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Drought gardening demands a different approach to water conservation

Drought-resistant gardening is far more than a way to garden; it is an integrated system of activities that enables one to provide food and survive the periods of drought on earth.

Living this life style calls for a knowledge of such things as water, soil, plants, weather, economics, recycling, and the like.

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Without water, most plants will not live. There are others, however, that need minimal water to survive and that ultimately produce food. Such plants are desirable for residents of any of the world's desert, semidesert, and other areas were water is scarce.

Rain harvesting is also an important aspect of the drought-resistant life style.

When water is falling freely, that is the time to capture it in buckets or cisterns for later use. Water can be captured directly by large plastic trash containers or by diverting the roof drainpipe water through a filter and into storage containers.

In the household, even during times of drought where strict rationing is imposed, there will, in all likelihood, be somem water coming in.

How does this affect the garden? By switching to a nonphosphate biodegradable detergent, it becomes feasible to reroute the kitchen and bathroom sink, washing machine, and bath water into the fruit trees and garden.

As for watering the garden, the best time is between midnight and 5 a.m. since that is when there is the least evaporation. Plants need to be kept clean since they also have to breathe.

Overhead watering may not always be necessary or feasible. The hose can be laid in the garden to give the soil a good soaking about once a week. Place the hose on a board or some newspapers so the soil won't be eroded. If you only give your garden frequent light waterings, you'll weaken the drought resistancy of the plants since it encourages shallow roots.

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To survive a dearth of water, plants need deeper roots in which they can search for their own water underground. Also, the water from frequent light waterings evaporates more quickly.

Much more water is absorbed into a mulched garden than in an unmulched one.

A mulch is an organic material that is placed on the surface of the garden around the plants. Mulching is vital part of any drought-resistant gardent since it protects the soil, holds in moisture, reduces the growth of undesirable plants, encourages worms, and adds nutrients to the soil.

You can mulch with leaves, wood chips, rocks, grass clippings, shredded newspapers, straw, and any plant material. An unmulched garden needs more water , more work, and will be more susceptible to erosion and caking of the soil.

The idea that all the space between the garden foods must be kept clear of "competitive" plants, or weeds, is untrue. Many garden weeds are edible, such as chickweed (as a salad), lamb's quarter, and sow thistle (use like spinach), dandelion purslane (salads and stews), and fennel (eat raw -- it tastes like licorice).

To learn how to identify such wild foods, study the Guide to Wild Food, available from Survival Services, PO Box 42151, Lost Angeles, Calif. 90042.

You can also build life into the soil by composting your kitchen scraps. To compost, put the organic material in a pit in layers and cover with plastic. Once the decomposition process is complete, you'll have a top-quality material to improve and enrich the soil.

You can never have too much compost in the garden.

The best compost is made by piling layers (starting at the bottom) of paper and cardboard, tough organic material, kitchen scraps, manure and blood meal, grass clippings and leaves, wood ashes, rock phosphate, and soil with worms.

With the combined efforts of mulching, composting, and worm farming, you can take positive steps toward solving the solid-waste problem of the cities while building the soil.

Good soil retains moisture and is therefore more drought-resistant than poor soil. Some food producers, however, prefer drier, less-fertile soil, such as the toyon tree (edible berries), black walnut, mission fig, mission grape, mission olive, pomegranate, citrus fruits, yuccas (edible fruits), jojoba (edible nuts), several varieties of cactus with edible fruits and pads, pinyon pine (edible nuts), oaks (edible acorns), honey mesquite (edible pods), jujube (edible fruits), agaves (several edible parts), carob (edible pods), elderberry, amaranth, and others.

Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo Indians of the arid Southwest have grown food in their desert soil that receives as little as 5 inches of rain a year.

Some of these desert plants are pima squash and blue maize, devil's claw, teparies, and other desert beans. All of these plants either naturally occur in the desert, can survive extended drought, or else thrive in the heat.

Don't ignore a plant's shade requirements. It is usually better to have two or more plants together than a single plant in the garden.

You may also choose to garden in containers. If you do, the drainage holes should be located, not on the bottom of the can, but on the sides toward the bottom. This will allow some water to stay in the can.

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