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.
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.
This morning petrichor was heavy in the air. Petrichor is a smell so strong; you can almost feel the texture gritting against your skin. It's a mixture of ocean and dust. But more than that. Petrichor is the smell rain makes after dry, grimy, hot summer days.
It's unusual to experience petrichor here, as it seldom rains in summer and never in June. At least not since we moved to the farm nearly ten years ago. It is an unusual year for weather. I expect unusual will soon be the new norm.
Most years, the rain stops on or before May first. There are a couple of rainy patches near midsummer and again at the end of August, but these showers usually miss the farm. It will rain at the neighbours and across the road, but not here. One of the things we strive for is low maintenance farming; farming without irrigation or rain in a Mediterranean climate. Most of the experiments on the farm have been focused on the assumption it won't rain in the summer. We've had great success with this. There are a few parts of the farm that are entirely irrigation-free and produce a decent crop even on poor soil.
We've grown chickpeas, peas, soup peas, kale, squash, hot peppers, sunflowers, woad, flax, and tomatoes without irrigation or rain. Pretty darn neat. This year, we've been experimenting with different row and plant spacing as well as potatoes. But the rain has skewed our results - not that we mind - so we'll have to try it again next year.
How are we growing these without irrigation?
I've learned a lot from permaculture. The world domination gardening videos are a great resource filled with different techniques, how and why they work, and how to build them. The last video is my favourite. It's about adding texture to the landscape to create warm pockets.
Finding microclimates that are already moist
There's a section of the farm that is quite moist most of the year. There's an ephemeral stream and in the winter, the whole area floods. By deepening a hollow that was already there to create a pond we capture some of the winter rain that would otherwise pass us by. The stream we made curvier and planted willows and other trees to help capture moisture and hold it in the soil. Trees are also great at capturing dew and can often create their own rain on moist mornings. Since the ground is too wet to till until May, it is a good spot for warm weather crops like beans, corn, squash and sunflowers.
Making our own microclimates
Terracing adds texture to the landscape like nothing else. It's also great for reducing the speed that water runs off the land. Storing moisture in the soil during the rainy season is possibly the most efficient way we've found to grow without irrigation. Somehow terracing reduces the fluctuation in temperature.
airwells to capture dew
Capturing dew is an essential tool to irrigation-free farming. An airwell a great help with this. About three years back we transplanted 100 fruit trees at the start of what turned out to be one of the driest summers on record. We moved the trees to the spot with the most drainage and worst water retention soil on the farm and gave them nothing to drink. Not even watering them in when we moved them.
Two-thirds of the fruit trees were given an airwell. A small, dry stack, rock wall. One third was given nothing. Of the latter, we have on tree surviving. But the trees with the airwell are growing strong. Through extreme heat, drought, cold, and all sorts of crazy weather, we have only lost two of the 60-odd trees. The only difference is the airwell. We were shocked by just how much difference it made.
Even making texture on the soil increases dew collection. Molding up potatoes left furrows between the rows. I was surprised to see just how much dew collected in them.
One thing that isn't working is mulch. Mulch works wonders if it rains at least once a month, but by the end of the second month without rain, it seems to do more harm than good. By the end of month five, only well established perennials with high dew collecting abilities like rosemary, sage, and lavender can survive mulch.
Mulch covers the soil and prevents moisture loss, but it also prevents moisture penetration. Once the mulch dries out, the dew that runs down the stems of the plants, cannot enter the soil for later use. By the time the soil is warm enough for the invisible beasties to break down the mulch into soil, the mulch is too dry to sustain them.
Looking at our local forests, one can see why mulch doesn't make sense here. Mulch works well where the soil is built through layers of detritus like leaves and grass. But here, when one watches a pioneer area, the soil isn't formed that way. The cottonwood and alder grow on poor, but moist soil pockets, then when they fall, the logs quickly rot to create better soil. The leaves do very little except provide food and shelter for animals who fertilise and build soil that way. For this reason, I suspect Hugelkulture will be a useful tool in our area. Something to try in the years to come.
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