Tips on planting and maintaining a Calgary garden during drought

The middle of March is usually the best time to start tomato seeds for Calgary with a planting date of May long weekend — safe from the last frost, traditionally in the first week of May.

But, with seed starting kits and bulbs hitting the shelves at grocery store, coupled with headline after headline warning of drought, Calgarians are wondering whether to bother.

“It’s just a question of where you want to put your energy,” said Kath Smythe, a horticulturalist with the Calgary Horticultural Society.

She calls herself the eternal gardening optimist when looking to the season ahead, but also admits she is kind of crazy about water conservation.

Long ago, Smythe says she replaced her lawn with mulch. She also saves wastewater from her kitchen and shower to help her garden grow.

She says being creative with how you use water can make a big difference.

For instance, washing your vegetables as you pull them from the garden with a tub of water, allowing the water to flow back to the earth instead of watching those nutrients go down the drain and into the sewer.

Smythe says water you boil pasta or veggies in can be re-used in the garden so long as it isn’t full of salt. She has even saved shower water for her veggies, “I grow the best broccoli in town and it’s the water from my shower,” she said.

But for those without the means or the will to save and reuse house water, she says watering at root level will prevent evaporation.

“I don’t stand there and spray the whole garden, gone are those days, we have to pay attention to that kind of thing,” Smythe said.

She also says to plan appropriately — some plants just need more water than others — including any new trees, bushes, or perennials.

RELATED: Calgary urges water conservation on first day of spring

“Last year, we were only at a water one [restriction] in August, and if they go to water two [restrictions] then I will really really worry,” Smythe said.

At Stage Two, sprinklers are only allowed to be used for one hour a week, and at Stage Three, they can’t be used at all.

Smythe says staying on top of hand watering newly planted trees and getting them properly established could be particularly challenging with restrictions.

Those with big landscaping plans might want to speak to experts about when the best time is to get them in the ground, considering the drought.

She also recommends using mulch.

“Remember the newly planted tree wants to establish roots out from the trunk,” she said. “You don’t put the mulch up around the trunk, you water around the edge of where the pot was.”

As for the vegetable garden, Smythe says tomatoes are actually going to do quite well this summer, provided they’re watered at root level, and it doesn’t hurt to set up water buddies. She says she grows tomatoes in tomato bags and plants them near new shrubs and trees.

“You are going to water the tomato and the excess water provides moisture for the edge of the tree without compacting the soil,” Smythe explained.

Other plants that will do well this summer despite the drought include root vegetables like beets and hot peppers.

The warm and dry conditions means things like leafy greens — spinach and lettuces — won’t do the greatest.

The Calgary Horticultural Society has a number of workshops and events coming up concerning gardening for this season, and the city also has online resources to show what plants do best in Calgary.

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