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Homesteading observations: drought

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 September Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Pepper plant with understory of sorrel

Much of the region has been experiencing a very dry growing season and that goes for us here at Wild Browse Farm. In honor of the NOFA Summer Conference, we finally got our first substantial rain since May. Maybe it was because with so many growers gathered, the elements listened and bestowed the blessing of rain upon us. We gratefully received and gave thanks for an inch and a half of much needed moisture. Before Saturday night we had received less than 2 inches of rain since sometime in May, leading to a long period of very dry conditions. Here’s the report of how we’ve been coping with the draught and how we’re faring. 

Early on I just kept proceeding as usual, thinking that we’d get rain any day. I already use heavy mulch and try to keep all soil covered, but even so we were concerned about plant health and survival. In early July, we decided that we needed to begin watering. In the past, we saved watering for transplanting and for seed germination. But this year we mentally divided the garden into five sections. Each section was watered once a week with a hand held garden hose, trying to give each plant 1” of needed moisture. This was a time consuming project as we share our well and had to leave time for the well to recharge. We’d water for 30 minutes then wait another 30 before continuing. We also tried to fit in watering some of the fruit while the berries were developing. I foliar sprayed a nutrient tea every week or two. (This included a few big handfuls of: comfrey, stinging nettles, vetch or clover, garlic and any other vibrant green “weed” that was handy placed in a 5-gallon bucket covered with water and soaked 24 hours. I then strained it and added liquid fish and seaweed for added nutrients.)

The pasture, which we usually have to mow five or six times a year, was mowed only once in early June. We need to keep it short for the poultry who are better able to browse it as forage when it’s at a 4-8” height. Some areas did become very dry, yellow and unproductive. Other shaded parts stayed green but didn’t grow. We wanted to put it into our watering rotation, but knew we didn’t have enough water. As it was, the well held up except for one day when we had to stop all water use due to turbulence, which indicated we were near the bottom of the well.

Cover Crops

We cut our older cover crops of oats, field peas, clover, sorghum, and radish to use for mulch in the vegetable beds. We cut these off 4-6 inches above the soil to encourage regrowth. We did not water these cover crops and as a result their regrowth has been sparser than in the past. However, they did cover the soil and help with moisture retention. I didn’t clear any beds and replant, as I didn’t want to water extra seeds.

At the end of July I harvested the garlic, which had been watered three to four times. There were many smaller heads than usual, but not the worst crop we’ve had. Within a couple of days we seeded the bed through the existing shredded leaf mulch with the same cover crop mix described above and watered it twice. There was great germination and two weeks later it is vibrantly green and about 4” tall. Hopefully, by hard frost when it dies back, it will be 3 to 4-feet tall and become a thick mulch, which will cover the bed throughout the winter while it also protects and feeds the soil.

As an experiment, I made the decision to allow certain weeds to coexist with the veggies. Elaine Ingham, Andre Leu and others advocate for perennial cover crops, which not only protect the soil but also help improve its health. One of the concepts is that solar energy is vertically captured, through photosynthesis, at various heights in the garden. The more photosynthesis, the more sugars are dumped into the soil thus becoming part of the food chain and eventually helping sequester more carbon in the form of humus. So, I’ve left sorrel, a somewhat low growing plant, to cover the soil around the sweet peppers, which are much taller. I’ve hand crimped the sorrel’s stems a few times to control its growth. So far the peppers look great and are starting to ripen.

The following questions are hopefully to be answered later through observation: Will the sorrel take more moisture from the peppers than it prevents from evaporating? Will it steal nutrients or add them through increased photosynthesis? Will they become a huge problem in future years? I’m thinking it will be easy to smother if it gets out of control as it is shallow rooted and brittle, but will it?

Early on, I let some pigweed overtop my salad greens because we like to eat it. However, after the rain stopped and the HEAT intensified, I let them grow taller and branch out providing shade. Each time I go out to harvest the endive, I’m amazed that they haven’t bolted yet. The shade has extended the harvest window and the taller plants are capturing the sun.

So far, it looks like a good crop of tomatoes, cucumbers and winter squash,all of which were thoroughly mulched early in the season. The summer squash, however, are another story, low productivity and a magnet for the squash bugs. Speaking of which, those bugs are about the only ones who haven’t come into balance. We do have sightings of other pests, but they aren’t being problems except the flea beetles; they continue to harass the young tender greens.

Whether caused by the drought, voles, insects or other conditions, we have had major problems with a few crops. We’ve had to re-seed some crops multiple times. Finally it looks like we might get carrots. The brassicas haven’t fared well and we will surely miss our kale and collards this winter if this last planting also fails.

At the Summer Conference, I spoke with Dan Pratt of Astarte Farm in Hadley who is also experimenting with low “weeds” as cover crops. He said that purslane is doing great under his popcorn. I have a gorgeous area of purslane into which I tried to seed beets. This hasn’t shown much promise as of yet. It might have worked better with beets already established, as there might not have been as much competition.

Another area that the drought affected was our spirits. Day after day of heat and of our hopes and prayers for rain being regularly dashed did get me down a bit. But I didn’t realize how much I was affected until after we did get some rain; it was so uplifting emotionally to feel the relief and joy, not only my own but of all the creatures around us.

One of our interns asked us how we coped with the uncertainty and variability of growing conditions. Pru answered by talking about the importance of diversity; greater diversity leads to greater resiliency. This is sure true around here! We may not fill the larder with what we thought, but we will fill the larder!

Pru recently heard Vandana Shiva talk about seeds and soil.  I want to share with you a few words of her wisdom and inspiration. May you weather this climate change with grace and determination and be inspired by these words.

Dr. Shiva says:

“In the soil are the answers to the problems that oil has created. The joint crises of climate change and biodiversity erosion can both be addressed by creating gardens everywhere, full of biodiversity, full of the celebration of life in well-being and abundance. Gardens of hope everywhere. Farms that give real food. We will continue to create the other world that we are sowing, seed by seed, inch by inch of soil, person by person, community by community, until all of this planet is embraced in one circle of a resurgent life and resurgent love. We will not give up.”

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