MELBOURNE WATERING REGULATIONS AND BACKYARD VEGETABLE PRODUCTION
That there is a serious water shortage problem is well established; nobody can argue against it. The Melbourne water authorities response was to introduce tough water restrictions for which they received high media praise for their effective communication with the public. Also, a very large number of people not only have responded well to these restrictions but they embraced them warmly with a sense of ownership. When these regulations were eased in mid-year 2010 – following some decent rainfall and the water storage in the dams rose to just over 40% – there was extensive media condemnation including editorials and numerous letters to the editor supporting the keeping of these water restrictions. However, that these regulations are not well thought out is not in the media domain. Based on my experience as a backyard vegetable grower, on observing many older people in their productive backyards and on earlier Agricultural Department information I will present an alternative view.
The problem with water regulations
- They waste water. The nozzle watering system is as wasteful – often more so – as the sprinkler system it has replaced. Even the index finger, placed at the end of the hose, is as efficient as the nozzle system and often more effective. Most importantly it is free of embedded greenhouse emission that always accompany manufactured products such as the nozzles. Making furrows around plants and watering by a handheld hose touching the ground is a cheaper and better option as it eliminates evaporation and water dispersal.
- They are short sighted. They fail to deal with the water problem from a wider perspective and in a substantial way.
- They penalise vegetable growers with higher water charges. Yet, in the bigger picture, backyard vegetable production, in addition to health, environment, financial and social benefits, saves water from orchards and from food processing and refining.
- They overlook the needs of plants and gardeners. The soil needs to be watered thoroughly before soil preparation for planting and the sprinkler is the most suitable watering method for this job. Also, the young seedlings and seeds need regular watering the first few days after planting. These jobs cannot be done within the two hours (6.00 – 8.00 am twice a week) allocated for watering, often in the dark.
For real savings, authorities must look into the vast volume of water used for the production of highly refined, processed and packaged food, the high consumption of animal food and the large quantities of junk mail. An extra problem with junk mail is that it encourages wasteful consumerism, a major cause of environmental problems including waste of water.
During the Second World War the Victorian government produced authoritative information and encouraged people to grow fruit and vegetables. It is from such information that I have learnt how to water plants effectively and efficiently. In addition, a Garden Advisory Service was established to give gardeners reliable advice. Yet, in recent years this service has been abolished.
Instead of education authorities now use celebrities and advertisements, a simplistic way of conveying messages, emphasising advantages and downplaying disadvantages and hidden complexities. Advertisements are part of the environmental and other problems – not the solution. The following examples illustrate the problem:
- Manufactured products that increase soil water absorption and retention have been advertised by Victorian government authorities without advising the public that these products are only relevant for sandy soils, not clay, and without presenting natural and inexpensive methods of overcoming water repellence e.g. water and dig the soil lightly, repeating two or three times. Thereafter, the regular watering of vegetables will prevent water repellence from reoccurring.
- Mulch is advertised and promoted as preventing evaporation from the soil without advising that effective watering through mulch is very difficult and potentially wasteful, especially with the fine spray nozzle systems. In addition, there is failure to advise that woody mulches, unless a slow release nitrogenous fertiliser is used, will deprive the soil and plants of nitrogen.
If the Victorian government authorities are serious about improved health, water saving and protection of the environment they should acknowledge the substantial benefits of fresh produce, especially from backyard, and consider actions such as:
- Re-establish the Garden Advisory Service.
- Re-establish the State Schools Nursery – to help schools establish and implement vegetable growing programs.
- Produce reliable fruit and vegetable growing publications.
- Develop water regulations sympathetic to fresh produce.
- Stop promoting wildlife in urban areas, which brings havoc to fruit and vegetables, on the misguided belief that it is pro-environment. It is overlooked that urban habitats are severely reduced, fragmented and polluted and therefore unsuitable for wildlife and for natural and evolving biodiversity. (For genuine and sustainable care of wildlife we should modify our lifestyles to lessen the impact on wilderness areas – wildlife’s only serious hope of survival.)
Gardening education should also draw from traditional practices and hands-on experience. In drought-stricken Cyprus, during difficult years, we dug a hole in the creek and collected water by the bucket for the weekly watering of the tomatoes. The day after the watering my mother used to send me to lightly dig the soil to get rid of the weeds. When I whinged that the weeds were removed the previous week she sent me anyway, explaining that loose soil retains the water in the soil as it would if it were mulched but without obstructing water penetration. This option requires more work but in the interest of wider education, it must be presented.
Long before the introduction of water restrictions many backyard vegetable growers collected rainwater (incorrectly perceived then as unlawful) and installed outdoor sinks for washing their vegetables where the water used goes back to the vegetable garden. (In my garden I installed such a sink 20 years ago.) Yet, these pioneers of water saving suffer the most from these water regulations and are burdened by higher water charges. What a pity.
All policies must be scrutinised for unintended consequences. For example, the often promoted large trees in backyards – an amenity and greening issue, but dubiously presented as pro-environment – not only overshadow adjacent vegetable gardens but they drain the soil of moisture leading to extra watering.
Policy development is often influenced by highly sought consultation. However, such processes often attract vocal single-issue individuals, groups and organisations with vested interests and often lead to unnecessary technical solutions. These groups bring up seemingly sound and reasonable arguments that authorities fail to verify on merit. The research exists to do so. It has cost a lot to produce, and it could lead to sound actions. Rather than using simplistic populism and image building, authorities should verify the hypotheses made during the consultation process. Furthermore, policies and actions must be scrutinized for embedded energy and the term embedded should be extended to include water use, landfill space and impact on land clearing and on wilderness areas.
The climate crisis requires a war against the causes of environmental degradation and water shortages. Increased consumption of fresh produce is as important now as it was during World War II when Victorian authorities, as well as other authorities internationally, encouraged fruit and vegetable growing.
Backyard fruit and vegetable growing, in addition to substantial health, social, financial and environment benefits, saves water in the farms and from the inevitable reduction of food processing and packaging. Home grown fruit and vegetables deserve better than punitive and questionable watering regulations; it should be encouraged, not discouraged. Growing vegetables is rewarding but hard work; there is no need to make it harder. Apparently, water and other authorities, fail to acknowledge the positive aspects of vegetable growing and that vegetables require water to grow.