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Saving water for dry-land gardens

"You can't possibly have a vegetable garden in Santa Fe," said my friends when I moved here several summers ago. "The cost of water will bankrupt you," they chimed.

I was aware that water conservation was vital in New Mexico and that rates were high.

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But gardeners are a determined breed and the urge to have a small vegetable plot carried the day. One of my neighbors felt the same way. He used one system of watering and I used another.

His system came out of an engineering background and mine out of the reservoir of memory.

My grandmother's vegetable garden in western Nebraska near the sand hill country was irrigated from the river, but the flower bed had to fend for itself. Grandmother saved every drop of fresh water possible for her flowers.

The "bucket system" is what I call my plan. Simply, I use one bucket at the side of the sink to catch water from the faucet while rinsing fruits and vegetables and another bucket in the shower to capture the water as the temperature is adjusted.

At the end of the day, when evaporation in this dry land is at a lower level, I carry the day's bounty to my garden outside the kitchen door.

An efficient mulch, such as hay, is essential to my plan.

The "Parks system" is different. My neighbor diverts "gray water" from the sink, dishwater, and washing machine.

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The New Mexico State Extension Service says that there may be some problems with the Parks system because of its effect on the soil. Water softeners replace calcium and magnesium in water with sodium -- and sodium tends to harden the soil and prevent air and water from entering. Sodium also prevents leaching of salts below the root zone which might be serious in the clay soils that are prevalent in this part of the state.

My neighbor, however, is aware of those facts and is watching the effect closely by testing the soil.

Water from swimming pools can be used for salt-tolerant plants such as oleander, euonymus, rosemary, and bougainvillea. Privet, pyracantha, lantana, xylosma, juniper, and bottlebush are moderately tolerant. Fruit trees, roses, and algerian ivy are among those that are highly sensitive.

Water from evaporative coolers is too salty for use anywhere. In the case of washing-machine water, the problem may be not only the softeners but the soap, detergents, and other compounds as well.

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