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Gardening Without Irrigation: or without much, anyway By Steve Solomon Characters: 9911

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Water-Wise Gardening Year-Round

Early Spring: The Easiest Unwatered Garden

West of the Cascades, most crops started in February and March require no special handling when irrigation is scarce. These include peas, early lettuce, radishes, kohlrabi, early broccoli, and so forth. However, some of these vegetables are harvested as late as June, so to reduce their need for irrigation, space them wider than usual. Spring vegetables also will exhaust most of the moisture from the soil before maturing, making succession planting impossible without first irrigating heavily. Early spring plantings are best allocated one of two places in the garden plan: either in that part of the garden that will be fully irrigated all summer or in a part of a big garden that can affordably remain bare during the summer and be used in October for receiving transplants of overwintering crops. The garden plan and discussion in Chapter 6 illustrate these ideas in detail.

Later in Spring: Sprouting Seeds Without Watering

For the first years that I experimented with dry gardening I went overboard and attempted to grow food as though I had no running water at all. The greatest difficulty caused by this self-imposed handicap was sowing small-seeded species after the season warmed up.

Sprouting what we in the seed business call "big seed"-corn, beans, peas, squash, cucumber, and melon-is relatively easy without irrigation because these crops are planted deeply, where soil moisture still resides long after the surface has dried out. And even if it is so late in the season that the surface has become very dry, a wide, shallow ditch made with a shovel will expose moist soil several inches down. A furrow can be cut in the bottom of that damp "valley" and big seeds germinated with little or no watering.

Tillage breaks capillary connections until the fluffy soil resettles. This interruption is useful for preventing moisture loss in summer, but the same phenomenon makes the surface dry out in a flash. In recently tilled earth, successfully sprouting small seeds in warm weather is dicey without frequent watering.

With a bit of forethought, the water-wise gardener can easily reestablish capillarity below sprouting seeds so that moisture held deeper in the soil rises to replace that lost from surface layers, reducing or eliminating the need for watering. The principle here can be easily demonstrated. In fact, there probably isn't any gardener who has not seen the phenomenon at work without realizing it. Every gardener has tilled the soil, gone out the next morning, and noticed that his or her compacted footprints were moist while the rest of the earth was dry and fluffy. Foot pressure restored capillarity, and during the night, fresh moisture replaced what had evaporated.

This simple technique helps start everything except carrots and parsnips (which must have completely loose soil to develop correctly). All the gardener must do is intentionally compress the soil below the seeds and then cover the seeds with a mulch of loose, dry soil. Sprouting seeds then rest atop damp soil exactly they lie on a damp blotter in a germination laboratory's covered petri dish. This dampness will not disappear before the sprouting seedling has propelled a root several inches farther down and is putting a leaf into the sunlight.

I've used several techniques to reestablish capillarity after tilling. There's a wise old plastic push planter in my garage that first compacts the tilled earth with its front wheel, cuts a furrow, drops the seed, and then with its drag chain pulls loose soil over the furrow. I've also pulled one wheel of a garden cart or pushed a lightly loaded wheelbarrow down the row to press down a wheel track, sprinkled seed on that compacted furrow, and then pulled loose soil over it.

Handmade Footprints

Sometimes I sow large brassicas and cucurbits in clumps above a fertilized, double-dug spot. First, in a space about 18 inches square, I deeply dig in complete organic fertilizer. Then with my fist I punch down a depression in the center of the fluffed-up mound. Sometimes my fist goes in so easily that I have to replace a little more soil and punch it down some more. The purpose is not to make rammed earth or cement, but only to reestablish capillarity by having firm soil under a shallow, fist-sized depression. Then a pinch of seed is sprinkled atop this depression and covered with fine earth. Even if several hot sunny days follow I get good germination without watering. This same technique works excellently on hills of squash, melon and cucumber as well, though these large-seeded species must be planted quite a bit deeper.

