Marcelle NankervisThe tank is dry and the vegies are dying. Do I buy water?

All my summer crops are approaching harvest and something terrible has happened … we have run out of water. Yep, we literally have no water in the vegie garden tank.

Of course I knew this could happen. We regularly move water from tank to tank around our property to maximise water capture, and then transfer it to the areas of high demand, like the vegie garden and orchard, but we have always had a backup or spare tank in reserve. Sometimes it has felt like we’re the Kerrigan’s in The Castle, moving the Torana to get to the Monaro to get to the Falcon, and this is how we have always managed to get through. Move water from the shed to the garage to top up the vegies. But not this year.

The strawberries are shrivelling as soon as they ripen

The strawberries are shrivelling as soon as they ripen

Now we don’t live in the outback. We live on the Mornington Peninsula (not far from Melbourne). The opposite side of the road to us has all usual services like town water, but we do not, relying solely on our collection of tanks and rainfall for this precious resource. And this year, for the first year in 5 years, we have no water to spare. The house tank is frighteningly low, all other tanks have already been used to help the house and vegie garden make it through the summer, and the vegie garden tank has run dry.

The corn is just hanging on through the drought

The corn is just hanging on through the drought

Armfuls of green beans are drying on the bushes, tomatoes are stunted yet still trying to fruit, I have the best crop of corn I have ever grown, and my strawberries are shrivelling just as they were beginning to ripen. I can harvest and preserve a portion of the garden, but much has been so damaged by the scorching, relentless weather and lack of water, that the season would generally be considered a failure. But giving up seems unfathomable.

So what do I do? Do I buy water? Well it all comes down to a cost to value ratio: the cost of water versus the quality and volume of produce I can salvage and continue to grow. Because I rarely buy vegies, I have had to go out and price my crop. Of course it is not just the current crop … if I filled the tank, I would have ample water for the next crop too. Let’s go with organic, because that is how I grow my crops.

So this is the price of just some of the produce in the garden at the moment: Corn $ 3/ea, Capsicum $12/kg, Cucumber $10/kg, Beans $14/kg, Eggplant $4.50/ea, Silver beet $4.50/bunch, Spinach $20 p/kg, Spring onions $4/bunch, Zucchini $8/kg, Parsley $4.60/bunch, Basil $4.60, Tomatoes $12/kg, Carrots $6/kg, Potatoes $4/kg, Beetroot $4.50/bunch, My grandfather’s heritage rhubarb – Priceless. And the list goes on.

Now the cost of filling the water tank is around $340. It is only a phone call and a lump sum of cash away, but is it worth it?

What would you do?

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Marcelle Nankervis

About Marcelle Nankervis

Garden journalist, author of Plants for Australian Dry Gardens and Smart Gardening – grow your own fruit and vegetables, contributor to many garden magazines. Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

14 thoughts on “The tank is dry and the vegies are dying. Do I buy water?

  1. I don’t know how it works out financially but in terms of environmental impact I think it’s a yes, depending on how far the water has to be transported. I come from Botswana which is in the middle of a massive water crisis. I don’t think buying water is always a good ethical decision in water short areas but in order to harvest your vegetables which would otherwise die, wasting the water already given to them and causing you to buy vegetables which have there own water, transport and storage costs is I think the best decision.

    • Thanks for your input Jem. You are so right! There are many factors involved (including other people’s costs on water, transport etc) and not all of these benefit the environment. It’s great to hear other people’s ideas which sit very comfortably with my own. Thank you, Marcelle

  2. I would imagine you’ve now had rain as it has been falling in Victoria (although not here in north-west Tasmania) and so have avoided this moral dilemma. I have had to buy water when we relied on tanks in Kurrajong, NSW. I always bought the water for the house – for drinking water – when the tanks ran low and there was no rain forecast. We used dam water for the garden. The dam was topped up with bore water. We also recycled water from the house (showers, baths etc) to water new plantings such as hedges and trees. However, I would have used the water for the garden if the dam had gone dry and I had no alternative. As well as the garden there’s also the need to have water for firefighting and for stock.
    The bigger question is how to make yourselves water secure into the future so you can have water for the house, stock and garden even when it is dry for long periods. At first we worked out our water needs based on not having any rain fall for six weeks. At times, it didn’t rain for much longer than that six week period, so we worked on how much water we needed to last for 8-10 weeks. Here in Tassie and probably where you are in Victoria, it can be even longer without rain in summer as we have a Mediterranean climate.
    The forecast for the future for southern Australia is longer dry periods and also heavier falls of rain at times. You many need more tanks, larger tanks, a dam or to investigate a bore. You may also need bigger gutters to make sure that all the water can be caught and not lost while it is raining heavily. All are expensive options. In the short term, if you haven’t had rain, buy water for the house tank and use it for both the house and garden (it is good you have interconnected tanks). The other problem is, when you go to order your water, you’ll find that there’s a waiting list and have to wait a few days or even more than a week for a delivery! Jennifer

    • Thanks Jen. Yes, it is raining at the moment, but still a very topical issue. I have spoken to many gardeners who harvested crops early and also missed their summer crops all together due to the uncertainty of water.
      This is the first time in 5 years that we have had any issues, and yes, they did result from unforeseen circumstances … Pigs knocking float valves on, three horses with a thirst, and a dam in desperate need of rejuvenation.
      So often garden related stories ignore the fact that water is not always readily available, so it was nice to be able to speak from personal experience … Although I’m also happy to be hypothetical!!

