting (hanging over)? Are leaves or blooms (or even just the tips) going brown or falling? Are leaves curling inward (to prevent moisture loss)? Has the plant stopped budding or blooming? Is it continuing to grow at the expected rate? Does the soil around it look dry? It’s best to poke a finger about an inch into arid looking soil to check whether it’s still moist below. If so, wait a day or two, to prevent over-soaking the roots. A drip system provides slow, directed watering for easy absorption. The University of California offers more guidelines for irrigating in a drought.

Workshops

Drought-conscious gardening and composting classes are offered by the County, City and local organizations. Solana Center for Environmental Innovation is an excellent resource.

Here’s one coming up later this fall in Valley Center:

Water-Wise Gardening Workshop

Nov. 8, 2022; 10–11am

St. Stephen’s Catholic Church

31020 Cole Grade Rd.

Valley Center, CA 92082

(760) 436-7986 ext. 700

Presented in partnership with Dos Valles Garden Club.

Julie Pendray is a certified master composter by the County of San Diego’s Solid Waste Division.

Hero image: Chalabala/iStock.

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About the Contributor
Julie Pendray
Julie Pendray has been writing about San Diego county for four decades.Independent writer for: Palm Springs Life digital platform (covering California desert communities) and Edible San Diego.Publisher of: SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com (featuring arts, entertainment, travel, hiking, food).
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