Not spring. Maybe elsewhere, but in Southern California now is the time.
I had almost forgot this lesson, and I hadn’t planted one of the rows of the vegetable garden, until about a week ago when I recalled all of the advantages of growing in the fall.
For one, the temperature outside is so pleasant right now. The average daily high for November in my neck of the woods is 73. Unlike in July, I actually want to be out in the yard tending to things every afternoon.
Related to that, the weather is so forgiving for getting plants started. If you miss a day of watering some new seedlings, they’re unlikely to wither. This fall, I completely forgot to turn on the drip line to some broccoli and cabbage seedlings, and they went a couple weeks before looking droopy.
Of course, very soon watering will take care of itself as the rains fill in. This is my favorite aspect of growing in the fall. It’s the most economic time to grow in Southern California since not only do you not have to pay for water but you also don’t have to spend time watering. The sky opens up and does the work for you.
Because of this, we can also say that fall is the natural season to grow vegetables here. It’s when many native annual plants do their growing, such as California poppies. So many annual weeds germinate and flourish in the fall also, like wild oats and filaree — and wild mustard, which is a cousin of the broccoli and cabbage and cauliflower that we intentionally grow.
‘Packman’ broccoli grew fast this year. Put in seedlings September 23 and started eating heads before Thanksgiving
All this goes to say that it’s a big mistake if we let our summer vegetable gardens die out and wait all the way until spring to plant again. That’s acting like you don’t know where you live, as if you live somewhere with a snowy winter.
Which vegetables can we plant in the fall in Southern California? See Vince Lazaneo’s Vegetable Planting Guide here.
P.S. Do be aware that in late fall and early winter the sun is low in the southern sky and trees and walls and buildings throw long shadows to their north. What this means for a fall-winter vegetable garden is that it won’t grow well if it’s planted just north of a large tree, wall or building because it won’t get enough sun.
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Just as there’s always a cold snap or two every winter, we get a couple heat waves every summer that challenge the plants. We just made it through a second August heat wave, where five days were over 95°. Two weeks ago we had four days over 95° and a new daily record on August 16 at 103°. I say we made it through because plants look little worse for the wear. Last summer, on the other hand, during the hot spell of early September the new Pinkerton avocado was almost killed, bell peppers and tomatoes got sunburned, and strawberry plants ended up with fried foliage.
What did I do differently in the yard this time around? I put up this shade structure for the new Sharwil avocado tree. It consists of 60% shade cloth over the top as well as the south and west sides. Whereas the older avocados have some sunburn on some new leaves, the Sharwil leaves remained impeccably green. Even though August is not an optimal time to plant a new avocado (early spring is optimal), it can be done successfully as long as it’s given some shade on extremely hot days. It also needs to be watered frequently. I gave this newly planted tree some water every single day while the temperatures were over 95°.
Young avocados need water about as frequently as vegetables, I’ve found (every three days during normal summer temperatures in the mid-80s), and so I also watered the vegetables daily during the heat wave and the plants coped well. The strawberries had no burnt foliage. Last summer, I was overly influenced by the oft-repeated mantra, “Water deeply and infrequently.” So I was constantly watering a day late and applying more water than my sandy loam soil could hold within the root zone of avocados and vegetables. The plants showed me this through wilted foliage even after sunset.
To prevent sunburn on peppers this year, I planted them close together so the foliage would be dense and staked the peppers so they would grow more upright. It has worked. There have still been a few sunburned fruits, but much fewer than last year.
As for tomatoes, growing them more upright within cages has helped. The foliage has shaded the fruit more. There are only two fruits out of dozens with any sunburn; these two are hanging outside the cage — escapees. Compared to last year, when plants were allowed to sprawl much more, this is a great improvement.
Every climate has its advantages and disadvantages — two sides of the same coin. We now get a lot more sun compared to where we last lived; we’re twenty miles from the ocean but used to be barely two. So our oranges are sweeter, our vegetables grow faster and suffer less pest and disease damage. But a couple times every summer we get more sun and heat than is ideal. I’m still learning how to manage this abundance.
