Late summer is usually when we need to water our vegetables and fruit trees most in Southern California. And we should water them amply, as much as they need in order to provide us the food we desire. But are there ways to be more efficient? Always.

Listed here are things I’ve done to lower my water bill while still reaching the goals I have for my food garden. Perhaps one or two will be applicable and practical for you too.

Cull and triage. Can you pull the plug on any plants that are no longer worth the water? Has your basil gone to flower? (Stop watering it and it can still flower out its life to provide for the bees.) Have you eaten enough zucchini, already?!

Summer lettuce that has not coped with the recent 100-degree weather and that I should no longer water.
Three avocado trees planted at the same time. The one in the middle, back is an Edranol that has always struggled. I should now cut off its water and cut my losses.

Walk the irrigation lines. If you have automatic irrigation, stroll the yard while the plants are being watered. Every time I do I find something to improve: a leak, a clog, overspray from a sprinkler.

Remove weeds. Weeds are like any other plant in that they only grow if they have water. Weeds among your vegetables or fruit trees are using the water that your vegetables or fruit trees otherwise would. Remove the weeds and you’ve instantly given your plants more water.

Test less water on a fruit tree. In particular, try giving less water to trees that have already given you fruit for the year, such as peaches, or test citrus since they give you a clear sign when they’re thirsty and truly need water again (cupped leaves).

(You might like to read my post, “Reading citrus leaves.”)

My Bearss lime tree says through its cupped leaves that it is now getting thirsty.

Test no water on a fruit tree. Old trees often have such expansive root systems that they can get by without their own dedicated irrigation; they exploit moisture in the soil from winter rains over a large area, and then they tap into the irrigation you are giving other plants in the vicinity.

(You might like to read my post, “Unirrigated fruits and vegetables in Southern California.”)

These pomegranates (with a sumac in between) have never been irrigated, yet they provide enough fruit to satisfy my family.

Prune a fruit tree. It is primarily through the leaves that a tree draws up water from its roots and releases the water into the air. So if a tree has fewer leaves it will use less water. Late summer is a great time to give mature deciduous fruit trees a trim to both keep them down to the size you want and to reduce their water needs.

(For details see my post, “Summer pruning deciduous fruit trees.”)

Water vegetables by hand or with drip. For many years I watered my vegetables with sprinklers, but I reduced my vegetable garden’s water use by about half when I switched to drip — while getting just as much production. I also handwater from time to time because that method can be very efficient.

(You might like to read my posts, “The best way to water a vegetable garden” and “Handwatering vegetables.”)

Plant more of your vegetables in the fall, winter, and spring rather than summer. We do get free water from heaven, remember? In Southern California, that rain falls primarily in the winter. So planting near winter allows for the use of that rain whereas planting in summer means your vegetables are entirely dependent on artificial watering.

(You might like to read my post, “Fall is my favorite vegetable growing season.”)

Broccoli that grew exclusively on rain through the winter and is here shown flowering in the spring. Photo taken in April, 2020.

Store some rain. My rain tanks have already lowered my water bill significantly over the last six winters, but since the tanks are expensive and district water is relatively cheap, they only truly pay for themselves after many years. Still, for some gardeners in some situations in Southern California, rain tanks can be a worthwhile investment.

(You might like to read my post, “The economics of my rain tank.”)

One of my rain tanks. This one holds 530 gallons and feeds into the drip lines of my vegetable garden.

The goal is not to have the lowest water bill, of course. The goal is to get a lot to eat from the water that we buy and use. And if we just root out a little waste here and there, consistently, we end up with an attractive yard that feeds our families and that also might cost less than a neighbor’s purely ornamental landscape. Really.

All of my Yard Posts are listed HERE

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