Dryland Gardening

purple cabbage after a fall rain.

Vegetable gardens play a key role in providing nutrition for the kitchen. Yet Windward's Mediterranean climate makes even growing the most basic of home gardens an interesting challenge. Water is arguably the limiting factor to all plant growth on our section of the plateau.

Only a few centimeters of rain can be expected to fall from the middle of May to the middle of October, and that which does will likely run off the surface as the relentless summer sun turns the ground into an impenetrable, hard pan. So, gardening here is an exercise in temperate, dry-land agriculture.

Techniques for dryland gardening can be broken down into two primary categories.

Building a rock retaining wall in the main garden

Methods to control abiotic factors
such as moisture availability, topography and soil conditions. Much of our work revolves around shaping the topography to promote soil moisture retention on our sloping hillside.

Methods to control species and cultivars.
For the most part, the crops that we grow and are looking to grow are ones that take advantage of the moisture available in the early spring and then again in the fall, as well as cultivars that do well in hot, dry climates.

This makes for an interesting combination of cool climate crops such as:

Peas Carrots and Potatoes
and hot climate crops including

Most of these plants mentioned are actually quite common in annual vegetable gardens. We are working to develop cultivars which are well adapted to the specific conditions of this land, and with have the characteristics we prefer. We do this by the ancient and subtle art of saving seed.

We are also beginning to integrate less common crops that have evolved in places like the high Andes, Central Asia and the Mediterranean that share similar ecological conditions to ours, such as yacon and maca from the Peruvian highlands.

A priority for us is building and maintaining soil fertility and organic matter. The goats, sheep, bunnies and chickens help significantly with these efforts. Once the plants are in the ground, mulch plays an integral role in retaining soil moisture, and its praises cannot be sung enough.


Annual grains currently constitute a significant portion of the common American diet, yet modern agricultural methods for raising grains have contributed to ecological decline and reliance on high energy inputs throughout the world. Klickitat County exports on the order of 45,000 metric tons of soft winter wheat a year, some of which is grown on less than 10 inches of rain a year.

Since some grains can do so well with such minimal water, we are beginning small-scale experiments with different grains and growing methods to determine whether these crops can play a sustained role in our food production here on the plateau.

Additional Gardening Techniques

Well mulched Swiss chard growing with cilantro and broccoli.

Tight nutrient cycling is also a high priority for us; we do not add fertilizers or other soil amendments produced off-site. Rather, to maintain soil fertility we use manure, blood and bone from animals raised here, as well as ash from our wood stoves and woodchips from the fire prevention thinning in our forest

For example, our irrigation water is first cycled through the duck pond, where it is enriched with nitrogen; this "green water" then makes its way downhill to the garden.

Medicinal and Herb Gardens

Sage drying in the sun

In addition to food crops, we are also dedicated to growing culinary and medicinal herbs. In many ways, the natural world can be our pharmacy, and particularly when living in deep country, an understanding of the curative powers of plants can make healing common ailments at home far easier. Our herbal knowledge is slowly expanding, as is our medicinal garden, and we look forward to continuing this process. A similar focus on cultivars and soil moisture retention is necessary for successfully growing herbs here as well.

Looking to the Future

Our current water systems limit how much we can expand production. So, increasing our water storage capacity as well as methods for drip irrigation are priorities for the next few years. Deer and ground squirrels are our most destructive pests, and so we need to develop methods to better protect our labors from these voracious eaters.

Onions make great companions

We will continue to experiment with promising and interesting crop varieties, particularly looking towards perennials, species with multiple uses, and drought tolerant varieties.

Charcoal, sometimes referred to as bio-char, may prove to be a valuable strategy to increase nutrient and moisture retention in our clay soils, and so we would like to experiment with this as well. Extending the growing and harvesting season will enable us to increase production without using more space, and we will be working with simple methods such as cold frames and remay in the coming seasons.

Finally, expanding the growing space for annuals will likely be important to ultimately meet our food production requirements, and this means more terracing and landscaping.

Help in the Garden

Planting potatoes in April

If you are thinking of joining us on the plateau as a participant with the Windward Center and have an interest in dryland gardening, the activities you may be engaged in depend highly on the season.

March through June:
The focus is on starting and caring for seeds and seedlings, landscaping and system repair/maintenance and while the ground is soft and the weather mild, bed preparation, and transplanting spring crops.

Growing strong in July

May through July:
Seeding and transplanting summer crops; weeding becomes a priority during these months, depending on the rains.

June through September:
Watering is an essential task all summer. Planting of of the fall garden takes place from mid July through August (though successive plantings are happening throughout the growing season).

Harvesting before the fall rains

Final harvests of summer crops and preparing the beds for winter rest.

Throughout the year, general care and upkeep is important and harvesting happens on almost a daily basis for the kitchen.

Our life here on the plateau is full in the best of ways, with much to tend to, and unlike commercial farms, we aim to only spend a few hours in the garden a day.