Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

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Memphis Slim
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Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190199Post Memphis Slim »

Hello all,
I am cultivating a new area of my garden this year that is very far from any easy water source. This area will have to rely on rain and what my poor back can carry in. We typically have about 2.5 months in the summer with almost no rain. The area is on a slight hill, so I am digging a series of swales to catch and hold rainwater and building terraced beds for my plants. So far, I have planted mixed greens (turnip and mustard greens) and white clover for a cover crop in a few beds. I am waiting to till up/fill in the rest of the beds until I know what else to plant. Does anyone have any other suggestions of improvements to make or drought tolerant veggies to plant? My long-term goal is for a permaculture garden there that requires little attention, just picking and eating!
Thanks,
Memphis Slim

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190200Post grahamhobbs »

Swales are a good idea, but can you physically collect water say off a shed roof? What about mulching, can you shred tree prunings or the such like to build up a thick mulch? How about shade netting to reduce the transpiration from the plants during the real summer months.

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190204Post seasidegirl »

I've been reading up on permaculture. There's loads on the web and I'm sure it's one of those topics one could easily get bogged down in and suspect there's different versions.

The aspect of it that appeals to me, and I'm working on seems simple enough. They have lots of zones for different plantings but growing crops that require the least regular maintenance furthest from the house seems to make a lot of sense. It will depend on lots of factors about your land what suits but I'm thinking that fruit is the usual way to go in your furthest zone. Trees, underplanted with bushes and your terraces sound ideal for grapes. Not that I'm an expert just thinking. Also what about fuel crops?

I think improving the soil is the key. So it retains moisture.

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190209Post contadino »

Add loads of charcoal to your soil, capture what rain you can, and mulch heavily. Swales work, but they won't see you through more than an extra couple of weeks. Permaculture won't help you much, other than to tell you to plant elsewhere (nearer water). The forest garden idea only works where water is plentiful, and takes many years to get established. Where droughts are regular and hot, the idea of no-dig gardening doesn't work as the soil in the upper levels bakes and all life in it dies.

Plant-wise, in summer, stick to properly drought tolerant stuff like chicory, globe artichoke, scorzzonera, etc (a bit of local foraging will tell you what's good and when) and adjust your planting schedule to really maximise spring/autumn growing seasons.

You'd be better off looking for techniques/planting regimes for dryland management, but these techniques tend to be more about preventing soil erosion by livestock farming. You don't say how big a plot you have, so it may not be appropriate.

Memphis Slim
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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190310Post Memphis Slim »

Thanks for the ideas. It is good to get some feedback on my garden scheming.

To answer your question about the site, it is roughly triangular - 100' x 50' x 110' and about 100' from the back of my house, so as seasidegirl suggests it needs to be considered zone 3 or 4 in permaculture-speak.

Here is a hastily put together diagram that will show you a bit of the layout (hopefully without being too confusing!):
Back garden.GIF
Back garden.GIF (12.98 KiB) Viewed 1902 times
The beds are under a utility-owned power line - the utility cuts down any tall trees that may interfere with the line, so it is an ideal place for beds. I have a heavy loess topsoil - not quite as dense as clay, but hard to work - and a clay subsoil, so all of my beds have to be heavily amended with compost. The charcoal is a good idea, contadino, and grahamhobbs idea of mulch would help as well - anything to keep moisture in the soil.

I am next to a creek, but since I am in the middle of a city, the water quality is questionable. There is a good sized depression in this area that may make a good place for a water-collecting pond that I could put thirsty veggies around. However, that would be a lot of digging, so I probably want to see how things go this season before making that sort of commitment. I will concentrate on the swales for now--a lot of digging in its own right--to hold the water a bit longer.

As for crops, I bought a few tubers of Jerusalem Artichoke (in the scorzonera family I think) which is supposed to be drought hardy. The artichokes are a good idea - tried starting a few from seed last year but lost them all. I will try again this year but pot them close to the house so that I can keep an eye on them and put them in this garden over the Fall. I'll have to look for chicory - another to plant in the Fall I guess.

Thanks for helping me work through this - I look forward to your responses! :icon_smile:

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190321Post seasidegirl »

Interesting. Although we've got wildly different climates I'm working on a plot similar distance to my house as yours Mine is smaller though. My vegetables are 80' from the house and my other plot 150'.

