Monday, July 13, 2009

In a Drought, Abundance

This is what my kitchen table has been looking like lately. I'm canning, freezing, and dehydrating as fast as I can.

We're breaking heat records that stood for as long as anyone's been counting, for numbers of days in a row of 100+ degree weather, for high temperatures of 105+. Coupled with record low rainfall, and record low humidity, plants just don't stand a chance. It's been so dry that our lake is losing a foot a month of water just to evaporation.

It's been nine days since we lost access to our water for the garden, but about 2/3 of the garden is still going strong. I would not have predicted this. I give credit to Steve Solomon, and his fantastically useful book, Gardening When It Counts. He outlines some strategies for dry farming and for suddenly losing a water supply. I had already implemented a few of them before we hit our water crisis.

  • Space plants widely so they can spread their roots to the largest possible area.
  • Start with vigorous, home-sprouted seedlings (as opposed to nursery seedlings), raised in your own garden soil (as opposed to commercial potting soil).
  • Use drought tolerant varieties.
Once we lost our water for the garden, I implemented another Solomon strategy, and for this I had to gird my loins: I took a sharp hoe to every second or third plant and removed it. This instantly reduced moisture consumption while providing double the capillary moisture to the remaining plants. I chose carefully, picking plants that were the weakest, or that had almost finished making fruit. For example, most of the cucumbers were barely hanging on anyway, and probably would have produced only a few pounds of fruit before they died. But the tomatoes and tomatillos are still going strong so I'm hoping they'll make it a bit longer.

Solomon doesn't think mulch does much to reduce moisture loss, since plant transpiration is the greatest source of water use, but I mulched earlier in the season anyway. I added some green mulch, in the form of weeds and sacrificial garden plants, piled high around the roots of the remaining plants. I hope they'll add just a tiny wisp of moisture to the ground as they dry up, but who knows if that will make a difference.

Earlier this year, I built a small series of berms and swales, so if we do get a few drops of rain, my garden will be there to take advantage of it and soak up every last bit.

Meanwhile, I'm just so happy that in this, my first season of gardening on anything but the tiniest of patio-sized lots, and in any ambitious way at all, the garden has thrived. It's been a strange year to start a new endeavor like this -- spring came really late, we had oddball hail storms, tornadoes, and late-season freezes. And now we have this drought and heat. Despite all that, the freezer is crammed with veggies, the cupboards overflow with canned tomatoes, salsa, and pickled everything. The dehydrator runs twenty four hours a day.

Widget Man is hard at work designing our barn and rainwater collection system for the garden while I harvest what I can, as fast as I can, until the fall veggies give up. I'll start a very small fall garden near our house, where we can water a small bit. We'll just grow a few things in the mini-garden -- a couple of tomato plants, some greens, some herbs. These are the kinds of things that are nice to have fresh and we're lucky to be able to grow them during most of the winter in our area.


  1. Wow, you know when I read the part in his book about losing water and taking the drastic step of removing plants I had to sit and reflect on just how hard that would be. It's one thing for nature to remove them for you via hail, wind or whatever but to pull them up for the good of the rest...that's tuff.

    If you have not read it before check out Steve Solomon-gardening Without Irrigation at:

    I have found that if you apply a 4-6" layer of mulch around your plants with leaves (they really work good), grass clippings, or other such materials like the stuff you used, and then...this is the important part...cover that mulch with another couple inches of dirt the water retention effectiveness is greatly improved. The dirt seems to really stop the moisture loss and the mulch is then able to act as a cap to hold it in.

    This works so good that even my potted plants only need to be watered once every week regardless of the 85-90°weeks we have been having. The ones that were not mulched this way have to be watered daily, sometimes twice a day.

    I hope my garden holds up as well as yours if faced with the same issues in the future. Your harvest is inspiring.

  2. I'll check that book out. That's a great idea about burying the mulch. I was thinking most of the moisture in the green plants would probably just evaporate into the air, but maybe with dirt on top, the plants could grab some of it.

  3. What happened to your water? This heat is unbearable and my tomatoes are suffering. I hope yours survive until the next rain.

  4. It's a long story, NF. The land in our rural area was subdivided in the 50's and a community well was built, governed by a voluntary POA. The bylaws are confusing and contradictory, written and rewritten all these years. There's some language restricting agricultural watering, which no on has ever taken to mean watering a garden before. This year, however, the board members have started enforcing, or trying to enforce, a bunch of stuff, including watering restrictions. It's pretty arbitrary, since people are still watering lawns, and I'm pretty sure these rules aren't really enforceable but I'm tired of arguing.

    I'm curious about your tomatoes. I'd heard on Central Texas Gardening that the best thing to do was to pull out spring tomatoes in July or so, and start over fresh for the fall. Do you try to bring your tomatoes through the super-hot months and into the fall?

  5. wow this is one of the best blog posts of the season, we learn so much from others problems don't we, Mr. H is also a blog I follow, his advice will never steer you wrong - for a first time gardener you sure did face your problems head on, very admirable - don't see that in a person everyday - and pulling out plants, egggads how desperate you must have felt - glad it turned out well - survival is not always perfect - peace

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