Dig In: Tips for growing in dry summers

Water conservation starts with the soil.

This is a tomato root at just two months. The can grow to an incredible length to access water. (submitted)

“Warmland” doesn’t quite describe our summers anymore. We should add “without rain”, or without much anyway.

The past couple of summers we’ve experienced such drought that restrictions have been put in place, but even without restrictions plants grow better with judicious gardening methods that serendipitously conserve water.

Water conservation starts with the soil. A soil that holds water like a sponge has a better chance of remaining in contact with the reservoir of water deeper in the soil that plants can access during drought. The top layer of soil will dry out but the plants won’t die. In fact, Peruvians grow crops in the Andes where they have eight to 12 inches of rainfall per year and they are the ones who brought potatoes to the world, so they should know how to garden.

Before Conquistadors overran South America, Peruvians were experimenting with crops and grew over 200 kinds of potatoes on all sides of the hills at various elevations, hauling water up by hand, augmenting the rainfall somewhat. Surely we can grow great crops here too.

I start with hardy, stocky seedlings grown in fertile potting soil, then I spread compost over each bed, but not just any compost. This black gold consists of composted vegetation, garden soil, rock phosphate, alfalfa meal, manure and clay. I make my compost with as much care as I make a gourmet meal because I want the best crops I can possibly grow. Insects and micro organisms process this into humus that remains stable for many years, acting like a sponge, retaining nutrients and water that plants can access.

A sprinkling of fertilizer at planting time will augment the compost and get the seedlings off to the races. I use soaker hoses so that no water is lost to evaporation and I find that most of the garden only needs watering for half an hour, every four days, maybe less, and a timer ensures that the water is on for only a half hour. As a side benefit, weeds, slugs and sow bugs don’t proliferate on the hot, unwatered area.

Mulching by laying compost, ground up leaves or fluffy dry vegetation once the soil is dry and (hopefully) relatively free of slugs, can help lower the temperature, thereby conserving moisture. At the end of summer this mulch should be removed to the compost bin or else hordes of slugs et al will proliferate under the cosy canopy, ready to devour next spring’s plantings.

I add side dressings of fertilizer about every three weeks and sprinkle compost tea every two weeks. My plants are placed a bit a bit farther apart than recommended because then they don’t require as much water, but if I had to reduce the water supply and the plants began to suffer, I’d yank out out every other plant. If our summers become so dry that these measures are not enough, I’ll make sunken beds and plant crops even farther apart.

When plants are given as much space as possible, their roots cover an amazing area. Tomato roots, for example, can reach a diameter of 10 feet and a depth of three and a half feet; beet roots can reach two feet in diameter and a depth of seven feet. These crops, when given enough space, probably will grow well without any water, but I hope we never have to find out.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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