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Dryland Garden, Fall Cover Crops and In Situ Root Storage

September 20, 2014

Our most frequently asked question around here is how do you garden without irrigation?  There is actually a group of questions centering around that topic, ranging from How to Why?  The simple answer is that we don’t dryland garden exclusively, but we do actually grow quite a bit of food without irrigation.  The dependence on “cheap” water is as bad as the dependence on cheap fossil fuels.  The Why?  Drought proofing your food supply is very important.  Irrigation is the dirty little secret that no one talks about much, especially in the Pacific Northwest where there is an illusion that the well will never run dry.

The How is easy.  Don’t water.  But actually it’s much more complicated than that.  First off, you need high organic matter soils that retains what moisture you do get during the rainy season.  You’re not going to go out, till or plow up some garden spot and start at dryland gardening without some bumps along the way.  You need careful crop planning.  Some plants do need irrigation to thrive and come to maturity during the garden season.

Here our irrigation use varies from always in the greenhouses, to some in the main garden, and to none or next to none in the dryland garden.  It’s not an all or nothing deal with us.

It’s pretty easy to say in June you’re not going to water, now is the telling time in the dryland garden.  The photo above shows where the potatoes were harvested and is prior to some tillage to smooth out the soil and get the block ready for cover crop.

The dust mulch practice really turns people off, but you can see where Grady has been playing the soil is darker and moist underneath.  We dug a hole today in a grassy spot for a grey water drain, and even five feet down the soil is dry as a bone.  Our gardens that have been cultivated through the dry actually have more moisture than our lawn area.  Pretty amazing to see.

Uncle John beans

Uncle John beans

Success in the dryland garden depends on timing.  When to seed, when to weed/cultivate.  Whether it’s spring or fall seeding I need to be ready to strike while the iron is hot, and there is adequate rain predicted.  Otherwise I am wasting seed and labor.  I try to limit my transplanting too in the dry garden, direct seeded crops are much more resilient, provided you plant at the right time for the crop.  I spend my days looking for the right clouds for the dryland portion of the garden.  After a rain, you wait a bit and then you weed or cultivate.

This garden is laid out in one hundred foot rows as follows:

Row 1  – Fallow
Row 2 –  Sweet Meat winter squash
Row 3 – Fallow
Row 4 – Fordhook 242 lime bean
Row 5 – Brilliant celeriac* **  TP
Row 6- Lutz beet* **
Row 7 – Red-Cored Chantenay carrot* **
Row 8- Joan and Gilfeather turnip rutabagas  **
Row 9 – Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn TP, Welcome TSW F1 Sweet corn
Row 10 –  “
Row 11 –  “
Row 12 –  “
Row 13 – Uncle John horticulture bean
Row 14 –  “
Row 15 – Red-Cored Chantenay carrot* **  (house cow roots)
Row 16 – Turga parsnip* **  (house cow roots)
Row 17 – Purple Viking potato
Row 18 – “
Row 19 – “
Row 20 – Peter Wilcox, Desirée, & Nicola potatoes
Row 21 – Fallow

* Double row
** in situ winter storage
TP transplant

Pretty boring as far as designer crops.  Strictly utilitarian plantings with dryland in mind.  Besides avoiding water use where it isn’t needed, dryland crops store well, and have a more pronounced flavor profile.  I might venture a guess too that if the plants have to root deep for moisture they may well be more nutrient-dense too than the same crop nursed along with irrigation.

Sweet Meat winter squash

Sweet Meat winter squash

Most of the crops in this garden are direct seeded unless noted in the table above.


Fordhook 242 lima bean

Lutz beet, Brilliant celeriac, Fordhook 242 lima bean, Sweet Meat winter squash

In the dryland garden it’s imperative that you keep the soil as weed free as you can to allow the less hardy vegetables to forage for the available soil moisture.  It’s just a few months without cover, and before the winter rains arrive in earnest most of this soil will be growing an interseeded cover crop of either cereal rye of spring oats.

