I live in Utah. Am I screwed?

cdpropDecember 15, 2010

I currently live in an apartment, but my dream has been to buy a home on a 1/4th or 1/3rd acre lot, and turn the entire thing into a giant garden, and do some major urban homesteading.

I'm very concerned about water conservation, though. I was excited tonight when I cracked open Gaia's Garden and read about someone who was able to grow a lush, green garden in New Mexico with very little municipal water use! Could it be true!

So I flipped forward to the chapter on water use, and the numbers just don't seem to add up. The author says, as a rule of thumb, that you'll need about 1 gallon of water for every 10 sq. ft. of garden space.

I live near Salt Lake City, UT, where we get about 17 inches of precipitation per year. If the rain fell evenly throughout the year (which it doesn't), this would provide about 106 gallons for every 10 sq. ft., which I guess means that I'm good for about 106 days, or 30% of the year.

Since the rain doesn't fall evenly throughout the year, my actual benefit will probably be much less, but I can try and stretch it out as much as possible using water storage, mulch, ground cover, etc. Maybe I can get through 20% of the year (75 days or so) using just rain water.

Ok, so on to rainwater collection. If my roof is about 1,000 sq. ft. in unsloped area, then I can collect about 10,625 gallons of water per year off my roof. This is enough for roughly 106,250 sqft-days of use. So, if my garden is about a third of an acre (13,000 sq. ft.), this water will last me about 8-9 days. If my garden is about a fourth of an acre, (roughly 11,000 sq. ft.), this will buy me roughly 9-10 days. Not much help.

I figure that I may not need to water much during the winter months (correct me if I'm wrong). So, let's say I need to water 270 days out of the year. Best-case scenario, the rainfall in my area buys me 85 of those days. So, I need to draw on the municipal water system for the remaining 185 days.

For a 1/4th acre lot, I'll need about 1,100 gallons of water per day, according to the 1 gallon per 10 sq. ft. rule!

Sure, I could recycle gray water, but according to this book, most households "only" use about 100-200 gallons of water, total, per day. I was hoping to be able to use less water than the average, not more. I guess that is a stupid plan, though, if you're trying to grow your own food in Utah!

Gosh, though. Over a thousand gallons of water a day? Does that sound right or am I way off? I think I need to move to Washington.

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It also just occurred to me that much of our precipitation falls in the winter, when the annuals are dead and the perennials are probably dormant.

So unless I plan on scooping up that snow and storing it until the spring, it probably won't be very useful to me. =P

    Bookmark   December 15, 2010 at 1:23AM
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For 1/4 acre (my rounded math):

1 acre =43560 square feet. 1/4 = 10890 square feet.
1 gallon =7.5 cu ft = .625 gallons for every square foot 1" deep
10890 sq ft with 1" of water per week = 6800 gallons /7 = 970 gallons/day

Don't let the numbers get you down there are other things to consider. The first would be that this amount of water is only needed for the root area of your crops - so you could subtract the area of your house, paths, water storage, and work areas - composting, tool storage, etc. (which add up). You might also be able to reduce the amount of water needed by using drip tape and mulch (plastic or natural.)

Another thing that you would have going for you (if my assumption that there is not much cloud cover in the spring and fall is correct) is that you could do quite a bit of greenhouse gardening which could get you more yield per square foot and amount of water used.

I know that you were probably joking about moving but my advice to anyone would be to live where you have family and friends (but family especially). There will always come a point that we need some help and these are the only people who would or could provide it.

I live in Oregon and even though I am proud of my state I think that it would be a poor choice if I wasn't born here. Everything is expensive - from gas to realestate (this one gets a lot of people online - even I can take a nice picture of a house in a slum (yes we have 'em) - and good luck buying a "farm") and we strangely even have expensive lumber.... Job opportunities are another thing, even when the economy was "booming" in the rest of the US things were not going well here at all (for a number of reasons). I would think that Washington has similar problems - it is certainly run similarly.

