Skip to content

I Heart Dryland

April 28, 2013


After three cold, wet springs in a row, we finally are getting a more “normal” spring, as in a little drier.  My peasant knowledge tells me that it was time to plant the potatoes.  A fancier term might be phenology, but whatever you call it, I know when I see smartweed germinating in my soil, I better get some of my dryland crops in the ground.  For the most part, our gardens are dryland (no irrigation) so getting a good start when there is a chance of rain makes a great deal of difference.  Jane’s winter carrots are sown a few weeks early, so that is one job to cross off my list.

Dark Red Norland

Dark Red Norland

Mostly though the potato planting was the push during this last bout of dry weather.   We planted early and late maturing varieties at the same time – planting is done, and harvest will be staggered.

Why dryland?  I think peak water is a problem that most folks don’t even care to think about, until that last drop comes out of the tap or the well pump quits working.  Having our own water system makes us a little skittish about dry times, our spring and surrounding watershed are very real things.  Summers here are dry, and many times it takes six inches of rainfall to recharge the spring.  Add in a dry fall, and it may be November before the spring is back up to par.



Frankly, dryland gardening is easier in many ways.  I don’t have to babysit irrigation, which is nice, I get enough of that chore with the greenhouse where there is no choice but to irrigate.  Instead wide row spacing, and clean cultivation are my tools of choice.  It’s one gardening tradition I am glad I learned.  I could irrigate, but if I don’t need to, why do it?  I often wonder about the intensive close planted gardens that will not do well without irrigation as opposed to more extensive plantings and no irrigation.  I have no idea which is better really, I will suppose it depends on your situation and gardening space.  We are a no frills farmstead anyway so dryland goes marries well with that mindset.


So what do think?  Are the old dryland ways a good thing to be thinking about?  Or just an old method that should be filed away for historical reference?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    April 28, 2013 10:07 am

    No, definitely not filed away unless we all want to run out of water!! Any chance we get to conserve our precious and dwindling water supply, we should most definitely do it! I cringe everytime I go by a huge farm, ranch, etc. and they have on those gigantic irregators that look like they stretch for miles and are blasting away on a hot, windy afternoon! 😦
    A question…do you cut up your taters or just plant them whole? Love the heart tate!!

    • April 28, 2013 10:10 am

      Chris, I like to plant them whole, unless they are huge, too many eyes can make for small potatoes. 😦 I couldn’t resist that cutie!

  2. April 28, 2013 2:52 pm

    Hi, another Chris here! 😉

    I imagine dryland planting is something very different in the Northern Hemisphere, than here in the Southern. In Australia, the word “dryland” generally comes with degraded soils, so water is mandatory if you want to get any kind of plant to produce. We also get extreme evaporation temps during summer, which again, cooks the soil and makes it impossible to grow anything.

    I’m curious to know your observations of dryland gardening in your part of the world though. For a successful crop, does it require good composted soil – is that the key to success in the absence of water? Interesting that you mention large spacing, as here in Australia, to keep your water in the soil, you need to overplant to reduce the chances of the sun touching the soil (ie: quicker evaporation).

    Do you think dryland planting would work in some of the drier parts of the US? Was it a national way of planting, or resticted mostly to those colder parts with the benefit of a freeze and thaw? I have read that freezing and thawing pushes nutrients to the surface, where if you don’t have that advantage, you need plants to do the job for you – using their deep roots to bring nutrients to the surface.

    Do you think because you work annually to return your abundance of composted material (via animal manure) to the soil every that – that is what makes dryland planting work for you? And also, you have the benefit of freezing and thawing, which returns a large portion of water to the ground pre growing season?

    • April 29, 2013 8:06 am

      Chris, so interesting always to hear from others and their gardening conditions. It’s not so harsh here where we are at due to our location between two mountain ranges and close proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

      I do think the key to success with this method is high organic matter, and wide row spacing with enough space between each plant to insure that each plant can forage for the water it needs. Irrigating can make lazy plants with roots close to the surface, which is fine as long as the water never quits coming, but those plants suffer more if and when the water is erratic or stops for whatever reason. I don’t use raised beds either, while they may warm early, they dry out sooner.

      Many cultures grew successfully without irrigation even in much drier parts of the US, but on a much more subsistence basis. Now it’s assumed that you must irrigate, and we do use some irrigation in the greenhouses because it is so hot and we space plants much closer to take advantage of the solar heated space. the freezing and thawing was something I really overlooked, until we started leaving the greenhouse spaces open to the weather in the winter. It has made a world of difference in the soil, plants, and insect pressure. I knew that plants take to irrigation different than rainfall, which is obvious in any garden, but I didn’t really give it much thought for the greenhouse growing, until I was able to experience the difference.

