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Dryland Update

September 13, 2012

Dryland gardening used to be pretty common around here.  I learned to garden that way and for the bulk of our gardening we practice dryland.  It’s pretty easy for me to post about dryland gardening in June when IT IS WET here, so I thought I would take some photos of how the garden looks now.

In all fairness though, I do water some crops, and I will water on a as-needed basis.  This summer when we had 100 ° F weather, I watered some crops.  I post about stuff like this because I want people to know yes, you can grow a decent amount of food without a lot of water, just like yes, you can mob stock with a small herd.  Like the grazing, most of dryland gardening revolves around planning.  Crops that need water are planted close to the water source, plants that don’t need water are grouped together.  Obviously in July I don’t want my seed crops and garlic that need drying down to be near something that needs watering.  Likewise, since I have to water in the greenhouse, I plan for planting crops in the greenhouse that need or really benefit from frequent watering.  I like the term the Nordell’s use – bio-extensive, as opposed to biointensive.  Our farmstead gardening system is uses many different methods for different crops.  Going with the flow or without it so to speak.  Dryland gardening or farming is a good technique to learn.  People always ask me why I don’t do rainfall collection since we have so much rain.  I always ask (in my mind, since I can be polite) , why irrigate?  It’s not the collecting of rainfall, it’s the storage and distribution that will kill you.  Everyone has a different situation, I have worked diligently to learn what varieties tolerate this type of gardening.  Some work, some don’t.  Observation is the key.

Nature’s irrigation system – Sweet Meat winter squash

In a nutshell, dryland gardening works best with wide row spacing and wider spaces between plants.  If a plant is allowed to grow to its full potential it can find adequate moisture.  The squash plant pictured above has funneled the dew right down to the new root shoot where it is needed the most.

Harris Model parsnip

Dust mulch

Besides wide row and plant spacing I maintain a dust mulch.  Steve Solomon writes about this extensively and why it works as opposed to a carbon mulch so I won’t travel that path here in this post.  As you can see when I scratch the soil to the side with my boot the soil is moist several inches down.  Like our grass, the vegetables are deep-rooted because we haven’t watered.  We have not really had any measurable rain since early July and the soil is still moist in the plant root zone.

We also don’t use raised beds, that would be garden suicide for me unless I want to commit to watering all the time.  What little heat I would gain early in the season becomes a nightmare once our dry hot weather hits.  It takes even more water to keep raised beds happy.

Red Cored Chantenay carrot

Golden Eckendorf mangel

Certainly the plants could look more perky, but if I am trying to grow nutrient dense, mineral rich food I should be making allowing the plants to do what plants do best, look for moisture and minerals deep in the soil.  Too much irrigation can wash the minerals down past the root zone where it may be unavailable to the very plant we are trying to grow.

Golden Eckendorf mangel

Dryland mangels & winter squash

Even though we are hot and dry, to add water to this squash would be foolish.  I need the squash on the vines to ripen so they will cure and store well for winter.  To that end, I have lopped off the runners and any immature squash that have no chance to ripen before the season ends.  A wake-up call of sorts for the squash to stop growing and ripen.

Sweet Meat winter squash

So that is the state of our dryland garden.  I’m not advocating everyone try to grow without water, but I want to put my results out there so you can see it is possible to grow many crops with minimal water.  It may be something you need to consider in the future.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 8:03 am

    Wow, tell us about the greenhouses in the background. Are they running year round?

    • September 13, 2012 8:40 am

      CGLOTF, the two little ones have hens in them, and the large one is full of winter greens. We are taking the cover off the big one though, and it is planted with crops that will survive (most likely) the winter. We used to go all winter, but the greenhouses aren’t really necessary in our climate for the crops I want to grow anyway. Where they shine here in the Pacific Northwest is season extension, giving us a longer growing season by adding some dryness and a little warmth on either end 🙂

  2. September 13, 2012 8:21 am

    Nita I would love to see a list of the seed varieties that you consider your dryland crops – or is it just the ones in this post? Thanks so much for sharing, next year I plan to put in a larger dryland garden. This year I was learning which of my seed varieties did not work with that garden style, and it turned out to be pretty much all of them. Ah, the journey.

