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Gardening Without Irrigation: or without much, anyway By Steve Solomon Characters: 10538

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


My Own Garden Plan

This chapter illustrates and explains my own dry garden. Any garden plan is a product of compromises and preferences; mine is not intended to become yours. But, all modesty aside, this plan results from 20 continuous years of serious vegetable gardening and some small degree of regional wisdom.

My wife and I are what I dub "vegetablitarians." Not vegetarians, or lacto-ovo vegetarians because we're not ideologues and eat meat on rare, usually festive occasions in other peoples' houses. But over 80 percent of our calories are from vegetable, fruit, or cereal sources and the remaining percentage is from fats or dairy foods. The purpose of my garden is to provide at least half the actual calories we eat year-round; most of the rest comes from home-baked bread made with freshly ground whole grains. I put at least one very large bowl of salad on the table every day, winter and summer. I keep us in potatoes nine months a year and produce a year's supply of onions or leeks. To break the dietary monotony of November to April, I grow as wide an assortment of winter vegetables as possible and put most produce departments to shame from June through September, when the summer vegies are "on."

The garden plan may seem unusually large, but in accordance with Solomon's First Law of Abundance, there's a great deal of intentional waste. My garden produces two to three times the amount of food needed during the year so moochers, poachers, guests, adult daughters accompanied by partners, husbands, and children, mistakes, poor yields, and failures of individual vegetables are inconsequential. Besides, gardening is fun.

My garden is laid out in 125-foot-long rows and one equally long raised bed. Each row grows only one or two types of vegetables. The central focus of my water-wise garden is its irrigation system. Two lines of low-angle sprinklers, only 4 feet apart, straddle an intensively irrigated raised bed running down the center of the garden. The sprinklers I use are Naans, a unique Israeli design that emits very little water and throws at a very low angle (available from TSC and some garden centers). Their maximum reach is about 18 feet; each sprinkler is about 12 feet from its neighbor. On the garden plan, the sprinklers are indicated by a circle surrounding an "X." Readers unfamiliar with sprinkler system design are advised to study the irrigation chapter in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.

On the far left side of the garden plan is a graphic representation of the uneven application of water put down by this sprinkler system. The 4-foot-wide raised bed gets lots of water, uniformly distributed. Farther away, the amount applied decreases rapidly. About half as much irrigation lands only 6 feet from the edge of the raised bed as on the bed itself. Beyond that the amount tapers off to insignificance. During summer's heat the farthest 6 feet is barely moistened on top, but no water effectively penetrates the dry surface. Crops are positioned according to their need for or ability to benefit from supplementation. For convenient description I've numbered those rows.

The Raised Bed

Crops demanding the most water are grown on the raised bed. These include a succession of lettuce plantings designed to fill the summer salad bowl, summer spinach, spring kohlrabi, my celery patch, scallions, Chinese cabbages, radishes, and various nursery beds that start overwintered crops for transplanting later. Perhaps the bed seems too large just for salad greens. But one entire meal every day consists largely of fresh, raw, high-protein green leaves; during summer, looseleaf or semiheading lettuce is our salad item of choice. And our individual salad bowls are larger than most families of six might consider adequate to serve all of them together.

If water were severely rationed I could irrigate the raised bed with hose and nozzle and dry garden the rest, but as it is, rows 1, 2, 7, and 8 do get significant but lesser amounts from the sprinklers. Most of the rows hold a single plant family needing similar fertilization and handling or, for convenience, that are sown at the same time.

Row 1

The row's center is about 3 feet from the edge of the raised bed. In March I sow my very first salad greens down half this row-mostly assorted leaf lettuce plus some spinach-and six closely spaced early Seneca Hybrid zucchini plants. The greens are all cut by mid-June; by mid-July my better-quality Yellow Crookneck squash come on, so I pull the zucchini. Then I till that entire row, refertilize, and sow half to rutabagas. The nursery bed of leek seedlings has gotten large enough to transplant at this time, too. These go into a trench dug into the other half of the row. The leeks and rutabagas could be reasonably productive located farther from the sprinklers, but no vegetables benefit more from abundant water or are more important to a self-sufficient kitchen. Rutabagas break the winter monotony of potatoes; leeks vitally improve winter salads, and leeky soups are a household staple from November through March.

Row 2: Semi-Drought Tolerant Brassicas

Row 2 gets about half the irrigation of row 1 and about one-third as much as the raised bed, and so is wider, to

give the roots more room. One-third of the row grows savoy cabbage, the rest, Brussels sprouts. These brassicas are spaced 4 feet apart and by summer's end the lusty sprouts form a solid hedge 4 feet tall.