  3. If you need water for the house also then yes, buy it. You have so much to lose if the plants die given what you’ve invested so far to grow your own organic vegies. If your crops can be salvaged from buying water then it makes sense to buy water without delay (if there’s no rain expected of course) particularly given you’re almost out of household water too. My family relies on precious rainwater to live also and have had to design our garden accordingly, including plant choices, water harvesting initiatives and recycling grey water. You’re lucky to have had 5 good years of rainfall. Maybe it’s time to think of how your garden would survive in dryer spells, and ways to increase your water harvesting methods or downsize your garden. Hope that it has rained for you since your post.

    • Hi Judy, thanks for reading my post. Yes, it has rained now but we are still very cautious. We run a self sufficient sustainable farm where we grow our own meat, fruit and veg so water is critical. Over the last 2 days we have collected 16,000lt. We have the capacity to store 202,500lt plus dam water (9 large tanks), so hopefully we will get a few more downpours to see us through the summer. It’s a good lesson that sometimes life throws lemons, no matter how prepared you are 🙂

  4. Well I say its worth it Marcelle. I realise that this may not be a black and white decision process with various ethical, practical, financial and environmental factors to consider. However I believe it is important to spend your money on the things that are important to you and your family and cost is all relative. If having water for your food crops is important and you can afford it, just do it. Many people spend $40+ on a beautiful bunch of flowers that will be dead in less than a week, or more than that on dinner at a restaurant that is gone in a matter of minutes.
    Buying water may cost more, but it will last longer and feed you and your family for many months, as well as perhaps being good for reducing your stress levels as a gardener and provider for your family!!!

    • Thanks Steven, I couldn’t agree more. I also think of the cost of a bunch of flowers as opposed to other items… Maybe we should be giving potted herbs! I’m all about reducing stress at the moment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  5. I have been watching rain clouds over Victoria for a few days now, hope it has rained buckets for you and wishing you more

    Barbara from very dry Perth :0

  6. On ya Marcelle
    Gotta love an article that starts and finishes with the same question! There are no simple answers, are there…
    Adding further to the inputs in searching for a solution is the question of WHEN to buy that water. We have a three week wait for decent water around here, and by then, my vegies would be beyond recovery – as yours sound like they are.
    As for me, I’ve given up on summer vegies entirely, at least until my kids leave home. Until then, the vegie garden is full to bursting over winter, with no supplementary watering at all, with last harvest about Christmas time, and first plantings is Autumn. Its a huge sacrifice, but the only way I can make it work in this phase of life.

    • Thanks Michael. You’re right. There are no simple solutions, and with our seasons changing so rapidly, gardener’s need to roll with the punches. I have given up on experimental crops, choosing staples only for what little water I can spare.

  7. Hello Marcelle

    great article and very relevant here in South East Queensland where our ‘wet’ has been slow to arrive. Hence, not being connected to potable supply myself, I am expecting the water truck to arrive any moment to fill the house tank.

    Here’s another perspective from a subtropical gardener. Like you, I have had to make the decision to abandon the veggie garden a few times. For me this is generally over winter and spring, as of course the central and northern latitudes of Australia have summer/autumn dominant rainfall.

    I have 120,000 litres storage and a dam. However if it doesn’t rain for a couple of months, this water is soon used.

    Many visitors will say I should give up growing vegetables when they see the dry abandoned veggie garden, however most of the time I am fairly self sufficient with vegetables and would prefer to be in the garden than out buying vegetables at the weekend market, grocer or (last choice) supermarket.

    My decision to use precious ‘bought water’ in the garden is often based on the season. Rainwater is free and most years rainfall is adequate, so I do not resent buying in 2 or 3 truckloads in a year. I will water the vegetable garden with this water to keep things going if the ‘wet’ is imminent – as it is now. If I run out in winter, it is pointless keeping the garden going. Hence I have, over the years, concentrated on summer and autumn growing vegetables.

    I also compartmentalise my veggie garden into: annuals (regular watering needed), tough annuals (lima/lablab/wing beans, Asian lettuce, rocket, cherry tomatoes),perennial veg (abika, Surinam/Brazilan/Okinawa spinach, sweet leaf etc) and spices and herbs. These range from high to low water use and ability to recover. I progressively abandon each section, so it has to be a severe drought to let everything go and the tougher plants generally come back.

    I save seed of annual veggies and try to spread seed and planting material of perennial plants and herbs/spices around so that if I lose plants I can get material back.

    Finally I subscribe to the theory that the soil is the greatest water reservoir and hence incorporate organic matter, humates and zeolite regularly. I also aim to support the soil biology as we know symbiotic relationships help plants access water from the soil. Because of this I am particularly cautious using fungicides, pesticides and herbicides in the garden, even if they are organic, due to oollatoral damage.

    So, fingers crossed that we get some rain to top up those tanks and we can all relax and enjoy gardening and gathering our produce once again.


    • Thanks Arno. It’s great to get a perspective from a different climate and region. It just goes to show how as gardeners, we face similar struggles right across not only our vast land, but continents!
      I, like you, will always have a go, and if the seasons are unkind, that’s just the cards I was dealt that season. We can have lots of backups, and backups for backups, but sometimes, we just need to try again when the weather turns in our favour.

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