I would definately start small and find out what works for you.

Best of luck to you!

    Bookmark   December 23, 2010 at 1:12AM
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I guess each place has its advantages and disadvantages. I sort of feel like the Southwest is going to be in trouble in the coming decades, though. Population is growing quickly, but water supplies are dwindling. Hopefully people will have time to adjust. Getting rid of lawns and swimming pools will go a long way. Growing vegetables will continue to be a challenge, though, seeing as how a vegetable garden uses more water than a lawn, if not more.

At least in the Northwest, you'll have plenty of rainfall and temperate climates! I am jealous! =)

Your advice is good though: stay where you have a good network of family and friends. =)

I'm a little disappointed. On the one hand, it's foolish to expect that one could grow a lush garden in the Southwest without a lot of irrigation. However, there seems to be a lot of talk coming from permaculture advocates about 'greening the desert', e.g. growing pomegranates, figs, and even citrus in Jordan, and how so-an-so from New Mexico was able to create an edible desert oasis using very little municipal water! The promises seem to go a little beyond what is, in reality, possible. But who knows? Maybe with the right combination of plants & permaculture design, I will be able to at least create a lively garden that sustains many living organisms, and at least a few edibles to supplement what I buy from the grocery store. *shrug*

Thanks for your advice!

    Bookmark   December 23, 2010 at 9:48PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

mmm not a lot of rain and coming in winter when water needs are at their lowest.

just need some out of the box lateral thinking employed.

use lots of mulch, use all water at least twice, that is use second hand water from the house as fresh as to water gardens around the plant root zones not over the top of plants with any watering, this means utilising your wee as well.

think big on water storage, buy a rain water tank instead of or as well as rain barrels (short term water), the tank should be at least 15k litre capacity 22k to 25k better.

and develop from there.


Here is a link that might be useful: lens garden page

    Bookmark   December 28, 2010 at 2:15PM
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In terms of thinking outside the box, here are a few suggestions.

1. If you haven't already, buy a copy of Harvesting Rainwater for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2, Rainwater Harvesting Earthworks by Brad Lancaster. It is outstanding and easy to understand. Capture as much snow and rain as possible **in the land** and concentrate it where you need it. Cisterns are great, but they are expensive and you still have to maintain them, pump the water, and they are relatively limited in size.

2. Consider planting native and drought tolerant food plants. Start with Native Seeds : S.E.A.R.C.H. (nativeseeds.org). They sell tons of drought adapted food plants that would work great in your area. Instead of planting an almond, what about a pinyon pine? Instead of wheat, what about growing Mesquite and grinding the beans for flour? The Hopis, as far as I understand, have dry farmed in a far drier climate than yours for over 800 years. That's permaculture!

3. You may decide to use a little well or municipal water, especially to get perennial plants established. It's not ethically "pure" but I've been to the "Greening the Desert" site personally, and, let me tell you, they use plenty of drip irrigation with trucked in water. It can be well worth it to grow local food when the the grocery store sells stuff from 1000 miles away.

Hope that helps!!!

Here is a link that might be useful: Brad Lancaster's awesome website

    Bookmark   January 4, 2011 at 8:16PM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)

Soil that holds moisture needs less water than soil where the water runs right through. Utah: sandy, right?

Add a lot of organic matter to your soil, esp the top six inches. Avoid turning the soil as much as you can, as turning exposes the soil microbes to sun and wind, which kills them (waste), the nitrogen in the soil outgasses into the atmosphere (waste), and it makes the soil dry out (waste).

Mulch, mulch, mulch! It breaks down and feeds the soil, which feeds the plants, prevents evaporation, and helps prevent weed seeds from sprouting.

Don't space your plants too far apart. Block planting is better than row planting because it is a more effective use of space and resources (like water). In the desert, esp, this is counterproductive: the plants tend to get more light than they really need, and they expire more moisture into the air (waste). Unless there's really a good reason to plant them apart (like running squash), group your plantings with similar requirements and moisture needs.