Brilliant celeriac

Brilliant celeriac

Lutz or Winterkeeper beets

Lutz or Winterkeeper beets


Joan rutabaga L, Red-Cored Chantenay carrot R

Joan rutabaga L, Red-Cored Chantenay carrot R

One downside to winter cover crops though is that in-row storage of certain roots and cover crop provide a lovely winter home for voles.  The block with the root crops will not be planted with a cover.  Besides vole habitat, I need the soil loose and free of plants for root mulching.  Covering those long rows with soil is a big job anyway, adding plant matter makes it worse.  On the farmstead you are constantly weighing choices.  Cover crop, field mice (voles), no roots.  Harvest, store a winter’s roots where?  Hill with soil and and harvest as needed.  No electricity, no storage containers, this method works well here where our soil doesn’t freeze deep.

Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn

Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn

Welcome TSW F1 sweet corn

Welcome TSW F1 sweet corn

Turga parsnip L, Red-Cored Chantenay, Uncle John beans

Turga parsnip L, Red-Cored Chantenay, Uncle John beans

As it stands today, the dry beans are harvested, and the soil is ready and waiting for cover crop seed just before a predicted storm system.  While not perfect in many gardeners eyes without the requisite mulch, raised beds or intensive plantings, this land extensive part of our garden plots makes sense here in our low rainfall summer clime.  And it grows a lot of food.

Blue and Gold

September 19, 2014
Italian prune plum

Italian prune plum

I held the last of summer in my hands today, all blue and golden.

Orchards tie you to the past and keep you in the present day.  I walk this well-worn path through the orchard so many times a day, up to the greenhouses, up to the chickens, up to the hay barn.

A look to the left is the dry garden, I have to glance over the fallen King tree that is now in firewood rounds.  It will give us a little more bounty in one last gasp of productivity.

A look to the right is the main garden where the original homestead prune orchard contained some fifty-four trees I was always told.  Prunes were a big business in our town in the late 1800’s.  It was warm and dry then like it is this summer.

Dog days of September

Dog days of September

Goodness fifty-four prune trees! I can barely manage the nine youngers we have, let alone a planting that large.

The last days are summer are here and almost gone, I am weary of the sun, and yesterday I felt cold, that’s been an unfamiliar feeling for some months now.  It must be fall.

Before the Rain…

September 17, 2014
Uncle John beans - local heirloom

Uncle John beans – local heirloom

Leaving dry beans and dry corn to chance when rain is predicted is the equivalent to washing your car, and then it rains.  It’s so rare that these beans completely dry on the plant, I didn’t want to tempt fate and leave them out.  You know how it goes, you hear the rain on the roof in the middle of the night and you wonder what you left outside that should have been put away.

So I pulled the beans and set them in the greenhouse to stew a bit until I have a rainy day to work on them.  At least they’re safe and sound in there, and it probably won’t rain.  Oh well.  It may not rain, but the job needed doing anyway, so now that’s off the list.  Beans.   Flint Corn.  Prunes.


Cascade Ruby-Gold corn

Cascade Ruby-Gold corn

The other dry crop vying for my attention was the flint corn, despite transplanting woes, and sheep munching, the Cascade Ruby-Gold is almost all ripe, as the birds can attest to.  Many times the wildlife tells us what we need to know.  Waiting for those apples to get ripe in that distant orchard?  Watch for the bears, they know.  About 75% of the ears were ready for harvest, so those are in the greenhouse as well.  A good feeling, that.

And always, always picking more prunes and making another prune cake :)


Tomato Clock

September 16, 2014
Gluten-free tomato picking

Gluten-free tomato picking

So many tomatoes, so little time.  It’s tomatoes round the clock.  So I called in reinforcements, and they brought beer, and we picked.

Pantano Romanesco

Pantano Romanesco

Evening in the greenhouse is better with friends.

New Girl F1 tomato juice

New Girl F1 tomato juice

Juice yesterday, and soup today.  The end is in sight.  Soon there will no tomatoes morning, noon and night.

