We have officially entered stage four drought conditions, which is apparently the worst we have. It means that the government can start making emergency legislation to reduce water usage including industry and farming. It also means that we are at risk of not having enough drinking water next year if the drought continues through the rainy season.
Since water-less and water-free farming is the main focus on the farm, I wanted to share some updates on what's working and what techniques we are still developing. It's all experimental. There's lots of theories on what works, but what works for one may not work at another location. That's why it's so important to try things for yourself.
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Many of the trees my grandfather planted on the property were watered and given great care and affection. But these trees never toughened up. Their roots are shallow and they haven't the ability to make it through this heat unaided. So I place at the base of each tree a bucket of water. The geese and ducks splash in this water and it helps to cool the roots and provides a slow trickle of moisture into the soil. This is often enough to save the tree, but when it isn't, we apply some water to the ground around the drip line of the tree in the evenings. Maybe once a week. This not only waters the roots, but it also creates conditions that encourage dew to gather.
Looking at the shape of the land, it goes down into a valley where and then up again on the other side. At the base of the valley is an ephemeral stream and in the winter, there are springs that bubble on the surface of the valley floor. But up here on the ridge, the subsoil is glacial till, which is rocks and other coarse matter deposited by the last ice age. This makes for amazing drainage... which also makes it difficult for plants to thrive in the summer.
Have another look at the above photo. Can you see how green it is in the valley? In the foreground, all the annuals are dead. But a bit further away, there is hawk weed and further still we can see green grass and nettles. Then as we travel up the hill on the other side, the ground is quickly brown again.
We can see from this photo that the valley has more soil moisture, even in the summer. Even in a terrible drought like this one, we still have greens growing. So we put the summer garden down there. This year it is sunflowers and soup (dry) beans. Over the last few years, I've been planting these two quite early in the spring. Before even the last frost. In the first few years, I had little success because sunflowers and beans don't handle frost well. But I kept on saving seeds from the survivors and now I can plant my crop in April, before the rains have finished for the year. The rain helps the seeds germinate and they very quickly grow a deep root system. Because they can establish themselves so early in the year, they are strong enough to handle the drought without any irrigation. It's a combination of plant breeding (I used a smidgen of landrace techniques to choose the genetics, then nature do the selecting until I had a plant that would do what I needed) and using the natural inclination of the land.
Storing water in the soil is my first preference, but this year we experimented with some large rainwater tanks. We used them to help a few transplanted fruit and nut trees make it through the summer. We have the hope of transforming the space near the road into a small forest garden, but the first step is to get the trees established. I think they would have been find in a normal summer, but I don't know when we'll see one of those again. It's also why you see the hose in the next picture. Nothing to do with the annuals.
Now here's a dismal site:
This is the second generation of my landrace kale. There are several experiments going on here. The first is trying to improve the soil. We terraced this section to help it gather more moisture in the winter. But until we can add more organic matter into the soil, it's going to be tough keeping the moisture in there for the whole year.
I started this experiment with Seedy Saturday. I got one packet of every kale seed that did not have the word "dwarf" on it. Combined them all together in a big bowl and planted them in poor soil where they would receive no water or love. Half of them survived. These are their children and I can see that there are some interesting varieties (crosses) that weren't part of the original mix.
They did very well at the start, with a good deal of dew collection. The plants spaced closer together (plant spacing is another experiment this year) did the best at the start. But once the heat hit, the plants with the widest spacing are doing best of all.
Another thing I noticed is that aphids hit the taller, bigger leaf kale pretty hard this spring but ignored the others. But these same plants are doing the best of all now. Did the aphids do something to the plant to harden it against the drought, or perhaps the same genetics that make plants tasty to aphids when young, are what makes them do so well in the drought?
You can also see some sunflowers self seeded in this part. Worst soil on the farm, best drainage, hottest and driest part. So even sad looking kale is a victory. I can't wait to see what the offspring from these kale can do.