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Gardening without irrigation

 
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Growing the typical annual kitchen garden without irrigation has kinda become a pet project of mine over the last few years. That's since I've seen a few successful examples of it being done, and because I stumbled across an article stating that a third of America's poorest households are expected to be priced out of water in the next decade between the cost of replacing aging infrastructure and (mostly conventional agriculture... and now bottled water manufacturing) draining the aquifers dry.

I've shared some of the methods I use (which are only a fraction of the ones I've learned about so far) in this video. I hope it's okay to share it with you all. I'd love your questions and feedback (unless it's about how uncomfortable I am in front of the camera... I know... or the quality... best I can do filming and editing 100% on a phone... we don't have enough solar to run my computer yet)



Let me know what you think!

 
pollinator
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Hey Mathew. I was able to get a few minutes into your video before being accosted by my family. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it tonight. The fact that this type of thing is on your radar means you will definitely succeeded. Get back to you soon. Scott
 
Mathew Trotter
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Scott Stiller wrote:Hey Mathew. I was able to get a few minutes into your video before being accosted by my family. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it tonight. The fact that this type of thing is on your radar means you will definitely succeeded. Get back to you soon. Scott



Well, if there's any good reason to be pulled away from YouTube, family is probably one of the better ones. 😂 Thanks for checking it out! Looking forward to the feedback!
 
pollinator
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Matthew, satellite internet sucks when you hit the data limit.  I've added the video to my watchlist and will try again tonight as I'm very interested in the methods you are using.
 
Mathew Trotter
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Michelle Heath wrote:Matthew, satellite internet sucks when you hit the data limit.  I've added the video to my watchlist and will try again tonight as I'm very interested in the methods you are using.



Don't I know it! It was an estimated 11 hours to upload that video on our internet! Ended up going and bumming internet from the landlady, since her up speed is much better relative to ours. Still took around 2 hours to upload, but I'll take that over the alternative...
 
pollinator
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Ugh, satellite internet.  Costs more, does a LOT less.

I see you have really put great effort into researching and putting into place ways to avoid irrigation.  As a viewer, I would have found it helpful to know approximately where in the world you are (and I apologize if you mentioned it; it's noisy here).  It helps me orient to the issue, understand why there might be annual three-month droughts.  

I'm really interested in the hugel paths.  Is there a reason not to put the wood under the planting beds?  I wondered if the rotten wood became available after your beds were established.

Good stuff!  Essential in your climate.  My climate usually has plenty of rain (and my land has a spring and vernal stream).  But this year it's been dry, with rain clouds dropping 3 minutes of barely drizzling once a week or so.  My raised beds are hugel-ish, with a base of rotten wood and rather thin cover of soil and compost.  I've done much more watering than usual, to the point where my partner is worried about our well's capacity and we've started bringing water in from a spring about a half-mile away.

I didn't finish the video, but I will.  I fear we will need to know more and more about this in the future, as climate change turns what we know about our own gardens upside down.
 
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I enjoyed your video--lots of great tips in there. The part about the dust mulch was very interesting. I was curious have you seen any of videos featuring Dr. Elaine Ingham or Gabe Brown? They both make the case for completely covering the ground with perennial plants as an approach to reduce or eliminate irrigation and build overall soil fertility. The basic idea is that all of these plants feed a large diversity of soil life through the release of their root exudates. This increase in soil life in turn results in the building of soil and an overall increase in organic material in the soil. All off which increases the water holding capacity of the soil. I was wondering if you had seen any of their material and what your thoughts were on it.

On my own homestead I normally focus on keeping a good layer of mulch down over my beds to build soil and minimize watering. I've also built a lot of hugelkultur beds. But I'm experimenting with implementing Dr. Elaine Ignham and Gabe Brown's approaches in my gardens. I've got a terrace garden that is currently covered with perennial edibles that I'm also growing corn and melons in. It's been an interesting experiment and I plan to make some changes for next year to better manage the edible cover crops. One thing I'm learning is when and how often to chop and drop the cover crops to prioritize my main crops and speed up soil building while ensuring a good fall/winter cover. I'm also planning to add more perennial vegetables to my kitchen garden with annuals mixed in. This approach makes sense to me but I still got a lot to learn on how to implement it in a practical way. One thing I need to do is research more low growing perennial plants to use as a living mulch. Lots to learn and test!

Thank you for making the video and sharing!
 
pollinator
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I’m lucky in that I get as much wood chips as I can possibly use, but this is a good primer for those who want to pay the bill up front and have an infrastructure garden rather than a maintenance garden. I have completely failed at convincing my local gardeners but this year I actually built a demonstration garden so they can see it in action.

I will keep this handy as a link for people!
 