The only thing I’ll do differently next year to manage heat waves even better is add more drip emitters per plant for squash and corn. They grow to be so big when mature that they need an extra dripline at their base that can be turned on once the corn tassles and the squash plants set fruit. This summer I’ve had to give them extra water by hand to keep them happy.
It seems a tautology that rain reduces drought. Yet our water picture is so surreal that the National Weather Service just said, “. . . local rainfall in Southern California does not necessarily help the drought situation.”
How so? It hinges on the meaning of “the drought situation.” We are involved in two drought situations.
One is related to the below normal rainfall we’ve received on our very roofs in Southern California over the last few years.
The other is about the below normal rainfall most of the Western U.S. has received over the last few years, especially Northern California and the Colorado River watershed.
You’d think the amount of rain falling on our roofs — the local drought situation — would be the more important of the two, but then you’d be forgetting where the water from our faucets originates. The water we use comes mostly from Northern California and the Colorado River. The rain that falls on our roofs goes basically unused and is treated like sewage, and that’s why the NWS can rightly say that the deluge we received in mid-July had little to no impact on our drought situation.
But here’s a scenario that is more bizarre than the above: As the meteorologist at the California Weather Blog puts it, “Well-developed El Niño conditions already exist in the tropical Pacific Ocean.” El Niño is here. The impacts? El Niño conditions have a strong correlation with above normal precipitation in Southern California. In other words, a wet winter is likely on the way. However, El Niño conditions do not have as strong a correlation with above normal precipitation in Northern California. Some El Niño years are relatively dry for Northern California.
So, come February, we could be simultaneously dealing with flood damage in our living rooms while seeing signs in road medians advising us “When in Drought . . . ”
On July 18 and 19, Southern California received a whopper of a tropical storm, and our part of San Diego County got more rain than anywhere. Our yard took in 1.65 inches, but a few miles down the road 4.1 inches fell during those 48 hours, according to the National Weather Service. That is way beyond previous records.
The average rainfall for the entire month of July is only 0.12 inches. So even our yard got more than ten times the monthly average over those two days. More than that, the average rainfall for the entire summer (June, July, and August) is only 0.4 inches. So in two days our yard got four times the average rainfall for the entire summer season.
The 530-gallon rain tank overflowed. Of course, every trash can I set up under other roof downspouts overflowed.
It’s a reminder that a real winter may be on the way. The National Weather Service just issued a video titled “El Nino update and Winter Outlook 2015-2016.” The warming of the equatorial waters continue and the result could be above normal precipitation, it says.
I mentioned this to my neighbor as we surveyed the erosion the rain had caused to our dirt road. Bob said, “You should’ve seen it in the last El Nino. Was it ’93? It was just flooded.” He pointed down to his property. “We get it worse than you.”
Bob’s yard is downslope, and it gets runoff from the road and properties upslope like ours.
“There were so many frogs that year that I had trouble sleeping.”
And so my thoughts turn to preparing for winter, for the real rain. I’ve decided to add a second tank, 865 gallons in size, to the southeast corner of the house. I also plan to cut curbs along the driveway to infiltrate that runoff and lessen the burden on neighbors below us like Bob.
El Nino is here, and the rain is likely on the way. But even if it doesn’t end up pouring down biblical waters on us this winter, there will be a wet year at some point — maybe next year, or the year after that — and I will be ready.
Last winter was my first with a 530-gallon rain tank. I did not buy it because I thought it would save me a bunch of money on my water bill. I bought it because rain coming off my roof and running down the driveway irritated me. It seemed wasteful. Water is scarce and expensive in Southern California. But now I find myself wondering whether the rain tank will eventually pay for itself.
The tank is a Bushman Slimline, and it cost $615. The accessories needed to connect it to the gutter and direct overflow (pipes, joints, straps), plus a ball valve to distribute the collected rain into drip lines that irrigate my vegetable garden and some fruit trees, as well as the gravel for the tank’s foundation all cost about $30. So, excluding my time and excluding sales tax, the tank system cost $660.
The tank collects from a 363 square-foot section of roof covered in concrete tiles, which have an efficiency estimated at 65%, meaning 35% of the rain that falls on the roof is not shed into the tank. In other words, though 226 gallons fall on this area of roof per inch of rain, only 147 gallons are shed into the tank.
