I wanted to share some of the ways I am conserving water while still maintaining a large (at least, large for a backyard) subsistence garden during our severe drought. Because of the length of this "post" I'm splitting it up into two parts. The first part will include everything I was already doing in prior years to minimize water waste, and the second part will include the new steps I'm taking this year.
Most of these practices are geared toward long term resiliency and not meant to be just temporary fixes. With that, I've been working to make sure we can easily continue or implement these practices even when we're not mid-drought. I'll try to post greater details for the more involved practices like greywater recycling at some point, but this at least provides the big picture.
If you are trying to conserve water but still grow food, I hope some of my experiences help give you ideas for your own situation.
Part One: Old Habits
1. I only water the garden twice per week and I don't do it between 10am to 6pm. These are still the guidelines for people's lawns right now, so I feel okay allocating that water for my food. In prior years, I would add a 3rd watering in July due to the heat, but this year I'm going to abstain.
2. I don't usually start watering with secondary water until June except to water in transplants and start seeds. Instead, I rely on snow/rainwater and greywater until then. This practice helps the plants develop deeper roots so they can manage on less water overall.
I am currently watering by hand with open hoses rather than sprinklers, but hope to rig up a creative contraption with PVC pipes that a like-minded fellow shared details of in a homesteading forum. I'll share how that goes; hopefully it works :) In the past I've used sprinklers, and I may still utilize that if things get dusty.
3. Plants that can't survive on this watering schedule are allowed to die with few exceptions. Those exceptions are the few extremely rare varieties I am growing for others. So far though, those exceptions have done fine, and haven't actually needed extra attention.
I will also spot water new perennial food plants if they look like they are going to die because they are all fairly young and a long term investment. Many of them were planted early this year, were damaged in our massive hail storm, and are still vulnerable; once they are extablished, they should be fairly hardy. If not, I will learn something valuable and try a different perennial in their place.
4. I save seeds from plants that do well with minimal watering and our crazy weather. Every year my plants grow more adapted to this specific climate. I think it's best to select food crops that are appropriate for your local climate and then select seeds from your best crops to continually improve their adaptations. If you are not a seed saver, it is fun to learn and/or you can find seeds grown locally by small seed companies or at seed swaps.
5. We typically try to conserve water in other aspects of our lives. We follow the motto "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." We take short showers, and then only if we actually need one. This year we probably won't do a kiddie pool, although I may change my mind in the heat of summer with a hot and grumpy tiny human. If we do set it up, we'll use the water from it in the garden as we have done in the past. There is value in cooling off in a small tub of water instead of staying inside and blasting the AC.
6. In the garden I use mulch to help retain moisture and keep the soil happy. As the mulch breaks down, it also helps improve the soil quality.
7. I rely heavily on homemade compost to amend the garden soil. This improves the soil's ability to absorb and retain water for the plants.
Keep reading Part Two: New This Year to see what extra steps we're taking this year, some of which may be permanent changes for us.