Today I was working on my rainwater collection system. Don't know how much water you get in winter and spring? Anyway I'm running my collected rainwater down to both plots with no pump or anything. Just collecting off the house and sheds into a butt then putting a hose on the butt tap and running it to another butt down the garden and then another one. It all hangs on the height of the first butt to get enough pressure to send it down the hose. Also my garden is fairly level but does slop up a bit so I'll need more height and :mrgreen: might even have to suck on the hose . The handy thing about sending the water down the garden into other containers is that you then empty the butt which the house roof will re-fill for you when (if) it rains. Briefly on my blog, below.

Not saying that this could help you just that it is poss to ccollect rainwater if you have any and carry it this distance. I'm only planning to water plants when they are young and then mulch on top to retain what's there and improve soil.

I think light watering can do as much harm as good and as said I dont know anything about your climate.

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190326Post contadino »

Memphis Slim wrote:I am next to a creek, but since I am in the middle of a city, the water quality is questionable.
If you're in the middle of a city, the air quality will likely be poor too, which would be more of a concern for me. As for the water, maybe look into reed-bed systems to clean it up. There are special designs for warmer climates that bury the reeds almost a meter deep in gravel to avoid mosquitos, but if you have a creek, I guess you're used to them anyway.
Memphis Slim wrote:As for crops, I bought a few tubers of Jerusalem Artichoke (in the scorzonera family I think) which is supposed to be drought hardy. The artichokes are a good idea - tried starting a few from seed last year but lost them all. I will try again this year but pot them close to the house so that I can keep an eye on them and put them in this garden over the Fall.
Yes, I did the same thing once. JA's are 'drought tolerant' in the "will last a couple of weeks without water" sense, not the 2.5 months of arid heat sense. It's a different scale of magnitude. You might be better sticking with drought hardy stuff. The black-skinned scorzzonera that's about the width of a pencil will likely last without irrigation.

Globe artichokes are notoriously dodgy from seed. They're a bit more reliable from....er...is it root cuttings (when you take a couple of leaves and a bit of root to transplant)? They're just called 'pezzi' here, which means pieces.

The important thing is that in an area with 13 weeks of no rainfall, relying on small perennials is going to leave you very hungry. You're either going to have to arrange irrigation, or grow annuals in the short Spring and Autumn growing seasons, and during the Winter. The key is learning to store your produce to see you through the summer 'hungry gap.'

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190342Post Millymollymandy »

I would just buy extra hosepipe! Even just to fill a water butt up near the planting area so that you can water more frugally with a watering can - or run a permanent hosepipe to a tap by your planting area. 100 feet is not far at all, I thought you were talking about several acres away. :iconbiggrin:
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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190432Post Memphis Slim »

Yeah, looks like some kind of watering system is the way to go. I could go the hosepipe route, but I have had too many bad experiences of breaking water lines with my hoe! I will probably dig a trench and bury a cheap irrigation line with a faucet back there. It seems like there will be digging no matter what, so I may as well dig what will produce the most water.

The creek is two meters or so down from my garden, so I am not worried about contamination to my garden - I was thinking about pumping water up from it though. Yes, the mosquitoes have been very bad - I think improving the water quality would help bring in more fish and frogs to eat the larva and I have been considering some sort of reed bed.

It seems like the climate has been changing here, but now that I look at the data things may not be as bad as I thought. Last year we had about one month without rain broken followed by several small periods of rain and then three weeks without rain.

Lots of fun thinking about this stuff, but now I have to go start doing some of it! Swales first since they are free to build. Then I can extend some sort of hosepipe back there once it really gets dry. Fortunately I have another garden closer to the house that has easy access to water, so in case these best laid plan's o' mice an' men gang agly, I will have a backup!

Cheers and happy gardening,
Memphis Slim

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190478Post seasidegirl »

The permanent pipe sounds like a lot of work. I just get the hose out when I need it.

Talking about buried pipes ...I was working as a gardener once for a large country house that had a long drive and electric security gate. Unbeknown to me the owner, to save money, had installed the gate opening system himself. Was not very qualified being an accountant. Anyway he'd laid the cable just a couple of inches below the soil and didn't tell me when I started work.

