Notes from Windward: #70


Late January Update


January 25th, 2010

a grasshopper in the arugula


     We have six inches of fresh snow on the ground and I am thinking about tomatoes. Tomatoes and basil, corn and cucumbers. But I do not crave these summer delights--I am actually quite satisfied now with potatoes and beets, carrots and leeks, with the occasional appearance of stored summer abundance.

     Rather, I am in the initial phases of garden planning: what do we want to grow this year? What new crops do we want to experiment with? Where to put it all? We will be starting plants for this upcoming season within a month, so it is time to begin considering these questions.

     A key part of this process is reflecting on what we learned from this past growing season. So here are a few thoughts on the 2009 growing season.

onions mulched to conserve water

     Water is life up here on this high plateau, with a dry season that extends for much of the growing season. Most every domesticated plant, particularly annuals with small root systems and large leaf areas, will require much watering come July, August and September. Any garden planning--from crop choice to location to scale--needs to be systematically intertwined with plans for water capture, storage and transport.

     Usually, we channel the overflow from our water tank into the duck-pond, where it is enriched by the ducks before it continues on down the hill to the garden. However, this past summer, our pump was coming to the end of its useful life, and so we did not have the usual overflow.

     Walt diligently hauled water almost daily, from the non-potable well--which is fed by the seasonal snowmelt and runs quite low come September--for the gardens, as well as the fruit and nut trees. Needless to say, this was quite taxing on both resources and time, and has inspired more diligence in capturing more rainwater during the rainy season and exploring options for expanding our storage capacity.

     This past season was slightly unusual in that we had rains that extended into June, but they did not start again until October, after the first freeze. The garden abundance naturally mirrored the water input, growing feverishly with the natural soil moisture in May and June, with decreasing vigor as the soil became increasingly dry and plants relied solely on irrigation water to survive. Taking advantage of this spring soil moisture by planting crops as early as possible without compromising their ability to germinate or being damaged by frost gives the plants a critical head start to the season.

     It is incredibly important to maximize the ability of the soil to retain moisture. In fact, since the soil is so clay rich, as the soil dries out, it actually begins to loose its ability to retain moisture, creating a reinforcing feedback loop that causes the soil to dry out even more. Intensive mulching is key, a thick layer of hay covering all the exposed soil, works quite well to minimize soil moisture evaporation. Also planting in depressions works for a variety of plants, from apple trees to corn to potatoes, to encourage water to seep into the plant's rooting zone.

sunchokes in July

     Soil and water intertwine in many, many ways. So there are several mechanisms whereby you can increase soil moisture retention by modifying the soil structure. First off, the garden is located on a downward slope, which encourages the water to move with gravity downhill rather than seeping deeper into the soil and the plants' rooting zone. So, we are working on terracing the growing space. Moving large amounts of soil by hand is no trivial task, and so we are tackling the project piecemeal. Last spring, we created an upper terrace, which greatly reduced surface runoff, and this spring we will create a middle terrace (currently there is space for about 3 terraces without significantly modifying the site design).

     Organic matter, in addition to providing essential nutrients to the growing plants, increases the pore space in our clay rich soil, enhancing the soil's ability to retain moisture. So adding significant amounts of compost, from our animal waste, kitchen scraps and green manure, plays a key role in bed preparation--particularly new bed space. In the process of terracing this past spring, we also increased the amount of area dedicated to bed space. We planted beans--the notorious nitrogen fixer--in much of this new ground, and then in October turned the remaining plant matter into the soil to decompose over the winter.

     Soil health in any climate is integral for the long term viability of growing plants. Yet particularly in our climate, with extremely dry summers and soil that turns to a hard-pan of clay if left to its own devices, time spent on preparing the growing beds well is time well spent. Haste or inattention in preparing the growing space will become quite obvious come August.

our potatoes in June

     Crop choice interplays with water as well, as some plants are better adapted to dry heat than others. Short of outlining each crop that we grew and how well they did, I'll try to share some relevant observations.

     Crops that take advantage of the spring moisture do best with minimal effort or resources, for example potatoes, garlic, peas, spring greens and radishes. Deer and squirrels currently present the greatest obstacle to cold-hardy, spring veggies, such as kale and cabbage, as there is little other forage around in April, making the garden even more inviting. By May and June, however, there is so much green stuff everywhere that the critters do not pay much attention to the garden.

     Particularly drought tolerant crops that we experimented with last year include okra and Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes). The okra, while significantly shorter than most okra, produced reasonably well. The sunchokes are a potato-like perennial that are promising for our soil and climate (in more moist climates they can be invasive, but one benefit of such dry summers is that plants that are commonly invasive do not spread here without our intentional helping hand). But this past season they suffered from being too close to the garden fence, so they were grazed by the sheep. The peanuts also seemed relatively drought tolerant, though proper fruit maturation was hindered by an early frost.

     Fast growing plants also work well, including herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill, as well as root crops such as beets, onions, leeks, turnips. Surprisingly, collard greens and kale continued to grow and produce well into even the extreme 100°F heat in July and August. Later in the fall, when removing the remaining plant matter, it became obvious in part why they did so well--they had used the spring moisture to develop deep and extensive root networks. Heat-loving summer staples such as tomatoes and peppers will produce well, but only if they are given significant dosages of water.

     Cold-hardy crops that do so well in spring present a challenge in the fall. The water sensitive stage of their growth, germination and early seedling growth, overlaps with a very water-tight time of year--August. In order to have plants growing in October, they need to be started in August to take advantage primarily of the long daylight. Yet the water demands of keeping newly transplanted crops (such as kale, cabbage or broccoli), or seeds that have been direct seeded (such as the fall favorites: turnips, parsnips, carrots and beets) is not very compatible with our water table in August.

lots of different types of tomatoes for our salads

     Duckponics saw its first season this past summer. It worked impressively well for water intensive crops such as cucumbers and squash. Allowing the cucumbers to vine up string was important for both maximizing space as well as preventing the cucumbers from sitting for prolonged periods of time in water. I am excited to experiment with other cucurbits, such as melon, that we would otherwise be rather foolish to try to grow in our droughty summers.

     Herbs such as mint and basil, grew well in duckponics, mirroring their success in barrelponics; parsley and cilantro would likely grow well too. Since duckponics is slightly shaded, and the constant water cycling keeps the plants cooler than the ambient temperature, cooler weather crops, that usually suffer in the heat of the summer, might do well here too. This upcoming season, we are planning on branching more widely with the plant varieties we experiment with in duckponics--from corn to tomatoes to cabbage.

     We did lose some plants, primarily the leafy greens, to squirrels, and had some guinea damage on the summer squash, so protection from the critters is, as usual, necessary.

vermadise greens

     Vermadise continues to be a great place for growing greens. In the spring, the additional cold protection of the plastic roof enables greens to germinate and grow earlier and faster than they do outside. The shade cloth in the summer months creates a cooler environment in which the lettuces and other greens thrive. Anything within reach of the squirrels, however, will likely be eaten. Ventilation is fairly poor, which enables the build-up of dust and other pests, such as spider mites. So periodically dousing the plants with water to clean off their leaves is helpful.

     The strawberries suffered from the spider mite in Vermadise and were vulnerable to freeze damage in the hanging grow tubes. So this fall we moved the strawberries out of Vermadise and onto raised beds made from compost and straw.

     Currently, Vermadise also serves as a sheltered space for the ducks and guineas in the winter. Freely roaming animals and garden plants do not mix all that well. So, any plans for fall crops in Vermadise need to incorporate the considerations for winter bird housing as well.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70