    • September 13, 2012 8:46 am

      This garden has the flint corn, sweet corn, carrots, parsnips, winter squash, naked seed pumpkin, mangels, potatoes and garlic. Those are the usual crops for this garden because deer don’t eat them! Pretty much everything else I plant didn’t get watered more than once this year except the cukes and zukes. My daughters garden is a row down the middle of the main garden and she does water, and her stuff doesn’t look much different than mine. I admit I like hand watering the garden, so I get my fix in the greenhouses 😉

      I’ll work on the list…

  3. September 13, 2012 9:28 am

    You are always my go-to when I need info on what to do next! Note to self: cut the runners and small squash off the ‘Carnival’ plants. 🙂 We had a light freeze on Tuesday and I didn’t think much about it, but yesterday I noticed a good portion of the leaves on all our squash and zucchini plants have turned black. Eek!

    I wish I could have read this prior to our great garden redo this year. We ripped out old concrete raised beds and abandoned our older flat plot in favor of a new garden of six 4’x8′ cedar raised beds with wooden playground chips as mulch. Looks nice, and was sort of convenient from a crop arrangement layout, but a total PITA to keep watered as our drought went nearly to a state record (a few days shy). I want to install a frost free hydant near the garden amd drip or soaker hoses through the beds. As the summer wore on, I started to wonder if our boxes will make crop rotation difficult in the future, too. Sigh.

    • September 13, 2012 9:41 am

      Amy, we got that frost too! Sure makes you kick in to gear, doing chores in shoes instead of boots and now bam, winter is around the corner!

      No worries about your raised beds, it’s hard to find someone who will advise you to plant an old-fashioned flat, single row garden. Too wasteful, too much like a farm, etc., etc. As if…something is wrong with being like a farm 😉 Looks like continued dry though, and I need to get my cover crop planted! But I need some rain in the forecast to do that.

  4. September 13, 2012 9:47 am

    I think about this all the time. I try to use as little water as I can, but am at the beginning of the curve… this drought has me looking at a lot of my habits in a new way.

    I can’t even imagine living in some of the states reliant on the Colorado River…

  5. September 13, 2012 10:02 am

    I love Steve Solomon, AND my raised beds. You just gave me an idea……leave half the garden flat for dry land wide-row planting, and use some raised. for close-cropped intensive. I cannot keep up with watering all anyhow…..
    Next year. Sigh. This year I am out of commission. The good part of that is that my husband has been developing an interest. Though he’d better not start telling me how to do things.

    • September 13, 2012 10:11 am

      Len, good idea – that’s pretty much what happens here, the expensive square footage in the hoophouse is pretty intensely planted and watered whereas outside I have a little more leeway 🙂

  6. Rebecca permalink
    September 13, 2012 11:38 am

    Thank you so much for posting more about this topic! I greatly appreciate your taking the time to discuss this a little more. My understanding is that one needs fairly rich soil in order to make this work. I imagine you have added lots of manure to your garden over the years? Our soil is very thin, and manure and compost additions seem to just disappear, so I haven’t bothered to attempt dry gardening yet. However, I have noted that the carrots that self-seeded in my garden paths on one of our driest summers (2008) grew up to be the best carrots in my garden, so I think it is worth experimenting with, as time allows.

    Thank you for linking to Steve Solomon’s discussion of dust mulch.

    • September 14, 2012 3:13 pm

      Rebecca, you’re welcome. You do need to have good soil, but mine didn’t start out that good, and vegetables deplete the soil quite a bit. So we amend, amend, amend and if we’re succession planting, I amend the bed between each succession. I’ve had good with side dressing crops in areas where my soil needs a little work. That allows me to work on the soil as the crop is growing, ideally I would like the soil to be perfect when I plant, but that never happens 🙂 So a blend of lots of different methods gets you to the end goal and if you keep amending the soil will get better over time.

  7. September 13, 2012 11:44 am

    MOH, I dry land farmed for the first time this year (kind of unintentionally). We had such a wet spring, I just never rolled the hose out to the garden, and when it got hot in July, I realized that I hadn’t watered since I planted the last root crops in late June (and then only watered them in long enough to see green). I can see some things that probably should have been watered (brassicas and lettuce) but with a wider spacing, and the mulch I used this year, everything else looks great!!

    I have never liked raised beds, and you just gave me a couple more reasons to not use them… Hope your harvest is bountiful!!

    • September 14, 2012 3:15 pm

      adalyn, we sure went from feast to famine as far as rain for sure!