When I put my spade through the cable thank goodness I didn't get a shock and didn't even know that I'd done it. Unfortunately for the lady of the house, who had a small child to collect from school, the gate wouldn't open manually and she couldn't actually get her car out of her property.

Luckily I'd parked my own car outside of the gate and could go home as usual. Felt quite rich when i went home with the knowledge that I'd never be locked into our house like she was because we had very little to provide such security for.

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190481Post contadino »

Memphis Slim wrote:It seems like the climate has been changing here, but now that I look at the data things may not be as bad as I thought. Last year we had about one month without rain broken followed by several small periods of rain and then three weeks without rain.
A month dry is very different from 2.5 dry months! A month shouldn't be a problem for the vast majority of veg. The only things that are likely to struggle are aubergines and peppers.

Like I said, put a couple of inches of charcoal into the soil, mulch well, and if your soil is deep enough, even things like tomatoes will be fine. Charcoal is THE key ingredient for water retention - far better than vermiculite or perlite, and it has the additional benefit of building up the soil life (myco organisms, IIRC?) It is how Terra Preta has been made in South America for at least 1000 years (although I think Permaculture claims to have come up with the idea 30 years ago. :roll: ) If you can apply the charcoal each year, your soil will become increasingly drought resistant. I've been doing it, and it makes a huge difference.

If your soil is good enough, you won't need to run a pipe.

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190483Post Millymollymandy »

Can you tell me more about the charcoal retaining water? I can't imagine how it does that but I'm willing to give it a go!

So when I riddle my wood ash from the fire and chuck the lumpy bits, those are the bits that I should be digging into the soil? I'm rather confused because I've read not to put those bits into the soil, only the fine ash as a fertiliser. :? :dontknow:
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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190488Post contadino »

Well I don't know what more I can tell you. I found out about it from reading up on Biochar - which I was doing out of interest on carbon capture as a way to combat climate change, rather than from a gardening perspective.

If I understand it correctly, the white stuff in ash contains things like potash, which is good for toms & spuds. The black stuff is matter that hasn't fully combusted in the fire - effectively charcoal, or pure carbon.

Nowadays, when I have a bonfire, I sprinkle it with water when it gets too hot, so that I get a higher percentage of charcoal than 'ash.' When it has died down, I move the remnants to the veg plot and it gets dug in. The results have been startling. Last year, we got well over twice the yield of tomatoes using between 1/3rd and half the irrigation water. Given that we're off-grid for water, and get no rain from mid-May to mid-September, that is a really good thing.

The Amazonians used to make their charcoal by burning agricultural waste during the rainy season rather than the dry season. In Monty Don's Around the World in 80 Gardens, he showed a lady making charcoal by burning waste and then covering it with soil, which is kind of like a small-scale version of the old English way of charcoal production.

There's a good page on Wikipedia about Terra Preta, but beware that it takes many years to make proper Terra Preta. An Argentinian friend tells me it takes at least 40 years - he's just started a bed for his son, who was born 5 months ago.

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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190489Post Millymollymandy »

Cheers Contadino, I have just spent some time reading about it - a few mixed reviews though - some say you are unlikely to see better yield if your soil is already fertile and that it's better for impoverished soil. Mine's fertile, just dry and really free draining so I only want water retaining properties. Funny cos I always thought perlite and vermiculite were for opening up soil structure to allow drainage, not for retaining water, yet the reports on biochar says they all do the same thing. :?

Anyway, I will riddle some of our ash to get the charcoal bits out and do some experiments this year and see what happens!
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Re: Growing Veggies in Dry Areas

Post: # 190490Post contadino »

Ah, that's interesting. Our soil is heavy clay, and through the continuous use of herbicides for the last 20 years, was pretty dead when we bought the place. The veg plot is split into areas:

- with muck and no charcoal
- with no muck and no charcoal
- with no muck and added charcoal
- with muck and added charcoal

The area with muck & charcoal is best, followed by the area with just charcoal. The area with just muck produces well, but needs more water, but that could be because I grew cucs and zucchini there last summer, which are pretty thirsty.

As you can see, my methods wouldn't stand up to scientific criticism, but they work for me. :icon_smile:

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