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Gardening on the Flat, with a Little Dryland on the Side

June 8, 2015

Dry land staple garden June 7, 2015

Why do I do it?  Because it works.  I know I can feel you all cringing right now… .  Yes, Virginia, you can garden without much irrigation, I’ll add the disclaimer, at least here in my locale you can, everyone loves to tell me it won’t work.  I like to practice this lost skill of dryland farming/gardening just because I think it’s a skill that may come in handy.  If I set the garden up in such a way that it can still grow food without irrigation, I will be ahead compared to setting it up for irrigation and then not being able to deliver.

I know how my gardens look to some being all bare and such, but I don’t want to apologize for growing my own food, in my own way.  And really if you strip away all the BS about slow food that you hear these days, I would really want to raise my hand and say, what about growing some food with less irrigation?  What if?  The slow food mantra would have you believe that if you grow your chickens four more weeks, and your cattle one more year before you kill them while you’re sucking the well or spring dry for the garden, that that qualifies as slow food.  What about slow veggies?  Obviously I’m talking farmstead scale here not market gardens, and I do use irrigation on some of our food crops.  I’m just saying what if, what if folks explored using less and concentrating on some high calorie crops that store well.  First I know many will have to get over the carb phobia they have, I mean potatoes and squash are pretty high on my “the end is near” list of crops.  No water, no processing and store for months and up to a year.  If you’re hungry and food and water were scarce, I bet that carb hating feeling would be out the window.

So where to begin?  First with garden preparation.  If you want to start a garden, you should be working on the 2016 garden right now.  Most folks worry about weeds the most in their gardens.  I do too, I am borrowing that soil for part of year during the growing season, so I want the plants I want to thrive, to that end I need to remove the competition.  Weeds.  Especially if I am going to sparingly water.  So if you’re planning a garden right now, it should be twice the size you need, one half for growing your immediate food, and the other half for weeding.  The weeding side you work on all summer too, mining the weed seeds out as they appear, maybe a little cover cropping, and more fallowing, basically making a stale seed bed for your overwintering cover crop.  This takes equipment of some sort.  There is no free ride, if you grow your food you see the consequences of what you’re doing right now.  Is does no good to preach against tillage and buy your food, tillage is happening somewhere on your behalf.  The first year breaking new ground is a bear, you will have weeds you never even thought of.  But if you make a double garden and peck away with one and diligently weed the other, you will have an easier time next year when you swap and rotate one into garden and the first one into the weeding/fallow regimen.

Dryland potatoes

Dryland potatoes

A couple of things I should point out, is no raised beds and no wheel tracks from the tractor.  If I make raised beds I will need to water more.  Certainly a permanent raised bed makes sense in some cases,  but if I form beds out here, I am just putting  my plants in jeopardy in a no, or scant water situation.  Raised beds are good in the cold, wet spring to warm the soil, but here in Western Oregon where we have a Mediterranean climate with maybe only a chance of a rain in the summer, raised beds are plant murder or a solid marketing plan for the drip irrigation company.

As for wheel tracks, seeds like a firm seedbed, weed seeds love a firm seedbed. So when you till, start at one side of your garden and as you work your way across till your wheel track, my tractor is wider than my tiller, so I have it offset.  You will put a path in there anyway once you start planting, but until your vegetables get established it’s just easier to not make hard paths.  They are the hardest to weed because the soil is compacted where the equipment traveled or where you walk to tend and harvest.  Of course, if you have nice walk behind tiller, no worries it will do the work.  I use a hoe, so I want the dirt as soft as possible, so it’s easy to maintain my dust mulch.

Besides removing weed competition, wide spacing helps in dryland farming/gardening.  The plants have to be able to seek out soil moisture.  If you crowd your plants, or plant at recommended spacing in the seed catalog, your plants will need irrigation.  I have to say here I’m not against irrigation, but it’s not necessary in some cases if you’re willing to use a little more space, select correct varieties, and keep the garden fairly weed-free.