      I move enough heavy stuff every day, I can’t imagine adding dirt and logs to the list when I have perfectly good soil right there. You won’t be seeing hugelkultur in my garden any time soon 😉

  8. September 13, 2012 12:09 pm

    Beautiful. Out in my garden I have an old clawfoot tub, stoppered. It gathers rainwater in the spring and early summer, and I cover it when full (to avoid evaporation and mosquitos) then use that water later on in the summer. I have a small garden, so it pretty much meets my needs for a good month or six weeks.

  9. September 13, 2012 1:22 pm

    I loved Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts. I’m glad to read confirmation of his practices.
    We’re in an extreme drought right now on Colorado’s front range, and it has me thinking about how I’m going to irrigate as the climate continues to change. I don’t have the space on my quarter acre lot to grow a la Solomon (though I may grow out at a friend’s farm that way). The other practice I’ve been researching is hugelkultur. (This is a nice collection of photos, videos and articles about it )
    I think water-efficient growing is going to become more and more important to people in all climate areas as the planet continues to warm.

    • September 13, 2012 2:57 pm

      Sue, it’s definitely a dilemma, our water source is located in a canyon so requires pumping for us to have gravity flow to the house and barn. I think hugelkultur is definitely a plus in areas where there is no livestock to help replace what vegetables take out of the soil.

      Here’s a good permaculture site in its infancy, employing lot of different methods on their worn out place.

      Gotta love the name – milkwood!

      • September 13, 2012 3:54 pm

        Reading gardening posts from people who live in the Southern hemisphere makes my brain ache (“Since our last frost is in November, September is still full of icy mornings” completely baffled me for a while) but it looks like a cool site for perusing during Australian summer. And it is a cool name. Reminds me of , a British homesteading blog my daughter follows.

        • September 13, 2012 4:29 pm

          I know what you mean, when Simple Green Frugal was still going, just trying to figure out the time difference so I posted on the correct day was something I had to wrap my head around. I read that blog too – very interesting.

          I like milkwood because it seems like this all I do, process milk and move firewood 😉 We call our place Cloverwood.

  10. Bee permalink
    September 13, 2012 1:37 pm

    We can go seven months without rain plus temps regularly in the 90s and frequent winds in the foothills of Northern California, so I can’t go to dryland gardening. Luckily, our big spring provides plenty of water and I can use flooding and sub-irrigation techniques, plus heavy mulch. And with the cows right there, finding plenty of fertilizer is never a problem… Very interesting post, Nita — thanks!

    • September 13, 2012 2:59 pm

      Bee, I wish we were downstream of our springs, but then we’d be in the woods! I like it up top where I can see out 😉 Yeah definitely not 7 months of dry here, more like 9 months of wet.

  11. September 13, 2012 5:07 pm

    Can you climb up high on something and post a pic of the entire garden/greenhouse area? That could just be one for the wish list I guess…

    Put up barbed wire today. That’s something I thought I would never do. But it works when the power is out.

    • September 13, 2012 7:27 pm

      HFS, I like barbed wire as long as you don’t have horses it works real good. We were thinking of having a fence class for permanent fencing highlighting the psychology of fencing and the hows and whys since we need to do some repairs, and we figured since it was barbed wire it would probably turn too many people off…

      Check out the first photo in this post:

      I don’t know what I could get up on that shows all of it, I took more photos of the other garden today. Maybe a sketch would do the trick 🙂 Just picture in your mind what would be in permaculture zone 1.

  12. TBirdsMomma permalink
    September 13, 2012 7:05 pm

    That mega-row of squash is just spectacular!

  13. September 13, 2012 7:10 pm

    the only thing you need for dry gardening is room, of course.

  14. September 14, 2012 12:25 am

    sustainable eats, already asked my question – what kind of plants do best for dryland gardening?

    I live in Australia and dry land is pretty much all we have for 90% of the time. Although let’s not count the flood year. 😉 That’s a rarity, not the norm.

    I have found pumpkins and sweet potato don’t need extra watering. Especially pumpkins, as long as you plant them near a source of shade. We found the pumpkins would sprout from our home made compost, when we planted a new shrub/tree and we’d just leave it to produce something. The ornamental plant would shade the pumpkin vines roots and create moist soil conditions underneath it’s canopy. Then the vine would just wander out into the open and cover the ground – always rooting when it found another moist spot.

    So those who don’t have a lot of space and want to try dry land gardening, plant on the fringes of your existing ornamental gardens. Plant pumpkin seeds under the shade of a tree/shrub and let the vine scramble to the sunlight, while it’s roots remain protected by the canopy of the tree.