In an average year of rainfall we get 16.43 inches. So in an average year we’ll collect 2,415 gallons in the tank. If I bought 2,415 gallons of water through our municipal water district it would cost $17.81. At that rate, it will take 37 years for the tank to pay for itself. That’s depressing.
However, I’ve started to think of comparing rainwater to municipal district water as comparing apples to oranges. They’re different products. The quality of the municipal district water is far lower than the quality of the collected rain in terms of the characteristics that plants care about: chloride levels, total dissolved solids, pH, electrical conductivity, etc. And so, the value of a gallon of rainwater is higher than a gallon of municipal district water — to plants, at least (and that’s who’s getting my rain tank water).
To this point, a study of banana plants in Israel found that the highest yield that could be obtained when using “freshwater commonly used for irrigation” (similar to our municipal district water) could be obtained with about half the amount of desalinated water. In other words, if 5 units of desalinated water are needed to grow a banana, then 10 units of irrigation water would be needed to grow that same banana. The desalinated water is twice as valuable to the banana plant.
Similar to desalinated water, rain has very low levels of salts, and rain is more valuable to plants than our municipal district water. I think we already know this from experience. We give the plants in our yard a couple inches of water from a sprinkler and the plants look good, but after a real storm rolls through and drops a couple inches of steady rain our plants look amazing — they’re standing so tall and firm and shiny — and they don’t seem to need more water for weeks. There’s something magic about rain.
So, what if I value the rain that I collect in my tank at twice the price of district water? At that rate we’re looking at just under 19 years until it pays for itself. That’s still a very long time.
The price of the water from the district keeps going up though. I just got a letter informing me that the rate will increase again on September 1. This rate that becomes effective on September 1 will be a 20% increase from the rate we paid when we moved in only two years ago. That’s a 10% rise per year, so far.
If I use the rate that will be effective in September (and continue to value rain at twice as much as district water), the tank and its system will pay off in about 15 years.
Furthermore, as far as I know, the price of water in my district has never gone down. I’m guessing that it will only continue to rise. If it continues on its trajectory of 10% per year, then we’re looking at a pay-off length of ten years.
Ten years is still a long way off, but it does sound reachable. And even though I didn’t buy my rain tank as an investment (thinking it would save me a bunch of money on my water bill), I do now feel less indulgent about my purchase.
Just out of curiousity, how far off is our current water usage from the amount of rain that falls on us?
Our land is 1.32 acres, and the average rainfall here is 16 inches. This means that an average of 573,150 gallons of rain fall on the land each year. Our roof surfaces (house and garage and workshop) are a total of 2,927 square feet. This means that an average of 29,184 gallons of rain fall on our roofs each year.
Over the last year we have used approximately 54,000 gallons from the municipal water district. That’s equal to 4,500 gallons per month or 148 gallons per day. This is for two adults and one child, including all household water and yard water. Our vegetable garden is this size
and we have about 20 fruit trees plus berries and grapes. We water no lawn or ornamental plants.
So, 54,000 gallons from the municipal water district minus the 29,184 gallons that our roofs could have collected means a deficit of 24,816 gallons. Or, we’ve use about twice as much water in the past year as could have fallen on our roofs (and so could have been collected).
There are other factors that have to be mentioned. We have only received 10 of our average 16 inches of rain over the last year, and this increased how much we had to use from the water district. Also, our water use in the yard has decreased by around 50% since changing over all irrigation from sprinkler to drip starting about six months ago.
I’d guess that with a few additional improvements in our water use efficiency we could use only our roofs’ 29,184 gallons a year while noticing very little difference in our lifestyle and yield from the yard.
On the other hand, I don’t know what any of this means.
Who cares if you use only as much as your roof collects, since that says as much about how big your roof is as it does about your water use. But I just felt like there should be some crude correlation between how much rain my living quarters can harvest and the amount of water I should use. I’m not sure why. The more I think about it the less sensible it sounds.
It may just be that I have rain in the brain these days since everywhere there is talk of the drought, and then we’re getting unusual weekly rains in May with daily high temperatures only in the 60s, which is wetter and cooler than most of the winter!