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Dry farming has been a garden practice done for centuries in arid places.  With global warming, many will be using these ancient techniques to great advantage!  In Vietnam today, beans and peanuts, that restore the soil, and sesame, are grown season to season between wet rice plantings!  Watch this Vietnamese video, No Water Required! Dry Farming In Âu Lạc Vietnam

Dry Farming Video Vietnam - Beans, Peanuts, Sesame Restore Soil!

I’m sharing this paragraph of a past post on DRY GARDENING from the Oregon Biodynamics Group.  We hear about tomatoes being dry gardened, but have you ever done it?  Here are some practical tips from people who have:

When the homesteaders planted their gardens, they needed to feed their family for much of the year. They couldn’t afford to do raised beds or to develop irrigation systems. How did they do that? Part of the answer is to give plants lots of elbowroom. Space rows widely at about 8 times what we do with intensive beds. They also hoed or cultivated to keep a “dust mulch” between the plants. This technique is quite effective at preserving water so the plants can make it through the summer with only an occasional irrigation. Most of this class is directed at intensive gardening because we have limited areas for garden plots. But if you have the room, one can produce high-quality produce without irrigation. Vegetables must be able to send down deep roots so that they can draw in the water that is stored in the soil. Plants that work are root crops, brassicas, corn, squash, and beans. Ones that don’t work are onions, celery, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, radishes, and spinach. The plants need to get well established in June [Oregon] using the natural soil moisture. Then they can carry themselves through the dry months. It helps to give 5 gallons of compost tea every 2-3 weeks during July-August. Liquid fertilizer helps with the stress of low water.

When getting started for the season, farmer David Little of Little Organic Farm explains another way of dust mulching. To help people understand how dry farming works, Little uses the example of a wet sponge covered with cellophane. Following winter and spring rains, soil is cultivated to break it up and create a moist “sponge,” then the top layer is compacted using a roller to form a dry crust (the “cellophane”). This three to four inch layer is sometimes referred to as a dust mulch, seals in water and prevents evaporation.

Clearly, our SoCal weather is different than what the Oregon homesteaders had, especially in these times of climate change. I’m translating Oregon June to SoCal May. If you are a coastal gardener, or a foothill gardener, use your judgment how you will do your gardening practice. Plant your dry crops separately from your water-needing crops.  Plant your water lovers more closely together and mulch them well. Get plants going with a little water, then cut it off after a few weeks. As usual, seeds and seedlings Tomato California Dryfarmed Early Girlmust be kept moist at startup.

Soil choice is important. Dry farming in sandy soil, through which water drains easily, doesn’t work.

Dry gardening isn’t for everyone, ie, harvest is generally a tad less, or even only a third as much, or very dramatically, only 4 tons of tomatoes compared to 40 tons from watered plants. But they say the taste is superb! In fact, At Happy Boy Farms, near Santa Cruz, sales director Jen Lynne says “Once you taste a dry-farmed tomato, you’ll never want anything else!”  And people shop specifically for dry farmed tomatoes in areas where they are grown!

Useful pointers if you want to try your hand at it:

  • If it is an option, store water for summer use. Set up a grey water system.
  • Prepare your soil with well aged water-holding compost, manure, worm castings.
  • Plant out of a drying windy zone. If that’s all you have, plant subshrub barriers or build porous windbreaks.
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  • Select plants or plant varieties suited to summer, tolerate heat and being dryer.
  • Choose plants that mature more quickly so they will have the early season water.  Plant those that need less water in the latter part of the season.
  • Grow only what you need.
  • If you don’t need volume, but rather a steady supply, plant high producing dwarfs and minis, like many container varieties, that need less water for smaller leaves.
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  • Plant further apart, at least 1½ times or greater the spacing distance recommended on seed packets, 8 times further if you have been doing intensive planting practices. But, do give seeds and seedlings all the water they need until they are established
  • Make furrows and plant IN the bottoms of furrows, not on the peaks that drain/dry out.
  • Thin out seedlings on time.  No wasting water on plants you won’t use and that will slow others that need all the nutrients and water they can get.  Use scissors; don’t pull up soil causing the other plant’s roots soil to be disturbed, even expose the roots, to dry out, killing that plant too.
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  • If you don’t go the entire dry gardening route, but want to use less water, mulch deeply early on. It keeps your soil from drying out and blocks light germinating weed seeds from sprouting.
  • Self mulching:  plant in blocks, rather than rows. This creates shade for roots and reduces evaporation. If you are home gardening, maybe plant 4 to a block, put the blocks in different places to avoid disease or pest spread.
  • Dust mulching is simply soil cultivation to about 2 or 3 inches deep. Cultivation disturbs the soil surface and interrupts the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation.  Do it after rains or irrigating.
  • Remove water-using weeds. Don’t let them seed.
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  • When you water, do it by drip or trickle, deeply, early AM if possible, when wind is low and temps are cool. Plants drink during the day.  This is a good time to invest in a ‘hose bubbler.’  They deliver water slowly without digging up your soil.
  • Cultivate 2″ to 3″ deep before a rain to capture up to 70% of the rainfall! Cultivate afterwards if a salt crust (from manures) has built up.
  • Give your plants tasty compost tea, equal parts water and aged compost. Compost tea delivers rich soluble nutrients directly to the plant roots.
  • If water becomes critical, consider planting only a couple of containers with vegetables.
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  • Harvest on time at peak flavor and texture, using no more water than needed.
  • When your harvest is done, turn the remaining plants under, especially legumes, like beans, that feed your soil.

Amy Garrett, Small Farms Program, Oregon State University says ‘for each 1% increase in soil organic matter, soil water storage can increase by 16,000 gallons per acre-foot of applied water (Sullivan, 2002)! Many people think of grains and beans when dry farming is mentioned, however farmers in the western region of the U.S. have dry farmed many other crops including: grapes, [cucumbers,] garlic, tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes, winter squash, potatoes, hay, olives, and orchard crops.’

After years of trial and error, David Little now considers himself an expert.“It’s very challenging because you have to hold the moisture for long periods of time, and you don’t know how different crops are going to react in different areas,” Little says. Much of the land he farms is rolling hills and valleys, which present additional challenges because they hold and move groundwater differently than flat land.

If you decide to dry farm all or part of your garden area, know that you and your land, your plant choices, are unique. Don’t give up, find your own way. Also you can do as David did, search for people who were known dry-farmers. He even made the rounds at local bars, asking older farmers about their experiences! He said they humbly shared their stories and gradually he picked up the important details. That’s dedication!

Be water wise, sleep well, eat hearty, share the bounty!

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