    I’m glad you plan for dry weather gardening, especially when it comes to food. Planning to be flexible, in a weather pattern of extremes, never hurts.

    • September 14, 2012 5:30 am

      Chris, in my area some of the best things I grow are either quick or slow growers. Meaning varieties that can mature quickly while there is available soil moisture or ones that chug away continually drawing up reserves like the pumpkin you describe. And the gardeners expectations need to change too. The days to maturity on a seed packet should be thought of as a mere suggestion. I planted my main season storage carrots at the end of May, I believe they are a 70 day carrot, well it’s been 110 days or more and the carrots are now ready. My gardening expectations have changed since I have been on this bent to grow most of our own food. My carrot eating season stretches from September to April on our main storage carrot. Since we’ve been eating carrots for months, I don’t really care for them in the summer, nothing changed but my attitude about it.

      Excellent tips – thank you!

  15. September 15, 2012 11:34 am

    I’m so glad you posted this! Dry gardening is high on my ToDo list for next year. I’ve read Solomon’s books, but it’s nice to see an independent confirmation that this will work in our climate. Right now about half our garden is on drip irrigation lines and the other half gets hand-watered. Late in the season we get sick of hand-watering, and it’s surprising how many plants are still fine as we water them less and less.

    I’m particularly surprised that you can dry garden flint corn. What variety are you growing and at what spacing? This year we are growing 180 row feet of Painted Mountain flint corn, but it’s growing in intensive 4′ wide beds with drip irrigation.

    It sounds like you row garden most of the dry crops. Is this only so it’s easier to control the plant spacing, or is it to simplify weeding as well.

    • September 15, 2012 12:23 pm

      Lee, Steve Solomon started doing dryland in London Springs, so pretty close to you guys. Have you read his Water-wise Vegetables? It’s pretty good, and is on his soil and health website, but it’s kinda nice to have the book on the shelf.

      I’m growing Roy’s Calais Flint, the original 8 row. I got my seed from a neighbor but High Mowing, Fedco and probably others have the seed available. It does fine, and it actually germinates pretty good in cool conditions. I have been planting the red and orange because they are more fungus resistant, which I think helps them tolerate the cold and wet.

      Both gardens and the greenhouses are laid out the same. My tiller is 48″, so I use that as my row marker. I plant in the middle of each and skip a row for ramblers like the squash. So 4′ spacing between each row and possibly 8′ for squash. I think Solomon recommends 5′ spacing for serious water-wiseness. But the 4′ spacing works really good for me, no need for row markers which really speeds up the process for me. Four foot spacing seems wide until now, you can hardly walk between some crops! And yes it does simplify weeding and cultivating.

      • September 15, 2012 1:08 pm

        I read “Gardening When It Counts” several years ago (which I think covers some of the same ground), but I didn’t know about the “Water-wise Vegetables” book. I’ll give that a read by way of review.

        Thanks for the spacing details. Our tiller is only 26″, but with a bit of overlap the same spacing might work out for us as well. At the beginning of the year I had thought we would make our current 4′ beds on 6.5′ centers the “standard”, but the squash clearly need more room and crops like beans and corn need less room unless you run the rows perpendicular to the beds.

        • September 15, 2012 2:23 pm

          Lee, I till with a tractor, but you may want to consider hiring the local rotovator guy to come till your garden initially and then use your tiller for maintenance cultivation in between the rows. For veggies that don’t need as much room I plant two rows about 12″ apart in the center of the 4′ area. I find my potatoes, corn and beans do need the full 4′ though. Most of my root crops tolerate the double row, and if they have to be watered, it’s pretty easy to slap down a soaker hose and let that do the job. I use soaker hoses in the greenhouse too with the tomatoes and it works pretty good, add the manifold at the bibb, hook up the hoses and go away for a while. I watered the toms and peppers once a week that way and stopped the first week of August. Even that was getting to be too much for me to get done, so I was glad to quit that job.

  16. September 18, 2012 5:58 pm

    Wow! You just gave me an amazing amount of food for thought. I lost all my starts this year as it got hot fast here in Georgia. Usually we have a rain shower in the afternoons here in the summers, but not this year. And it was the hottest summer on record, with 118F recorded here at our farm. My mare tied up (heat stress for the non-equine) just standing out in pasture, in the shade. She wasn’t worked. She hadn’t been running around, but I darn near lost her due to the heat.