      I learned to garden from farmers who gardened to survive and animals were a huge part of farmsteads at the beginning of the 20th century when this area was settled. Besides animals, all these old farmers I knew also used cover crops. Now it’s just becoming vogue again to have some animals in the mix, which in turn can provide needed fertilizer for the vegetable component of the farm. However, there are a lot of folks who don’t believe animals are necessary to complete the sustainable farm picture. I don’t agree, but that’s just me. Sure leaf mold is great, but it makes no sense to me to transport leaves (which I don’t have) and disregard the animal manures (which I do have.) Economically and environmentally it just doesn’t make sense. Even the garden writer I really like (Steve Solomon) “poo-poos” animal manures. Used properly I think composted animal manures have a place in vegetable operations. I spent 5 minutes this morning “working” on my ongoing hen bedding compost, including gathering eggs. Five minutes a day with a little extra carbon added, gives me enough material to adequately fertilize almost all of our garden plots each year, which totals about 21,000 square feet. That’s not a bad return and I get a dozen eggs a day, plus a dozen stewing hens too. Of course, to pull this off I have to confine my girls and bring green vitamins to them. Or I could just let them range and only get eggs. Makes no sense to me not to do this. I think the fossil fuel savings alone for our household offset any free range ideals.

      I think all of those things you bring up can make a difference, and this method works for us in our area, I blog only to share my experiences, knowing that it may not help you in such a different climate, but it may help someone near me just by giving them a different approach to think about.

      Thanks for the great, thought provoking comment!

      • April 29, 2013 7:02 pm

        It’s always good to share the information, even if it doesn’t apply to every garden situation. I’m forever fascinated with how the two different hemispheres, respond to climate and environmental inputs, because I never fail to learn something new.

        Even if we live on polar opposites however, there is much we do have in common environmentally. I read further down, that your area is conifer dominated. I could immediately relate because our area is eucalyptus dominated! Any leaf drop takes ages to break down and can create residue, very few plants (especially of the vegetable variety) can grow in.

        So we really do need those extra inputs if we want to grow anything to compete in those dominating residues. The question I’m always asking (as I’m sure you do) is what does it take, and how much do I need to tip the balance in my favour?

        Water management is one of those inputs we probably take for granted. But the amount of water used, also relates to the quality of soil and the kind of plants needing to grow. Reading some of the later comments about the difference in flavour between dryland grown potatoes and irrigated ones, I realise that potatoes are full of starch. If they’re pampered with too much water, you water down the starch, and deprive the tubers of searching for valuable nutrients deeper down in the soil. This will make all the difference in flavour.

        I discovered a similar thing by accident, with Pumpkins this year. We removed our 2 year old vines that had grown in the most horrible conditions. We never pampered them. Pumpkins always tasted superb though! The new vines were hit with a dry spring/wet summer, so didn’t start producing until late. We were given some pumpkins by a work colleague recently, who lived in an agricultural area that irrigates. You could really taste the difference! They tasted like water-mush wrapped in a pumpkin skin.

        I’ve never met a pumpkin I didn’t like, until now. 😉

        As much as water management is about preparing for those drier times, I’m also guessing it’s about respecting the edible you want to grow, by allowing those conditions which naturally enhance it’s flavour, and (as you mentioned) maximising it’s storage life.

  3. Craig permalink
    April 28, 2013 3:37 pm

    I definitely think it’s something we should all be concerned about, nothing grows without water. Timely post, my wife and I have just started watching “The Dust Bowl” by Ken Burns last night. All those people that went through that I’m sure thought the rains would never stop! How we farm plays an important part in being able to withstand drought periods. Permaculture design is something I’m trying to learn because it places such a high importance on using available water sources within the landscape. One of the things I love about growing our own food, there’s always something new to learn.

