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Bookmonger: A guide to gardening in dry times

“Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert & Dry Times” by Maureen Gilmer

One afternoon last December, I dashed through the raindrops to the mailbox and opened it to find, amidst the Christmas cards and holiday advertising, a padded envelope from Seattle’s Sasquatch Books. Inside was a book about gardening in drought conditions.

We were just heading into the rainiest winter season ever recorded in Western Washington. As the soggy months wore on, the book got relegated to the bottom of the stack — who needed advice like this?

But then we had that succession of unseasonably balmy days in April and early in May, and record declines of snowpack in the mountains.

Suddenly I found myself searching for that book with some urgency.

As it turns out, “Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert & Dry Times” was written by Maureen Gilmer, a gardening expert in Palm Springs, California! You may wonder what this book column on Northwest books is coming to, but Gilmer’s guide to water-wise organic gardening is well worth heeding. Even if our recent mid-May visitation of rain helps to stave off catastrophically low reservoir levels, voluntary water conservation will still be beneficial for the fish in our rivers.

Gilmer begins with a primer that will help you better understand your particular gardening site. You need to pay attention to climate, soil type, and the evapotranspiration (ET) rate, which is dictated by wind, rainfall, temperature, solar exposure and humidity. All of these affect how much water your plants will need from day to day.

If keeping track of this sounds like a tedious commitment, keep reading, because the next chapter focuses on site selection and garden configuration to help mitigate those variables. Gilmer references the designs developed by the indigenous gardeners of the desert Southwest — waffle gardens that concentrate water delivery directly over the root zone, woven wattles and other screening devices that reduce wind-driven desiccation, and placement of convenient water supply.

Borrowing from these time-tested principles, you can avail yourself of modern materials and irrigation techniques to set up a garden that will work best for your site and your schedule.

Gilmer discusses the benefits and drawbacks of different gardening methods — raised beds, vertical gardening, container gardening, terracing, and traditional in ground vegetable plots.

She talks about water storage and delivery options — rain barrels and cisterns, irrigation systems, gray water harvesting, and good hose maintenance.

I’m planting my tomatoes out into the garden next weekend and I’m definitely going to try out her suggestion for homemade ollas: puncture used plastic milk jugs with a needle, bury one right next to each tomato plant, fill each jug with water and screw the cap back on.

What a neat trick to be able to check and refill periodically as opposed to the inefficient daily grind of topical watering!

Toward the end of the book, there’s a guide to drought-hardy vegetable varieties — worth noting by those of us who love to garden in the Pacific Northwest but want to keep an eye on our summer water bills.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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