Row 3: Kale

Row 3 grows 125 feet of various kales sown in April. There's just enough overspray to keep the plants from getting gnarly. I prefer kale to not get very stunted, if only for aesthetics: on my soil, one vanity fertigation about mid-July keeps this row looking impressive all summer. Other gardens with poorer soil might need more support. This much kale may seem an enormous oversupply, but between salads and steaming greens with potatoes we manage to eat almost all the tender small leaves it grows during winter.

Row 4: Root Crops

Mostly carrots, a few beets. No irrigation, no fertigation, none needed. One hundred carrots weighing in at around 5 pounds each and 20-some beets of equal magnitude make our year's supply for salads, soups, and a little juicing.

Row 5: Dry-Gardened Salads

This row holds a few crowns of French sorrel, a few feet of parsley. Over a dozen giant kohlrabi are spring sown, but over half the row grows endive. I give this row absolutely no water. Again, when contemplating the amount of space it takes, keep in mind that this endive and kohlrabi must help fill our salad bowls from October through March.

Row 6: Peas, Overwintered Cauliflower, and All Solanaceae

Half the row grows early bush peas. Without overhead irrigation to bother them, unpicked pods form seed that sprouts excellently the next year. This half of the row is rotary tilled and fertilized again after the pea vines come out. Then it stays bare through July while capillarity somewhat recharges the soil. About August 1, I wet the row's surface down with hose and fan nozzle and sow overwintered cauliflower seed. To keep the cauliflower from stunting I must lightly hand sprinkle the row's center twice weekly through late September. Were water more restricted I could start my cauliflower seedlings in a nursery bed and transplant them here in October.

The other half is home to the Solanaceae: tomato, pepper, and eggplant. I give this row a little extra width because pea vines run, and I fertigate my Solanaceae, preferring sprawly tomato varieties that may cover an 8-foot-diameter circle. There's also a couple of extra bare feet along the outside because the neighboring grasses will deplete soil moisture along the edge of the garden.

Row 7: Water-Demanding Brassicas

Moving away from irrigation on the other side of the raised bed, I grow a succession of hybrid broccoli varieties and late fall cauliflower. The broccoli is sown several times, 20 row-feet each sowing, done about April 15, June 1, and July 15. The late cauliflower goes in about July 1. If necessary I could use much of this row for quick crops that would be harvested before I wanted to sow broccoli or cauliflower, but I don't need more room. The first sowings of broccoli are pulled out early enough to permit succession sowings of arugula or other late salad greens.

Row 8: The Trellis

Here I erect a 125-foot-long, 6-foot-tall net trellis for gourmet delicacies like pole peas and pole beans. The bean vines block almost all water that would to on beyond it and so this row gets more irrigation than it otherwise might. The peas are harvested early enough to permit a succession sowing of Purple Sprouting broccoli in mid-July. Purple Sprouting needs a bit of sprinkling to germinate in the heat of midsummer, but, being as vigorous as kale, once up, it grows adequately on the overspray from the raised bed. The beans would be overwhelmingly abundant if all were sown at one time, so I plant them in two stages about three weeks apart. Still, a great many beans go unpicked. These are allowed to form seed, are harvested before they quite dry, and crisp under cover away from the sprinklers. We get enough seed from this row for planting next year, plus all the dry beans we care to eat during winter. Dry beans are hard to digest and as we age we eat fewer and fewer of them. In previous years I've grown entire rows of dry legume seeds at the garden's edge.

Row 9: Cucurbits

This row is so wide because here are grown all the spreading cucurbits. The pole beans in row 8 tend to prevent overspray; this dryness is especially beneficial to humidity-sensitive melons, serendipitously reducing their susceptability to powdery mildew diseases. All cucurbits are fertigated every three weeks. The squash will have fallen apart by the end of September, melons are pulled out by mid-September. The area is then tilled and fertilized, making space to transplant overwintered spring cabbages, other overwintered brassicas, and winter scallions in October. These transplants are dug from nurseries on the irrigated raised bed. I could also set cold frames here and force tender salad greens all winter.

Row 10: Unirrigated Potatoes

This single long row satisfies a potato-loving household all winter. The quality of these dry-gardened tubers is so high that my wife complains if she must buy a few new potatoes from the supermarket after our supplies have become so sprouty and/or shriveled that they're not tasty any longer.

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