Summer: How to Fluid Drill Seeds

Soaking seeds before sowing is another water-wise technique, especially useful later in the season. At bedtime, place the seeds in a half-pint mason jar, cover with a square of plastic window screen held on with a strong ru

bber band, soak the seeds overnight, and then drain them first thing in the morning. Gently rinse the seeds with cool water two or three times daily until the root tips begin to emerge. As soon as this sign appears, the seed must be sown, because the newly emerging roots become increasingly subject to breaking off as they develop and soon form tangled masses. Presprouted seeds may be gently blended into some crumbly, moist soil and this mixture gently sprinkled into a furrow and covered. If the sprouts are particularly delicate or, as with carrots, you want a very uniform stand, disperse the seeds in a starch gelatin and imitate what commercial vegetable growers call fluid drilling.

Heat one pint of water to the boiling point. Dissolve in 2 to 3 tablespoons of ordinary cornstarch. Place the mixture in the refrigerator to cool. Soon the liquid will become a soupy gel. Gently mix this cool starch gel with the sprouting seeds, making sure the seeds are uniformly blended. Pour the mixture into a 1-quart plastic zipper bag and, scissors in hand, go out to the garden. After a furrow-with capillarity restored-has been prepared, cut a small hole in one lower corner of the plastic bag. The hole size should be under 1/4 inch in diameter. Walk quickly down the row, dribbling a mixture of gel and seeds into the furrow. Then cover. You may have to experiment a few times with cooled gel minus seeds until you divine the proper hole size, walking speed and amount of gel needed per length of furrow. Not only will presprouted seeds come up days sooner, and not only will the root be penetrating moist soil long before the shoot emerges, but the stand of seedlings will be very uniformly spaced and easier to thin. After fluid drilling a few times you'll realize that one needs quite a bit less seed per length of row than you previously thought.

Establishing the Fall and Winter Garden

West of the Cascades, germinating fall and winter crops in the heat of summer is always difficult. Even when the entire garden is well watered, midsummer sowings require daily attention and frequent sprinkling; however, once they have germinated, keeping little seedlings growing in an irrigated garden usually requires no more water than the rest of the garden gets. But once hot weather comes, establishing small seeds in the dry garden seems next to impossible without regular watering. Should a lucky, perfectly timed, and unusually heavy summer rainfall sprout your seeds, they still would not grow well because the next few inches of soil would at best be only slightly moist.

A related problem many backyard gardeners have with establishing the winter and overwintered garden is finding enough space for both the summer and winter crops. The nursery bed solves both these problems. Instead of trying to irrigate the entire area that will eventually be occupied by a winter or overwintered crop at maturity, the seedlings are first grown in irrigated nurseries for transplanting in autumn after the rains come back. Were I desperately short of water I'd locate my nursery where it got only morning sun and sow a week or 10 days earlier to compensate for the slower growth.

Vegetables to Start in a Nursery Bed

Variety Sowing date Transplanting date

Fall/winter lettuce mid-August early October

Leeks early April July

Overwintered onions early-mid August December/January

Spring cabbage mid-late August November/December

Spring cauliflower mid-August October/November 1st

Winter scallions mid-July mid-October

Seedlings in pots and trays are hard to keep moist and require daily tending. Fortunately, growing transplants in little pots is not necessary because in autumn, when they'll be set out, humidity is high, temperatures are cool, the sun is weak, and transpiration losses are minimal, so seedling transplants will tolerate considerable root loss. My nursery is sown in rows about 8 inches apart across a raised bed and thinned gradually to prevent crowding, because crowded seedlings are hard to dig out without damage. When the prediction of a few days of cloudy weather encourages transplanting, the seedlings are lifted with a large, sharp knife. If the fall rains are late and/or the crowded seedlings are getting leggy, a relatively small amount of irrigation will moisten the planting areas. Another light watering at transplanting time will almost certainly establish the seedlings quite successfully. And, finding room for these crops ceases to be a problem because fall transplants can be set out as a succession crop following hot weather vegetables such as squash, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, and beans.

Vegetables that must be heavily irrigated

(These crops are not suitable for dry gardens.)

Bulb Onions (for fall harvest)



Chinese cabbage

Lettuce (summer and fall)

Radishes (summer and fall)

Scallions (for summer harvest)

Spinach (summer)

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