The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Gardening during drought

October harvest

Life on a ridge is very different from life in our former swampy bottomland. On the plus side, we miss a lot of gentle frosts and we never have to deal with waterlogging. On the downside, this past summer's hot, dry weather was really, really dry.

Dealing with drought is very new for me. So this post is probably Drought Homesteading 101 for many of you. Still, just in case this is new....

Composting in dry conditions

Manure pile

I'm so used to piling up organic matter then coming back in a few months to beautiful humus, so this was a shock to me. But the lovely pile of manure above...did absolutely nothing all summer long.

Worm composting

What worked? Our bathtub worm bins. I actually had two side by side, one seeded with worms and one not. Both promoted a lot more composting action than happened with the compostables piled up out in the open.

In retrospect, this is pretty obvious. Contain the moisture with an impermeable bin, then top it off with a lid that holds in water while letting a little rain drip through. Voila --- perfect composting environment!

So, yeah, bins are clearly the solution if you need to compost in the dry.

Seedling germination during drought
Compost, of course, was the least of my worries this past summer. In retrospect, I should have started watering the instant the ground went a little dry and kept it up multiple times a week. In reality, I let the soil grow so parched before I started irrigating that getting seeds to sprout and seedlings to stay alive was an uphill battle.

Volunteer lettuce

Luckily, nature is resilient. Remember those wood-chip aisles I put between my beds? I let spring kale and lettuce go to seed before pulling them out, and both managed to self-seed into that high-humus, moisture-rich environment. Which sure is lucky because almost none of the seedlings in the beds themselves sprouted!

Transplanted kale

Transplants moved from aisle to bed at the couple-of-true-leaves stage saved the fall garden (although I wasn't so lucky with the pea and carrot crops or with a lot of my second and third summer plantings). Phew! Lazy garden-bed cleanup to the rescue!

More to learn

Rain gauge

Obviously, I have a lot more to learn about ridgetop gardening. For example, we need to get gutters on our trailer so we can capture rainwater, and we need to try some other irrigation tactics. (Impulse sprinklers were awesome in our damp, free-water environment of Homestead 1.0 but didn't cut it here when the ground was deeply dry.) But that can wait for another post and another drought. For now, the rain has returned!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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A couple notes from a small farm high desert (I'm in central New Mexico, where we get roughly 10" rainfall a year). Compost will work great in drought, and you'll get excellent thermophilic compost capable of consuming anything, as long as you water it. Containing it in some way is helpful, though it need not be an impermeable container - as long as you water it. We use a three-bin system made out of old pallets with much success. In smaller backyard compost systems I've set up for friends, I run a couple loops of 1/4" emitter drip line around the top of the compost, so it gets watered as often as the garden does - this is a nice hands-off method for small operations. We are large enough that I do the work of soaking the compost bin with a hose once a week or so all year, and on our animal compost (which is separate due to volume), I keep a sprinkler on a timer all summer. Also the trick for seedlings and transplants both, here, is to set up the irrigation system first, and run it for an hour, and then plant. I think you are in a place that is not quite as dry as we are here, but we teach our farm interns to plant always and only where the water already is, not an inch away. This method is generally very successful. We also use a lot of mulch, and strategic deployment of shade. I'm always amused when I get a seed packet for something like tomatoes and it says "full sun." Not here, they're not! Tomatoes flourish here in partial shade; whereas they wither and dry in full sun unless aggressively watered. I'm sure your local mileage will vary, but I thought I'd share how we do it in the desert in case it's useful info! :)
Comment by Kat Heatherington Tue Oct 22 18:13:40 2019
Hi, Anna - I'm a big fan of your books, which I've referred to multiple times in my book, "Grow Your Soil," which is about feeding soil via permaculture methods. I'm wondering if you'd be willing to write a blurb for the back of the book. Can't find an email for you, but if you email me I'll send you a sample chapter or more. Thanks for what you're doing! Diane Miessler
Comment by Diane Miessler Tue Oct 22 21:57:15 2019

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