    So… I may have to give dryland gardening a try next year. Would also explain why the garden is so far away from a water source too. Now, to move the goats out of it for next year!

  17. Adam permalink
    January 4, 2014 8:59 pm

    Howdy Matron,

    I appreciate the time you have put into this site and the information you have provided on Dryland Gardening – you have certainly provided me with the confidence to move forward with this type of gardening approach. There are a few follow-up questions that I am hoping you may be able to find time to address.

    First off, my situation: I am looking to establish a dryland garden on the Idaho Palouse, which as you probably know, has a relatively stable summer weather pattern – pretty dry and warm-to-hot temps. We average 2.5″ rain in May, 2″ in June, and 1″ in both July and Aug. I’m not sure exactly where your farm is, but I’m guessing that your weather pattern is somewhat similar, with possibly more rain in May. So, with the above mentioned prec./weather patterns, do you feel that growing some of the same crops you have identified in this blog would have the potential to work out in this situation?

    I’m also wondering if you have had the opportunity to provide a more extensive list of the seed varieties that you have found most successful in the dryland environment? I’ve spent some time reading the Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe and she talks to some degree about dryland experimentation. She mentioned a few good winter squash options including Sunshine and Katy Stokes Sugar Meat (which I am having trouble locating at the moment). Would it be possible for you to provide additional thoughts on seed varieties that you would recommend for dryland growing? I’m looking to grow a variety of crops including corn, winter squash, a number of root crops, dry/storage beans, potatoes, etc.

    Again, very much appreciate your information on this topic and would love to hear back when you get the chance.


    • January 8, 2014 4:59 pm

      Hi Adam, I live on the west side of the Cascades in the Columbia Gorge, up above the scenic waterfall area. We get about 100″ of rain per year, which mainly falls from October to June, the rest of the months are dry, with almost no rain unless of course we cut hay 😉 Just kidding, it’s a rarity to have a measurable rain storm from July 1st to the end of September, hence the dry land gardening. Usually we’re waiting for a dry spell to work the soil enough to plant. Sometimes we get lucky in May and most of the time it’s about the 1st of June. I get around that by planting an entire garden in a hoophouse much earlier. By getting by I mean we grow most of our food, so a season extension is necessary unless we want to eat only canned foods after the growing season.

      Have you read Solomon’s Waterwise Gardening? That and Solomon’s Gardening in Hard Times. Both are excellent and based on Solomon’s (Territorial Seeds founder) gardening experiences in the maritime NW. The single biggest challenge is getting the seeds or transplants started or planted when there is still available moisture to foster them. And then you have to take into account that seed catalogs tout days to maturity for perfect conditions. I plant Red Cored Chantenay carrots for my main dryland carrot crop and it takes 90 days without water, whereas with water I could probably get maturity at 70 days. I don’t know because I don’t irrigate or only sparingly so patience is definitely in order with dryland gardening. I don’t have time to hammer out an extensive seed listing, but I think if you dig back into the early part of my blog, say around ’08 you probably will find a seed list or two. You can search the archives on the side bar either by date or keyword.

      Sunshine and Katy’s Sweet Meat are both available from Nichols Garden Nursery.

      My main staple dryland crops are Roy Calais Flint corn, Purple Viking & Nicola potatoes, Sweet Meat, Joan and Gilfeather rutabaga, Lutz beet, Brilliant Celeriac, Napoli and Red Cored Chantenay carrots, and Turga parsnip. All do well in the dryland situation since I do not water those crops.

      We do irrigate of course in the hoophouses, so crops that do better with water are usually grown in there. Plus we don’t have enough heat units here to ripen tomatoes and peppers without a hoophouse so while not a perfect system being totally grown with or without water it works, and we don’t really use that much water in the hoophouse only watering once a week until the first of August and then cutting off the water to boost the tomato ripening process.

      Hope this helps! Happy gardening!

  18. Adam permalink
    January 13, 2014 8:43 pm


    Very much appreciate your time and response to my questions. I have read a bit of Steve Solomon’s work and found water-wise gardening through the link you posted awhile back. That, along with your spacing information has been valuable for my planning.

    Also, thanks for the link to the Nichols web site, I will look into purchasing from them for some of my needs this year.

    Hope you have a great season!

  19. August 6, 2014 7:08 am

    so fantastic….
    the beautifull

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