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URBAN GARDENING: Stage 3 water restrictions a food-grower's challenge

With unprecedented watering restrictions in effect, figuring out how much is enough can be challenging when it comes to growing food.

Soaker hoses are very convenient, but under Vancouver’s current stage 3 watering
Soaker hoses are very convenient, but under Vancouver’s current stage 3 watering restrictions, they’re banned. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

As of July 20, Stage 3 watering restrictions are in effect across Vancouver. I should have been prepared for this news. It’s been predicted for a while. But it was still hard to take.

During this year’s previous Stage 1 and 2 restrictions, vegetable gardens did not face any constraints. Now, at Stage 3, only watering cans, drip irrigation and hoses with spring-loaded nozzles are allowed.

Given the present circumstances, I’ve come to realize that I may need to live with a less-than perfect garden and less-than bountiful crops. That’s a tough reality to face.

Earlier this summer, we started to build an irrigation system with automatic timers. This system has made our watering routine much more efficient. There’s just one problem: drip-line was sold out everywhere we looked, so we purchased soaker hose lines for the time-being. Under the new restrictions, these are banned. I’m now asking myself some hard questions about our water use on the backyard farm, and figuring out how to adapt.

Growing food puts us in a tricky situation. On the one hand, we’ve been told to stop watering our lawns and to snitch on our grass-hole neighbours. On the other hand, the essential and life-giving work of growing food requires irrigation.

During the present drought, gardeners need to experiment and figure out how little watering we can get away with. Even in more forgiving circumstances, that isn’t an easy task. There’s no set rule for how much water a vegetable garden needs. Different crops have different watering needs at different stages of their lives. Soils vary greatly, with some retaining water far better than others. This is one of the many reasons why gardening is a challenging, fascinating and imperfect art form.

Be sure to water the soil, not your plants’ leaves. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

Basic vegetable watering guidelines:

  • Use good hot-weather gardening practices: water in the morning and mulch, mulch, mulch. Of all the things we did this year in the garden, I’m most glad that we spread a thick layer of straw and compost mulch around many of our plants. By reducing evaporation, mulch can significantly reduce watering needs.

  • Water the soil, NOT the leaves. The goal is to provide moisture to your plants’ roots, deep within the soil. Get your watering can as close to the ground as possible, or install true drip irrigation.

  • Water deeply and infrequently, rather than frequently and shallowly. That means thorough watering every few days, rather than a daily light sprinkle. This approach allows moisture to soak down into the soil and reduces evaporation. It also encourages plants to “work” to find water and develop healthy strong root systems.

  • A general rule of thumb is to water until the soil is wet an inch or two below the surface. Then, don’t water until the top inch looks dry again. Even in hot weather, that can take a few days.

  • The exception to the rule above is newly planted seeds, which need the surface of the soil to stay damp most of the time. I plant my seeds in small plastic pots that need only a tiny bit of water to stay moist.

  • Pots need more frequent watering than raised beds, but they use less water overall.

  • Learn to recognize the signs of water stress, such as aphids and wilted leaves. You may eventually need to ask yourself which crops you are willing to sacrifice in light of the watering restrictions.

A house with a vegetable garden, even if it’s minimally irrigated, will still use way more water than a house with no garden. Does this mean that we should stop gardening? For me, the answer is no. If I were to stop gardening in the summer, I would still have to get my vegetables from somewhere, and those vegetables would be watered by someone. I would probably buy my produce from a local farm on the same reservoir as me. Or I might need to go further afield and purchase items grown in California, where the drought has been going on for years. While these are all viable options for getting our food, the more diverse our food sources, including home gardens, the better off we all are.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at

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