    • April 28, 2013 7:47 pm

      Craig, that is a great show, what amazing footage. I think once you start growing your own food, you realize that you’ll be learning every season. Always something to look forward to, for sure 🙂

  4. Chris permalink
    April 28, 2013 4:05 pm

    Did you plant it? If so, I wonder if it’s babies will be heart shaped! 🙂

  5. April 28, 2013 5:00 pm

    I so hear you about peak water! Here in the Kootenays (South East corner of B.C., East of the Cascades but West of the Rockies) we have snowy winters but once it gets dry in summer, it often stays dry till well into fall. We have our own well too, and we are totally aware of the water level. I have a bit of money to invest this year and one item on the list is a water collection system for irrigation. It is amazing how much water comes off a metal roof in one good shower. As for gardens……under the influence of Steve Solomon (isn’t that where I followed you from??) I have started using wider spacing in the big top garden, but do intensive square foot style in the greenhouse and a few 3×3 planters close to home. My scale is not big enough to do total dry land, but I like the idea. i am not a farmer or even homesteader, just a humble gardener who draws the line at chickens.

    • April 28, 2013 7:45 pm

      Len, same here, and Steve Solomon has written about the wider spacing and less irrigation quite a bit. The homesteaders here practiced that, and that is where I learned it. I like Solomon’s Water-wise Gardening, available in his Soil and Health library (link in the sidebar) or in book form fairly cheaply.

      I plant my greenhouse intensively, and water there quite a bit. But it’s nice to grow our bulk staples without water. It can be done. Not everywhere, but it is doable.

  6. April 29, 2013 4:03 am

    We have always grown our root crops dryland fashion out of necessity. I have never heard that term before. Last year we were part of the extreme drought that covered lower Ontario and many parts of the states. Many of our customers were disgruntled at the lack of fresh produce and could not understand why. After all the local big chain grocer carries lots of fresh product. The term “buy local” has many facets of learning don’t you think.We have created a society that expects and demands constant supply of whatever! Oops, a bit of a rant! Sorry about that. Thanks for your ever teaching blog!

    • April 29, 2013 8:08 am

      Katy, exactly. We are all a spoiled, on-demand lot. If this spring continues like it has, I am going to be glad I have some dryland techniques to fall back on.

  7. Sheila permalink
    April 29, 2013 8:10 am

    Fortunately (or I could say unfortunately) we have a very high water table. I barely need to water the plants that I keep in the hoop house. Their roots go down deep in the summer to find the water, not that they have to go far.
    When we decided to move closer to family, my uncle offered us some acreage on his farm, but one of our criteria was choosing a place that wasn’t so reliant on others for water. Yakima Valley is a lovely place and wonderful for growing things, but they also only receive on average 8-9 inches of rain annually. My uncle’s farm is one of the oldest in the area, so they have the first rights to irrigation water. In dry years the farmers with second and third rights have it tough. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Not to mention that it isn’t safe, for young girls especially, to drink the well water…bottled water gets expensive.

    • April 29, 2013 10:18 am

      Sheila, we just drove through there on the way to Cle Elum in February, that is some country! Unbelievable how dry it is, but I wonder about all that irrigation. We have friends in Boardman, near the river and the water is not good 😦 When they are here they get water to take home. 😦

  8. Greg O permalink
    April 29, 2013 9:27 am

    most informative discussions. Here in Oregon’s Coast Range we ended a very dry winter with a very dry spring. So on top of the usual concerns about water for the garden (pond water) we have concerns that our spring (household water) will dry up and the fires will come in September. Dryland gardening is, for me, aspirational. I have poor forest soil (well, poor for gardens, not for forests) that drains very well indeed, once it’s exposed, through a shale layer that is just below the surface. During the years that we are adding organic matter and finalizing garden locations we will need to irrigate more than we want to; because of gophers and ground squirrels we have to keep their candy — carrots and parsnips — protected in greenhouses, so we will also do our water-intensive growing there. And yes! yes we use animals, as well as the many oak leaves we have. If it’s organic, we use it! even though the slugs and voles enjoy it, too, we find that the soil improves so drastically that sheet mulching is worth it, just as much as cover cropping.

    • April 29, 2013 10:14 am

      Greg, I suspect your area is much like ours, depending on what side of the range you’re on. We’re near the Bull Run Reservoir, so high rainfall, 100 inches is normal – and very well drained soil. Very good for growing trees, not veggies and pasture. I am liking sheet mulch overwinter more and more, although I am finding I have to fit my crops in accordingly. Cover crops are a headache if we get wet weather during the spring, they never winterkill here and have a way of getting out of hand. (She who is lamenting the 2′ high rye in the greenhouse right now.) It’s been “dry” here too this winter and spring, I think we’re in for it come fall fire season. We have already had such low humidity it’s not even funny, and the conditions in our woods are like late July. 😦

  9. Victoria permalink
    April 29, 2013 9:41 am

    I’ve found that a lot of the old techniques are useful in specific circumstances, and that you should try whatever makes sense in your situation, and keep whatever works!

