Plus 3 Water Saving Tips for Kids
Column by Francie Szostak
Between droughts out west and debates over issues concerning the Great Lakes, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about the amount of water it takes to produce the food we eat. While coffee and beef definitely top the charts, many annual veggies are water hogs in their own right and can take gallons and gallons of water to commercially produce.
When it comes to gardening at home, or on a smaller scale, you’ve got options for growing produce in a water conscious manner. First, consider raising perennial veggies that require a lot less water once established (after their second or third year of growth) than annual veggies. Gardeners can also choose less-thirsty annuals like grains, herbs and peppers. And for those H2O guzzlers like sweet corn, broccoli and cauliflower? We have plenty of water conservation tips to put your mind at ease as you grow and enjoy these summertime favorites.
Planting a Perennial Garden
Perennial veggies are plants that don’t require planting each season—they grow back automatically, year after year. Once established in the proper site, perennial vegetables produce abundantly and can withstand more neglect, diseases, weeds and drought than annual veggies.
Since the soil around them doesn’t need to be distributed or tilled each season, wellmulched perennials can help maintain a healthy soil structure by increasing organic matter and water holding capacity, in addition to providing habitat for beneficial soil life, like bugs, worms and other microorganisms.
While perennials do need attention during their first year of growth (as roots stretch out and make themselves at home), they require a lot less water and effort from gardeners after that. Patience is key when growing them! Do not harvest most varieties during the first year or two to allow for proper establishment, increasing the bounty of your harvest in the long run.
The following are a few favorite perennials that are well-suited to growing in our Southeastern Wisconsin climate.
Also called sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes are white or red-skinned potato-like tubers that grow with beautiful yellow flowers beneath 6-8-foot-tall plants. The tubers of the plant are crisp and earthy, and can be eaten raw, sauteed, or steamed and pureed.
Jerusalem artichokes grow best in light or sandy soil, but will also grow in clay or rocky soil. Choose a permanent, isolated location, as Jerusalem artichokes spread like crazy and are difficult to eliminate after established. Plant pieces of Jerusalem artichokes tubers in the fall with one “eye” on each piece, just like a potato. Plant pieces 4 inches deep, 12 inches apart. Dig up Jerusalem artichokes in the late fall, before the ground freezes, and be sure to leave a few tubers behind in the ground for next year’s crop.
Adore celery, but find it hard to grow? Then you’ll love lovage! The leaves of this perennial plant taste just like celery and are a perfect substitute for the more familiar veggie in soups, casseroles or salads. While edible, lovage stalks have a harsh taste, so it’s the shiny, dark green leaves that are most commonly consumed. Even the leaves have a more concentrated taste than celery, so only use half as much lovage as you would celery in your favorite recipes.
Tall, lush lovage plants need space and like moist, yet well-draining, rich soil in partial shade. One plant is all you’ll need, as welltended lovage plants are very abundant and will produce more leaves than the average family can eat. Try drying leaves to add to recipes during the winter.
If there’s one item that seems to thrive in the majority of Wisconsin gardens, it’s rhubarb. Not just for making pie, rhubarb stems are also wonderful in savory stews and chutney A friendly reminder, while the stems of the plant are completely edible, rhubarb’s large leaves are toxic when ingested and should be kept away from children and pets. Discard them at harvest time.
To plant rhubarb, choose a sunny, welldraining spot. Plant rhubarb crowns 1–3 inches deep, 3 feet apart. Rhubarb uses lots of nutrients, so add compost around plants each spring. Do not harvest the first year, and harvest lightly the second season. To pick, snap off the large outer leaves at the base of the plant. Leave the little leaves in the center to keep growing and providing energy for next year’s harvest. Rhubarb can be picked until the first frost if collected slowly throughout the season.
In addition to growing perennials, there are several less water-needy annuals that can be grown here in Wisconsin.
- While tomatoes and peppers are crisp and juicy, they originate from Central America and require less water than many other veggies. Eggplant and okra also are less thirsty veggies. These crops can be challenging to grow during the cooler, wet summers we sometimes have in Wisconsin so choose varieties better adapted to cooler climates.
- Vining crops like melons, squash and cucumbers have deep roots that seek out water. But these crops are frequently over watered, leading to moist conditions that encourage disease.
- Knowing at what stage of development your vegetables need water most can also help you reduce water use. For all the plants listed, watering is most critical during flowering and fruit set (when the flower ovary begins to swell and the first sign of a baby fruit begins show). Once the first fruit begins to size up, decreasing water encourages fruit to mature and ripen, and prevents the splitting that often occurs when tomatoes are given too much water to drink.
- Plant varieties with shorter days to harvest require less water than varieties that take longer to grow. Miniature varieties like mini bell peppers need less water for fruit development than their larger counterparts, too.
- Grains require little water to grow as well. Try planting wheat or amaranth in a well-draining, sunny spot. These tall, flowering plants will as add visual interest to your garden.
- Mediterranean herbs like sage, oregano, thyme and rosemary are very drought tolerant. Perennial plants in the their native, warmer climate, these herbs will grow as perennials here in Wisconsin if protected or brought inside during the winter.
Water Conversation Tips
What would be a garden without waterhogging favorites like broccoli, cabbage and green beans? By using practicing these water conservation tips, you can grow your sweet corn and eat it too.
Plan—Plant your garden based on water needs, grouping drought-resistant varieties and water hogs together in different areas of the garden.
Mulch—A thick layer of mulch helps prevent water from evaporating from the hot summer sun and also improves soil structure. Add 1–3-inches of straw, or leave mulch around the base of plants.
Compost—In addition to adding nutrients and organic matter to soil, compost has incredible water holding capability.
Time of Day —Water is more likely to evaporate during the heat of the day, so try to water during the morning or evening. Morning is preferred, though, as excess moisture during cool nights can encourage disease.
Water Correctly—Aim water at the base of the plant, not onto the leaves. Except when seeds are germinating or plants are young, deep, less frequent watering is better versus frequent, shallow watering. This will train roots to grow deep into the ground.
3 Water Saving Tips for Kids
Kids can be great champions of water conservation in the garden. As a family, discuss the importance of using water wisely and try to implement the following strategies at home.
- Reuse cooking water! When water is used to prepare meals (boiling, soaking, etc.), save that water and use it to water plants.
- Turn off the sprinkler. We can all agree it’s fun to play under the lawn sprinkler during the summer, but it’s a big waste of water. For a more practical way to cool off, have a watering relay race. Children can walk with a cup of water from one end of the yard to the garden to water plants. While the goal is to walk quickly without spilling, a few cooling splashes and giggles are inevitable.
- Get a rain gauge. Most plants need one inch of water per week. Put kids in charge of checking on your rain gauge after a rain to measure the precipitation and track how much supplemental watering needs to be done during the week.
Francie Szostak is the UW-Extension Nutrition Education Program Coordinator for Milwaukee County, as well as a WI Master Gardener Volunteer. When not gardening at home in Milwaukee’s Tippecanoe neighborhood, she can be found enjoying all the local food, live music and outdoors activities that Southeastern Wisconsin offers!