Mathew Trotter
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Anne Pratt wrote:Ugh, satellite internet.  Costs more, does a LOT less.

I see you have really put great effort into researching and putting into place ways to avoid irrigation.  As a viewer, I would have found it helpful to know approximately where in the world you are (and I apologize if you mentioned it; it's noisy here).  It helps me orient to the issue, understand why there might be annual three-month droughts.  

I'm really interested in the hugel paths.  Is there a reason not to put the wood under the planting beds?  I wondered if the rotten wood became available after your beds were established.

Good stuff!  Essential in your climate.  My climate usually has plenty of rain (and my land has a spring and vernal stream).  But this year it's been dry, with rain clouds dropping 3 minutes of barely drizzling once a week or so.  My raised beds are hugel-ish, with a base of rotten wood and rather thin cover of soil and compost.  I've done much more watering than usual, to the point where my partner is worried about our well's capacity and we've started bringing water in from a spring about a half-mile away.

I didn't finish the video, but I will.  I fear we will need to know more and more about this in the future, as climate change turns what we know about our own gardens upside down.



Hey Anne! I mention in my channel description that I'm in the Pacific Northwest, but don't think I ever mentioned it in the video! 8 or 9 months of nonstop rain followed by 3 to 4 months of drought (at the peak of the growing season) is standard operating procedure here. Still trying to find the balance between privacy and full-disclosure... I've heard the horror stories and don't want any weirdoes piecing it together and showing up at the farm unannounced.  😂

I want to do a more in depth video as I start getting the paths completed, but here's the gist of it. My thinking with the hugelpaths (as opposed to the more traditional hugelkultur) is that they'll better manage our annual rainfall patterns. Because it's 8 or 9 months of nearly constant rain (when I don't necessarily need it), there's a risk of the beds becoming waterlogged (especially right now, when I haven't had a chance to build up the organic matter in the heavy clay soil.) Because the paths will be in a slight depression relative to the rows, it will encourage excess water to settle into the paths rather than the rows during the rainiest part of the year. BUT I don't just want the water to run off and go away, since I'm going to need it during the drought season. So, the wood will soak it up and hang onto it for later. At least, that's the theory. With traditional hugelkultur mounds the thinking is that large rainfall events are rare occurrences, and that if there ever is excess rain it should be shed from the mound. But every rain event here is excessive, so the same strategy doesn't apply.

Also, by putting them in the paths, one round of digging and burying wood supplies water to two adjacent beds. Eventually I'll do all of the paths and each row will be fed by two paths apiece, but they are a time and labor intensive endeavor. So by opting to dig out every other path to begin with, I maximize the number of rows that will have access to those reservoirs of water with the fastest turnaround time and least labor.

I also have a theory that the deep and narrow approach I'm taking by digging out my paths (as opposed to the wide and shallow or wide and above ground approach that most people take with hugelkultur) will greatly enhance my soil building (which ultimately improves water holding capacity.) My first thought is that the soil life will carry nutrients and organic matter horizontally from the path to the bed, freeing up actual soil for my plant roots to grow in (as opposed to rotting wood.) Plus, because I'm digging a deep trench, I'm getting down below the hard pan. That means that the soil life can theoretically move freely between the soil above and below the hard pan and attack it from both sides (or from all four sides, as the case may be.)

A lot of the examples I've seen of busting up clay and building soil with soil microbiology takes a top down approach. You add your organic matter or compost tea on top of the soil and the soil life slowly works it down a little further each year. Well, with this approach, my theory is that you can improve the soil horizontally... and 2-3 feet at a time... rather than vertically. Which means that you'll have a 2-3 foot vertical strip (that slowly works in toward the center of you row) of improved and biologically rich soil right up against a water reservoir that plant roots are already going to gravitate to. It doesn't need to be the whole width of the bed as long as plant roots are able to get to the depth that they want SOMEWHERE in the bed. That'll be tight along the edges of the row to begin with and then slowly with inward. And I'll still be able to use the top down approach in addition to this (lots of compost, mulch, biologically active teas... and lots of daikon radishes to punch holes straight down.

A lot of this theory is based on the work that Dr. Elaine Ingham has done on building soils with soil microbiology and the less scientific but equally impressive work that I saw when I visited Paul Gautschi (of Back To Eden fame.) Paul's work is essentially just a slower and less scientifically rigorous version of what Dr. Ingham is doing.

A lot of it also borrows from the (relatively recent) research that's been done on the man made Terra Preta soils of the Amazon. In fact, if I had the resources to produce a bunch of charcoal and fired clay to add to my trenches, I'd be adding that as well. Let me rephrase: I have the natural resources to create those things, but not the time to produce them in sufficient quantities. But now that the wheels are spinning, I'm starting to think I might dig up a bunch of clay and roll it into little balls that I can offload on everyone I know with wood heat just so they can throw them in their stoves to fire them...