Some plants like a little shade, esp midday. Plants like these could be planted in the partial shade of larger plants. This can reduce water demand.

Read Brad Lancaster's books Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (3 vols., only the first 2 are available, #3 probably next year). Holding water in containers isn't the only way to collect and store water. If you do it right, you can store it in the soil. One suggestion from his book: when planting a young tree or shrub, dig the hole twice as wide as you think you need it; then plant the tree in one half, and fill the other half with old phonebooks or a good stack of junk mail and soak it good, then finish planting. The mass of paper will retain water for a long time, like 3 months or more, and the young tree roots can gather moisture from the paper.

Many, many drawings and ideas in his books - WONDERFUL!

Get hold of Art Ludwig's books on Greywater - he's the king of greywater. If you only use 50 gallons of city (or well) water per day, that's over 18,000 gallons per year, so don't waste it.

Pick your trees carefully, and try to avoid water hogs.

Above-ground swimming pools can hold a lot of water. One that has a 12' diameter and is 4' deep will hold almost 3,000 gallons of water. If you get any rain in the warmer months, that will help to refill it as you use it.

Think, plan and don't waste what you get.


    Bookmark   January 26, 2011 at 1:30AM
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WOW! to every post.
cheapheap, AMAN & thinks for the rounded math as well as the family note.
abundant earth thanks for the link & book title, just because I'm in South Carolina does not mean I can not save water.
belgianpup, I really like the phone book Ideal.
Anyone heard of/ used COIR. A natural fiber extracted from coconut husk. Coir holds 9 times its dry weight in water. It can stay in the soil up to 5 years, it is a ideal substitute for peat moss.

Here is a link that might be useful: Horiculture coir LLd

    Bookmark   January 28, 2011 at 11:53AM
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yukkuri_kame(Sunset 19 / USDA 9)

Bill Mollison says we don't have a shortage of rainfall anywhere on earth, we have a shortage of water storage capacity.

Below is a very handy rainwater catchment calculator...uses google maps so you just draw your roof or other catchment and you are set.

Remember, you are not limited to catching water only on your roof. Use your patio, your driveway, use the street runoff. You can catch water with a cheap kids pool that you pull out in rainy season. You can catch water in anything!

Organic matter will hold water much better than impoverished soils.

Hugelculture is something you might want to look into. Basically old wood laid under raised beds. The wood acts as a sponge to hold water all summer. Also may help to extend your growing season, due to soil microbe activity.

Lastly, don't limit what you can do before trying! Your yield is limited only by your imagination! Start at your backdoor and keep expanding as your are able to harvest more water.

Here is a link that might be useful: rainwater catchment calculator

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 11:56PM
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Look up "greening the desert". you find it very intersting.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 7:20PM
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Only problem is that in Utah you can have a 50 gallon rain barrel, and i think 1500 gallon under ground water storage. That is by law, see the state owns all the water that falls. To store that much you have to apply and get the water rights to catch the water. At least they changed the law last year so you could catch that much, it use to be against the law to catch any. So really unless you are willing to break the law, rain catching has its limits in Utah. Like he said we get about 20 inches a year, and most of it is snow in the winter.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 2:37AM
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What about sunken gardening? The Zunis used sunken waffle garden beds, if you google it you'll find out lots of info.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2011 at 12:09PM
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Hi, I lived in apts. and houses in NYC and other cities while working as a journalist. However, my dream was always to have a place to garden. I tgried turning one urban yard into a total garden but I got in trouble with city code enforcers, because I let grass get too long. I had grown 2 30-foot poplar trees, which I cut down thenb.
Back in the 80s, when I was 40, I bought a whole valley and terrific watershed. My father ran the waterworks in the town nearby and he helped me build a water system and ponds. Now my parents and relatives are all dead and gone, and I have nobody to garden with, in spite of all this room (literally a whole valley and mountains around it).
I thought it would be easy to find somebody else to move it, but it's not. Most people have a home already, or area they intend to stay. I don't drink or smoke or use drugs of any sort, and that makes me unappealing to some people.
Other people don't want to live in my farmhouses because they are near big brushy fields and woods, full of wildlife, including snakes. Or they want to keep their urban lifestyle. Here, I am trying to learn to live sustainably, for real. I am trying to grow my own food, suppy my own firewood and waer. Eventually I will buy solar panels or microhydropower.
I am inthe southeast -- not anywhere near you. I just want to point out that there are legions of farm owners like me who don't have enough help or famioly around to garden with. YOu can still have your dream of owning acreage, if you look for the right people around you. there's definitely more farms than people to fill them. I am willing to share mine, but most people want money, and we are in a recession.
You can also do what you are tryig to do get by with minimal water. I don't even water. If something doesn't grow, it is usually because the soil is w rong here, not the water. We get 40-50 inches of rain *Ky.).
Check out that book on the Hopi and their water methods. They could garden anywhere!