The potatoes need hilling, which is moving the soil up around the stems where the future potatoes will form.  I don’t need to weed the potatoes because the action of hilling does that work too.  I can either cover up the little weed seedlings around the potato plants, or if there is grass I will pull that out.

Certainly you could use equipment here, but I’m talking farmstead gardening so a hoe will do the trick especially if the soil is loose and friable.  Hoeing is not drudge work, unless you make it so.  I hoed five rows today in the hottest part of the day, sun hat, water, and a sharp hoe.  Not a problem, I got hotter hosing off the pigs when my garden stint was done.

Uncle John dry beans

Uncle John dry beans with a Calendula “weed.”

The usual order of business in keeping up the garden is to keep the paths clear with the hoe, and hand weed and thin the vegetables in row.  I like to clear the paths first so the weeds die in the sun, and then hand weed.  If I weeded and thinned first I would be moving all that trash with my hoe as I scuffled the blade around.  It may not seem like much, but the trash makes it hard to cleanly slice off the weeds in the paths, and may cover them enough that I miss them.  I’m a lazy gardener, I don’t want to move anymore soil or weeds than I have to.  That’s also why I garden on the flat, I’m only moving a little bit soil by hand, not wheelbarrow loads of mulch.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s attitude about the work more than anything that determines what and how you make your garden or farmstead hum and chug along.  It’s all labor, it’s just how you do it and how you see it in your mind.  Garden of Eden type gardens are still work, just different work.  I’m happy to weed in place instead of hauling around carbon I don’t have.  My soil is here, if nothing else it’s free. Farming and gardening is just materials handling folks.  Take this and put it over there and move that over here.  Materials Handling.

Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn

Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn

On the lazy gardener front too, spacing is important for ease of hand cultivation with a hoe.  My corn is planted in hills or groups in row with room to hoe in between, which translates to ease of weeding if I can slice off a weed with a sharp hoe as I walk down the row, rather than bend down or crawl along tediously weeding between closely spaced plants.  I have the same amount of corn plants in the row I would if I planted the plants single-file and close together they are just easier to manage in hills.

Welcome sweet corn

Welcome sweet corn

So it’s not really rocket science, it’s just a subsistence-type garden like all the homesteaders used that settled this location in the 1800’s.  Piped water was a luxury, and saved for household and livestock use.  I am not giving up my drip irrigation or my sprinklers anytime soon, but I’m the kind of person who likes to practice skills so I don’t forget how to do them.  As it stands, we only have one garden that is dryland, one is watered occasionally, one greenhouse has drip irrigation and one greenhouse is hand watered.  There’s room for all in my garden tool kit.


23 Comments leave one →
  1. Bee permalink
    June 8, 2015 4:56 pm

    Nita, do you know of anyone successfully bedoing dryland gardening in an area with a six-month dry? You’re right, it works for you and I’m certainly not criticizing; I just look around my land and wonder how I could make it work…

    • June 8, 2015 9:45 pm

      Bee, I don’t personally, but I know east of the mountain range here, there is a lot of dryland farming with little or no rain maybe 10″ per year. Of course, not every crop is worth doing dryland but many are, and I think every little bit helps. I know you’re not criticizing, you and I have talked about this subject a lot. Maybe just one or two crops might be all that would work to your satisfaction, it’s so hard to know until you try it.

  2. June 8, 2015 5:28 pm

    Great post, as usual. I wish I had a flat piece of property! Thanks for reminding me about planting corn in hills. My corn will be going in this week into beds with no-till rye cover crop I cut a couple weeks ago.

  3. Dave permalink
    June 8, 2015 6:38 pm

    Thanks for this lesson. I’m just starting to play with dryland gardening, and I’m sure it’ll be terrible this first year. Do you feel it’s important to store water by leaving the plot fallow for a year? Is a dust mulch better than a vegetative mulch? Lots of questions for something this new for me.

    • June 8, 2015 9:42 pm

      Dave, organic matter is the key to moisture retention, so weed, cover crop, weed 2 x’s if you can fit it in, then a good winter cover crop with compost or fertilizer and amendments, and hopefully the next year should be much better. I have had trouble with vegetative mulch giving slugs and voles too much cover, so I lose the crop. Dust mulch does work here, but I have a good supply of livestock manure compost on hand so that helps my soil immensely.

  4. June 8, 2015 7:08 pm

    dig it all as usually. Potatoes and winter squash – no processing equals lots of love.

  5. deb permalink
    June 9, 2015 3:12 am

    I loved this post! I have been intrigued by this whole dryland farming idea. I still have lots of questions, but what I really like about your way of doing things is that it is YOUR way, what works in your garden, with a respect for the soil. Do you not even water seeds in when they are planted?
    Right now, in our small New Hampshire plot, I have potatoes, squash, dry beans and corn in a sort of dryland garden. It is not getting watered, except I did water down the seeds when I planted (is fhat cheating?). I am expanding the area for next year, preparing now by putting down a kill mulch, and some compost. i will cover crop it eventually. I first ran the chicken tractor over it. By the way, my corn is cascade ruby gold and the squash is oregon sweet meat, my first time planting both.

    • June 9, 2015 5:10 am

      No, that’s not cheating, I try to time seeding before a rain, but it doesn’t always work out. Happy gardening!

  6. June 9, 2015 8:05 am

    Wonderful post, very timely for us epic drought California gardeners! I have a few “volunteer” plants in the gravel drive from last years kitchen grey water that are beautiful without a lick of water. What inspiration is that!

  7. Lisa permalink
    June 9, 2015 8:16 am

    Very interesting post.
    I’m learning a lot here. I’ve got a small ‘house garden’ that I’ve just acquired and have got some seeds into about a month ago. I’ve learned mostly to ask my 87 year old farmer-neighbor what to do before I do it! He seems to know practically everything for this area of southern Utah. I definitely need to do a cover crop this winter. I’ve got loads of red root pig weed. I hoe it and it’s back the next day!

  8. June 9, 2015 12:23 pm

    This: “what if folks explored using less and concentrating on some high calorie crops that store well.” Yes. It’s crucial for all of us to learn to use less. And it’s hard. Also struggling with the root cellaring part, in a suburban house with no basement. I use the uninsulated garage, and it’s really too warm, but I can make do. Except, last year, rodents got into my squash and potatoes. Gah. I need a better plan … before next fall.
    When do you plant your potatoes?
    I am learning some of these lessons first-hand, painfully, and am grateful for your posts. First time with a big, 1/4 acre garden — and the first lesson was why all my permaculture ideals about green mulch were wrong. My cabbage has more holes than leaves… For some reason the slugs love it best of all, ignoring the gorgeous lettuce just a few feet away.
    This is great for the lettuce, but I really wanted cabbage, too!

    • June 9, 2015 1:58 pm

      NM, I struggle too, my barn storage for the potatoes works down to about 11F, and then I have to put them in the basement or risk losing them. I plant potatoes early in the greenhouse for summer use and to span the gap from stored ones to fresh, and then the main crop gets put in mid-May or otherwise they are ready to soon and won’t keep as well. Potatoes by St Patrick’s Day is a busted myth in my location. You can still do more cabbage, early cabbage is much harder than fall cabbage, so if you start your seeds right now you’ll have lots of cabbage and maybe less slugs 🙂 My lesson this year is one I knew and forgot…I thought I was so smart planting my dahlias early, dreaming of early bouquets, and then I realized I planted them by my leeks for seed which is a weedy mess and wonderful slug lodging 😦 It’s a little known fact that stomping slugs compacts soil.

      • June 9, 2015 2:57 pm

        Ha — that’s because there are so many slugs it takes a Lot of stomping! Darn things multiply worse than rabbits. Condolences on your dahlias.
        It felt to me as though things went from too wet, mucky and cold to bone dry and past time to have done everything in about a week this spring, but I’m not sure if that’s really true or just my lack of organization showing.
        Will definitely get to cabbage planting; it’s so good to have on hand! Ran into cabbage drought just about the time I’d finally worked out how to use it all up — go figure! : )
        I just finished planting potatoes — and tomatoes — am feeling far behind schedule, and here it is past time to have gotten the carrots and leeks in and started more lettuce …I need to quit my job.
        But it’s beautiful out there among the vegetables, and we have a lot of peas and lettuce to eat. And sweet peas blooming! And I’m dreaming of not having to buy canning tomatoes, or storage potatoes, squash and onions this year… fingers crossed …

  9. June 10, 2015 12:35 pm

    Reading the above comment thread, I just realized how weird my seasons are here compared to everything else! I just harvested my “root cellar crops”–cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and beets, AND my tomatoes, garlic, and summer squash, all at the same time! But there’s not much I can do to store my root cellar crops except put them in the fridge, because everywhere else is way too hot. My seasons are split into very short growing periods. Spring garden is done, just pulling in the tomatoes as they ripen and waiting on the melons. Summer garden will start in July if I get a rain, and will consist of winter squash (moschata) and cowpeas. I haven’t figured out how to get winter storage vegetables, because the at the time everyone recommends to start them, it’s too hot, and by the time it cools off, there isn’t enough daylight to make plants grow. Anyone experience this dilemma?

    I sort of tried dust mulch this year because mulch attracts pillbugs, and they eat a whole lot more than just rotting organic matter. Didn’t stop them, because they can travel anywhere that the plants shade the ground. Trying dust mulch also made me realize that I don’t have near enough organic matter in the soil to attempt dust mulch! Lesson learned. Now I have to find some composted manure to fill in all the giant canyon cracks in my soil, because it rained for a month and then abruptly stopped with temps in the 90’s. Woops.

    • June 11, 2015 11:23 am

      Ha; Start your cool weather-loving winter crops in July or August … yes indeed, that is a struggle here, too! Would it work to rig up some garden shade with sheets or umbrellas? Or tuck your winter garden seeds in among large, established heat lovers for shade, with the idea that those plants will get pulled out by the time the winter crops are getting well established?

      • June 17, 2015 5:35 pm

        Thanks, NM, I think I will try starting seeds indoors and planting established seedlings in the shade of maturing winter squashes this time. That seems like it might work with everything but the carrots.

        • June 17, 2015 7:43 pm

          Emily, with the carrots, you can seed them under row cover, and then water them to keep them moist, the row cover acts as shade and allows you to water without causing the soil to crust before germination. Works pretty good here in later successions.

  10. June 11, 2015 1:45 am

    “No water, no processing and store for months and up to a year. ”

    Not where I live, they don’t. I’m not afraid of carbs (I do have to limit them for health reasons) but our winters are not too wet to keep them for very long at all. The soil is too clay and the water table to high for me to have a cellar; it would be full of water. Above ground might be too warm 😦 Then there are the ants and critters that will eat anything you try to cellar.

    Gardening without irrigation is easy here for most of the year, but storing veg is not. Fermentation, dehydration, canning, etc are the best for long-term storage with minimum power use, in my climate.

  11. June 11, 2015 7:58 am

    …because everyone loves to tell you it won’t work. LOL. We should play the “Won’t Work” drinking game. Wait. No we shouldn’t.

    “If you want to start a garden, you should be working on the 2016 garden right now.”
    LOL. If you want a nice garden in 2030 you should be working on it now. If you want to feel like you know anything about gardening where you live in 2040 you should start now.

    • June 11, 2015 8:25 am

      I think I started gardening in 1958 😉

      I may have to irrigate at some point, but at least if I set the garden up to do with less water, I won’t have to irrigate from the get-go. What kills us here is the low humidity with the 100F+ heat waves in early August, if that happens…

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