Smoky and Dusty

September 15, 2014
Jane's breakfast time after milking

Jane’s breakfast time after milking

I hate thinking about the forest fires that are giving us spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The "boys" grazing after morning milk.

The “boys” grazing after morning milk.


Smokey skies

Smokey skies

The smoke from the Pit 36 fire cast an odd pall on the sky yesterday while we were getting some of the garden ready for cover crops.   Crossing our fingers for some rain for the fires and the seeds we want to plant.

Play time

Play time


Break time

Harvest and preservation efforts continue, the never ending ghee and butter project, and finally the last pickling cukes committed to jars for the fridge.

And Squee!  Empty boxes on the porch!  Time to refill them.

This and That

September 12, 2014

Lunch for humans.

Lunch for calves

Lunch for calves

Garden Blend tomato juice on the way thanks to the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.

Pepper Progress

September 12, 2014


For the last few years I’ve been making small batch romesco in the winter from freezer stores of frozen peppers, and home canned tomato sauce.  I decreed early on (to the pepper seedlings, don’t ask, don’t tell) that this year would be the year that I would make it fresh and stash some in the freezer.  This recipe here gives you an idea of what romesco is, and how quick you can make it before dinner if you choose.  I like it on eggs, or any kind of meat, and you can eat it anyway you like, bread, pasta, by the spoonful, whatever.

It’s perfect project to nest in with other preservation projects already in progress.  I ‘m roasting lots of tomatoes right now for sauce, so to oven roast some peppers, and hazelnuts in between, not a problem.  I can mix batches in the food mill too, saving clean up time between foods since recipe calls for the peppers and tomatoes in the same form, roasted, seeded and peeled.


Red Ruffled Pimiento OP

In the farmstead garden I am the produce manager.  I have to deal with the culls, or blems as I harvest.  Some fruits are too far gone and go in a bucket for the livestock.  We skipped pigs this year so that means the hens and cows get the bulk of what doesn’t head to the kitchen.  There is nothing wrong with these peppers that a paring knife won’t fix.  These Red Ruffled peppers are very productive, I plant enough so that we have enough to eat out of hand raw, stash some in the freezer for baking with cheese later, and that leaves the blems for roasting with the tomatoes or for projects like the romesco.  Waste not, want not.

Since this condiment is meant for the freezer not canning, I can make it to match our tastes instead of worrying about low acid ingredient ratios.  The recipes I have looked at call for a 2:1 ratio of tomatoes to peppers, but to me that tasted like just tomatoes with garlic and nuts.  The tomato flavor overpowers the peppers quite fast.  What suits our palates the best are equal parts tomatoes and peppers.

What you need:
Food processor or blender
Sweet Peppers
Smoky Paprika
Olive Oil
I skipped the bread portion…preferring just to keep it simple.

Working the romesco project into the ongoing tomato preservation went as follows:

Roast nuts and set aside.  I used hazelnuts but any nut would probably do.

Roast peppers in 400°F oven until slightly blackened.  You can sweat them if you like, but running them through the food mill saves that step.  I was just going for the heightened flavor roasting lends to these peppers.  Set aside to cool before running the peppers through the food mill.

Ditto for tomatoes of your choice.  I used Costoluto Genovese just because that is my favorite. (Still.)

Peel garlic and set aside.  You could also roast this if you want that flavor.

After the tomatoes and peppers have cooled, run them through a food mill, or I suppose you could blend them with skins on, your choice.

I made small batches in the food processor so I could adjust ingredient amounts to taste:
Yield 1½ cups

1 cup roasted tomato purée
1 cup roasted sweet pepper purée
1 cup roasted hazelnuts
2 – 6 cloves of garlic ( Depends on the size of the cloves and your taste)
1 teaspoon + of smoky paprika
A glug of olive oil
Same for vinegar
½ teaspoon salt

Process in food processor until desired consistency, jar up in smallish jars the size you think you may use up in a week or so.

This type of recipe which hails from Northern Spain fits in with the farmstead kitchen and garden.  You can make it fancy, or just use what you have on hand like most farm cooks do out of necessity.


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