    Bookmark   May 20, 2012 at 10:18AM
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Some things about Utah gardening; Many of the rules that apply elsewhere don't apply here. Did you find some plants labled "full sun?" Here that means partial shade because our sun is much hotter in this thin atmosphere. I plant much more closely here because the plants then help shade each other. I also leave some nice, protective weeds between rows in the garden. I agree with "mulch, mulch, mulch!

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 12:21PM
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I see this is an old thread... I wonder how cdprop is doing a year later.

I agree with many of the posters, that there are many things to consider when doing water calculations. There are also many good resources for dryland agriculture. My favorite regarding water is Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, a three volume masterpiece.

From my experience I can say that the watering you have to do straight from the faucet is minimal if you are making use of your graywater and rainwater (from runoff stored in the earth, and roof runoff direct to plants or into cisterns), and if you are mulching properly, etc... I live in an area that averages only about 14 inches annually, but have many established trees that don't need supplemental irrigation in a normal year.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2012 at 3:00PM
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Depends upon whether you want to stay and become part of the change you wish to see, or, you are one who enjoys struggling against what nature "is". Stay and help green the desert--or fight the facts. Your choice. Pretty basic. Because I'm hoping you realize that municipal water sources are not going to last forever, let alone cheap ones. And a few hundred dollars for a yearly water bill is cheap, considering. Just wait, though.

But then, perhaps you should first confront the ethics behind..... should every desert require human-based artificial "greening"? (No offense to Geoff Lawton.) Personally I have a problem with those who seek to do such things, under certain circumstances. Is it being done simply because of the inevitable thrill of human might vs. nature? Or done because a once green area was/is being decimated by negative human practices? I say if you wish to join in "regreening" an area decimated by human activity, start with the Midwest and the dangerously low level of its Ogallala Aquifer. Before its too late. Once that dips beyond the point of no return in the near future, it can't help but affect the entire country, and most probably, the world itself. It will take centuries to renew it.... IF it even can be resupplied. We humans have never seen such a vast, critical underground water supply evaporate before, so we don't really know what the consequences will be, do we?

Do we really want to find out? So, see? Rainfall measured in inches isn't really much when it comes to gardening-in-place. Sorry to download on your question, but it brought up much more serious issues than a few inches of water for those few tomato and cuke plants most "gardeners" wish to grow to my mind. No offense. Just something to consider is all I ask.

Just think of all the effort and expense those who garden in Utah are expending. It it really worth it to challenge nature? That's what I would be asking myself, first. Have you ever seen the green golf courses in the AZ desert? I have. Thoroughly disgusting that so much of a world-wide critical resource is being wasted--for what? So a bunch of overweight, rich old men can push a little ball around some grass, when there are people dying of thirst around the world?

Always remind yourself, that nature always wins in the end. Always.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2014 at 11:57AM
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