    I love reading your posts, even though a lot of what you do doesn’t apply for me. I’m doing vegetable farming for household use in upstate NY, so there are a lot of differences:

    1) Peak water isn’t a big concern – we have to be careful about laundry sometimes in the later summer, but we don’t have extended droughts the same way you do (or at least, we haven’t in the 30 years I’ve lived here, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon). I do have to water my plants sometimes in the summer to get them up to the 1″ of water per week that they prefer, but last growing season I added a total of 3.5″ (0.5″ at a time, so 7 rounds of watering). All that water came from the small pond on my property, and was delivered using a submersible pump to get the water from the pond to a tub in my garden, and then a watering can to get it onto the plants.

    2) I do small, intensive vegetable gardening in raised beds. On my property, the heavy clay soil means there’s routinely standing water on the ground for several weeks in the spring, so raised beds are necessary if I want to plant before July. Also, I have very limited space with good sunlight and an electric fence to keep the deer out, so I better garden intensively! My total space inside the fence is 9 4’x8′ beds.

    3) For me, the leaves are on my property (and need to be raked up anyhow), while the manure has to be transported (although it’s only a 5 minute drive to my supply of free horse manure). And I still add a lot of horse manure to my beds. Fertilizing heavily is almost required for intensive gardening, and there’s no way to get that much leaf mulch when it all has to be raked up, and then sit for 1-2 years slowly composting.

    • April 29, 2013 10:24 am

      Victoria, great comment! It was like a visit to your garden!

      I wish I could get some leaves, but we are in a conifer dominated landscape, with only a few patches of deciduous here and there, besides the orchard of course, but I always think those ecosystems need their leaves so we leave them in place. Our normal weather here is about 9 months of rain and 3 months of dry, with a few exceptions here and there 😦

      • Victoria permalink
        April 29, 2013 3:37 pm

        Our worst dry spells are 2-3 weeks, thanks to the great lakes and prevailing winds. We normally get a line of thunderstorms through about once a week in the summer, which gives us a quick half inch to an inch of rain.

        I supposed my one concern on the water front is if hydrofracking is allowed here in the future, and the ground water gets contaminated. I’m up near the top of a hill with a fairly shallow well, but I suppose the backup plan is putting in some large cisterns and switching to rainwater.

        • April 29, 2013 3:59 pm

          Victoria, my friends from Maryland were shocked to start gardening here, they expected that line of rain here also, and kept waiting and waiting for rain. They have adapted now though to our dry summers, and low humidity 🙂

          Fracking sounds bad all the way around, your plan sounds great!

  10. Ben permalink
    April 29, 2013 12:10 pm

    I know that our dry farmed potatoes are so much better than irrigated ones

  11. April 29, 2013 3:55 pm

    I think the main concern in our climate with manure is too much manuring can cause an accumulation of phosphate, which can then run off into the water supply in the fall rains if it doesn’t get locked up in cover crops over the rainy season. Fully composted manure compost is less of an issue, but I would still keep an eye on my phosphate levels if I am adding manure annually. And yes, dry farmed potatoes are the best! Thanks MOF, for your great and informative blog! I am looking forward to trying some of your techniques and figuring out what works on my own piece soon! I talked to a watermaster in a coastal county recently who was telling me how the cornfields there are so fertile the dairy farmers (who of course are fertilizing with cow manure) don’t irrigate at all, in spite of the dry summers….

    • April 29, 2013 4:12 pm

      SL, good point, and good reminder to folks that composted manure isn’t needed every year in every part of the garden, a good rotation makes more sense, planting and compost application to match the subsequent crop. The phosphate problem in most areas that receive any amount of rainfall, think DelMarVa, and the Mississippi Delta. The safest method is the Nordell’s – apply compost to cover crops, and plow down.

      My potato method is to follow corn with potatoes, I sheet compost in fall with stable cleanings, say a wheelbarrow with mostly straw, and about 5 cowpies, plant corn the following growing season, mulch with straw the following fall, plant potatoes in late spring. Two seasons of good weeding during all this makes it easy to follow with small seeded root crops for the cow who provided said sheet mulch in the beginning of the cycle 🙂

      I am scared to ask what MOF stands for? A few things come to mind…;)

      Fingers crossed on the Bunion, haven’t had time to leave a comment!


  1. Plugging Away at the Potatoes | Throwback at Trapper Creek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: