After the Drought

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, October 1, 1999

It's great to have rain falling on the gardens again after such a dry summer. Kale, broccoli, parsley, basil and even the peppers are lush and productive now, having just barely survived the summer. Most of the vegetable plants and fruits in our garden were dwarfed by the lack of water, since we couldn't irrigate during the drought.

This year's extreme weather conditions encourage us to expect the unexpected and to rethink many of the ways we do things. As humans continue to change the climate, it's harder to know what the weather will bring.

It was so dry on our farm in late May that vegetable seedlings didn't get set out, and it just got drier after that. We didn't even plant fall vegetables because it seemed the seeds would never germinate.

Finally, by late August there was enough soil moisture to sow lettuce, more kale and other fall greens. To extend the season, we'll cover many of these plants with a simple cold frame.

The earliest crops did well with the spring rains. Short season potatoes planted in April, garlic which makes much of its growth by June, and early broccoli were all just a little smaller than usual. It was the summer crops which suffered most on our farm. We had very few tomatoes and other traditional vegetables. Even the native Jerusalem artichokes were just half as tall as last year.

The weeds, of course, are vigorous as always, and occupy a lot more land this fall. Lambs quarters which germinated early in the summer are now six-to-eight-feet high. Their roots pull up minerals from the earth and their dense tops keep less desirable weeds from growing. Lambs quarters indicate healthy soil and help increase soil fertility. They also promise a great crop of delicious greens next spring. Thank goodness for weeds; we ate a lot of them this year.

Because we want to eat more fresh local vegetables, we will try to incorporate some new strategies in preparation for future dry years. We're exploring the possibilities for collecting and storing rain and greywater for irrigation. We'll plant a compact bed of important basic vegetables where they are easier to water. Planting earlier as well as continuing to diversify crops and food sources are important. Using mulches helps to retain soil moisture.

Of course, we'll keep up with the standard organic practices which are so beneficial no matter what the weather brings. This fall, boosting organic matter by adding compost, mixing in leaves and/or planting a cover crop of oats or winter rye are the best ways to help the soil hold more water. These practices also make it easier for plant roots to penetrate deeply in their search for moisture.

Fall is a great time to prepare beds for spring planting. Get the compost mixed in now so it nourishes the soil organisms all winter. Then protect the earth from winter's harsh weather by planting a cover crop or mulching. Oats used as a cover crop will be killed by a hard frost and become a mulch on the soil. As a result, they are easier than rye to plant into in the spring.

Leaves are the basic ingredient of fertile soil in this region. Don't let them get away from your garden. They are beneficial whether they are incorporated in the fall, left on top as a mulch for the winter, or are composted and added in the spring.

Gardening keeps us in touch with nature, and reminds us of our interdependence in a way most other activities don't. A dry summer like this one makes us really appreciate regular rainfall and demonstrates how meaningless long-term averages are. Timing is everything. Torrential tropical rainstorms in September are no help during July's drought.

Our gardening experiences this summer remind us of future challenges as erratic and dangerous weather becomes more commonplace.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.