My perspective is that I want to water fruit trees and vegetable plants enough so that they thrive — not just survive — while also trying to get the most production out of every drop.
This is, of course, much easier said than done. But here are five strategies that I use to at least try to achieve both of these goals.
1. Prune, in winter and in summer
I never want more fruit from a tree than I can consume or share. One way to control the fruit production of a tree is by keeping down its size. Coincidentally, this also controls a tree’s water use.
The amount of water a tree uses is directly related to how many leaves it has. More leaves equals more water use. Fewer leaves equals less water use.
In practice, this means that I continually prune my nectarine, apricot, apple, and pluot trees down to six or seven feet tall. I prune both in the winter and in the summer.
I do similar pruning of citrus, avocado, and others. And I prune to reduce the size of fruiting vines, such as passion fruit and grape.
How exactly does this pruning get you more fruits and vegetables? By freeing up water for other plants.
2. Remove underutilized and underperforming plants
Another way to free up water for other plants is by removing any that aren’t giving a good return on your irrigation investment. I cut down a Jan Boyce avocado tree last week because it was growing weakly and had been doing so since I planted it three years ago. Time to cut my losses.
I also pulled out some celery plants last month because I’d made the mistake of planting more than my family wanted to eat.
There’s no point in continuing to water such plants, especially when you could be using that water on plants that would perform better or be used more.
3. Walk the lines
If you use an automatic irrigation system, then I think the best time to set it to run is a time of day when you are usually at home. Furthermore, you should make it a habit of having a quick look at the drip emitters, bubblers, or sprinklers as they run. “Walk the lines,” as they say.
I learn something almost every time I walk the lines. For example, the other day I noticed that a low branch on an avocado tree was blocking the water coming from the tree’s sprinkler. A few days earlier, I was able to see that an emitter on the drip line under my boysenberry bush was clogged. No wonder it didn’t look as lush as it can.
(More on this in my post, “What is the best time of day to water your plants?”)
Not all plants need full sun in order to produce optimally, and some do better with some shade, particularly in the summer, especially if you live away from the beach.
I’ve found that blackberries and raspberries do very well without receiving full sun. This was the case when I lived near the beach, and now that I live inland I find it actually necessary to give them less than full sun in order to get the highest quality berries. I plant them east of large trees, as I’ve shown in my post on growing these cane berries.
I use 30 percent shade cloth over some of my peppers nowadays. Small-fruited types like Cayenne don’t need this, but large-fruited types like bells or Poblanos turn out better with the midday sun muted, as they otherwise show sunscald wherever the shoulders of peppers are not covered by leaves.
Now how does this save water? More higher quality fruit means less waste. Also, plants in less sun use less water so in essence you can get the same amount of production out of some plants while applying less water just by reducing excess sun.
How do you know which plants to shade? Experience goes the farthest in figuring that out, as it varies a lot yard to yard, but if you see any plant or fruit getting sunburned despite your giving it ample water, try shade.
5. Double up
Try to get multiple uses out of water. Sometimes this can be done literally, such as by placing potted plants over the root zone of an in-ground plant: any water that runs out of the bottom of the pots will wet the soil below and be used by the in-ground plant.
Other times this strategy can be used in a less literal form by simply growing plants in groups. I use this idea most often by planting vegetables under fruit trees. Both the vegetables and the fruit trees usually grow well by sharing the water given to the fruit tree. That is, I use the fruit tree’s sprinkler or dripline to water both plants without increasing the volume.
You might wonder if I had just been overwatering the fruit tree before such that I’m not now getting more fruits and vegetables out of less water but only wasting less water. I can’t say for sure that that’s not the case. But at least it does feel like I’m getting more from less so I use this doubling up arrangement in various ways all over my yard.
(I also often plant tomatoes or corn over my strawberry patch.)
(More on ”Growing vegetables under fruit trees.”)
Maybe you can apply one of these ideas in your yard too? Sure feels good — almost like cheating — when you get more from less.
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