These Northern California community gardeners share water, grow smart amid drought

Jessica Skropanic
Siskiyou Daily News

With another season of historic drought on the horizon for California, some North State gardeners are finding ways to save water and still grow fresh vegetables.

Community gardens enable people to share water by renting closely-spaced plots for growing, or to buy locally-grown produce after harvest.

It’s a good way to reduce your home water bill, comply with drought regulations and still have an organic garden, said Terri Thesken, who serves on the Etna Community Garden board with her husband, Jay. The couple rent two of the 18, four by 8.5-foot plots available.

This year, Etna’s community gardeners took steps to make the most of water available, she said.

In April 2022, three years into serious drought, Northern California gardeners are finding ways to conserve water and share it by gardening together.

In April, volunteers installed a drip irrigation network. Each renting gardener provides their own timer and drip line, attaching it to one of six water spigots.

“We have splitters on them, so there are enough valves for everyone’s plot,” Thesken said.

Related:How ranchers are preparing for another year of drought in Northern California

That will be a big improvement over last year, when she and her husband had to hand water plants, she said. “We got a little bit of rain and everybody was able to harvest everything.”

Drip lines are also popular at the Yreka Community Gardens, spokesperson Jennifer Silveira said. "We don't allow overhead sprinklers because so much water is lost to the air."

Yreka's gardens also time water for best results, she said. “We encourage people to water in the early morning or evening, when evaporation is less." 

Practical advice from the pros

Another tactic for keeping water from evaporating quickly is to raise seedlings in Etna Community Garden’s new $5,000 greenhouse — funded by a Community Foundation of the North State grant from Raley’s grocery store and private donations from gardeners, Thesken said. Renters can raise young plants in the humid air inside the greenhouse before they transfer them to their plots.

As well as using timed sprinklers and drip irrigation methods, staff and volunteers at the organic Dunsmuir Community Garden treat soil to enable it to hold onto its water.

“Squash, zucchini and tomatoes require a lot of water,” said Steve Bryan, director of the Siskiyou Community Resource Collaborative, which oversees Dunsmuir’s quarter-acre garden. “We add phosphate and other amendments to the soil to help it retain the water.”

Dunsmuir's garden teaches drought-sensible gardening techniques to others. In turn, volunteers grow organic produce in beds financed by local businesses for food pantries and use in the center’s cooking and nutrition classes, Bryan said.

Dunsmuir’s quarter-acre community garden, shown here in February 2022, teaches drought-sensible gardening techniques to others. In turn, volunteers grow organic produce in beds financed by local businesses for food pantries.

During peak season, extra produce is sold at the Dunsmuir Farmers Market, the center’s spokesperson Denise Willey said.

Yreka's community gardeners use mulch to keep water in soil they create themselves through composting, Silveira said. They also offer informal composting workshops.

More:Siskiyou County farm featured on popular YouTube gardening show

Even with water conservation methods in place, Etna’s community garden board placed limits on what people can grow, Thesken said: No water-thirsty pumpkins or gourds this year.

Instead, Jay and Terri Thesken said they plan to grow cauliflower, beans, tomatoes, carrots, spinach, lettuce, beets and potatoes.

Not only did her garden survive the drought in 2021, it thrived over winter, Terri Thesken said. When the snow melted in March, last autumn’s carrots and spinach grew back “like crazy.”

“The soil in the garden is out of this world,” she said.

How to rent a plot in Etna Community Garden

How to rent a plot in Yreka Community Gardens

  • Where: Next to Yreka High School at Knapp Street and North Oregon Street.
  • Cost: Varies based on size of each of the 34 plots for rent. One area is reserved for those who grow produce for local food banks.
  • Contact: Mail the Siskiyou Gardens Parks and Greenways Association at PO Box 36, Yreka 96097 or go to its website at

Jessica Skropanic is a features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers science, arts, social issues and entertainment stories. Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.