I'd actually love to be able to pull a soil sample to show what the soil looks like at different depths now, and as it develops over the years...
 
Mathew Trotter
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Tj Jefferson wrote:I’m lucky in that I get as much wood chips as I can possibly use, but this is a good primer for those who want to pay the bill up front and have an infrastructure garden rather than a maintenance garden. I have completely failed at convincing my local gardeners but this year I actually built a demonstration garden so they can see it in action.

I will keep this handy as a link for people!



Thanks! And yeah. It's hard to get wood chip deliveries out here because we're so rural, and somebody out here has already claimed all of the chips from the big tree trimming services. Just found out that one of my neighbors does tree trimming and worked out a deal to have him drop chips here in exchange for beer. He dropped two small loads and then proceeded to break his foot, so... 🤷🏻‍♂️
 
Mathew Trotter
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Daron Williams wrote:I enjoyed your video--lots of great tips in there. The part about the dust mulch was very interesting. I was curious have you seen any of videos featuring Dr. Elaine Ingham or Gabe Brown? They both make the case for completely covering the ground with perennial plants as an approach to reduce or eliminate irrigation and build overall soil fertility. The basic idea is that all of these plants feed a large diversity of soil life through the release of their root exudates. This increase in soil life in turn results in the building of soil and an overall increase in organic material in the soil. All off which increases the water holding capacity of the soil. I was wondering if you had seen any of their material and what your thoughts were on it.

On my own homestead I normally focus on keeping a good layer of mulch down over my beds to build soil and minimize watering. I've also built a lot of hugelkultur beds. But I'm experimenting with implementing Dr. Elaine Ignham and Gabe Brown's approaches in my gardens. I've got a terrace garden that is currently covered with perennial edibles that I'm also growing corn and melons in. It's been an interesting experiment and I plan to make some changes for next year to better manage the edible cover crops. One thing I'm learning is when and how often to chop and drop the cover crops to prioritize my main crops and speed up soil building while ensuring a good fall/winter cover. I'm also planning to add more perennial vegetables to my kitchen garden with annuals mixed in. This approach makes sense to me but I still got a lot to learn on how to implement it in a practical way. One thing I need to do is research more low growing perennial plants to use as a living mulch. Lots to learn and test!

Thank you for making the video and sharing!



Totally didn't see your post pop up between the other two earlier!

I'm a huge fan of Dr. Ingham! I don't know if you've seen the videos of her own kitchen garden, but even she doesn't use perennial cover crops there. I did try it for a few seasons (after first finding one of her lectures) with a low growing clover. The first year is great... subsequent years are a giant pain. I was also irrigating at the time, so I didn't have to worry about moisture lost to transpiration.

I'm sure that once soil health is sufficiently established you could grow your annual crops amongst a thick perennial cover, but I'm not there yet, and in the interim that provides a lot of competition in very poor soil and increases transpiration. And because even Dr. Ingham doesn't do it, I'm less inclined to do it myself.

What I do instead is rotate through annual crops. As one is finishing up, I'll start germinating the next crop in between. When I remove the first crop I leave the roots in the ground (unless it's a root crop) to break down. That way the soil life has both rotting organic matter plus exudates from the incoming crop. Additionally, I have three rows that I haven't planted, one because that's where I'll be digging my next hugelpath, and the other two because that's where I'll be doing my first big planting for my fall and winter crops. I let whatever weeds want to grow there do so. It's far easier to deal with an annual weed or an unestablished perennial weed that isn't where you want it than it is to remove an established perennial cover. And plus, since I don't have crops in those beds, the weeds can compete for water all they want. If they die, it's no sweat off my back.

All that just to say that I treat my food forest and my kitchen garden as separate (though interconnected) systems with different goals. I do regularly plant annuals amongst my young food forest, but the kitchen garden is a strictly annual system whose purpose is to provide the bulk of our food while the food forest is establishing; it's the yin to the food forest's yang. It needs to be a bit more orderly to simplify harvest and planning because it has to carry the weight of the food forest for these first few years. Having perennials in this space leads to the time that needs to be spent maintaining this space, whereas in the food forest they can pretty much do whatever they want. There's some upfront labor here, but ultimately these are meant to save time on the back end (because it would literally take me hours every day to water if I wasn't designing around not needing irrigation) precisely so that I can invest that time in the food forest (planting, hand digging swales, etc.), without slaving over the kitchen garden, while knowing that it's providing all of our food needs in the interim.

I hope that makes sense?
 
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Mathew,

Much like TJ, I find woodchips to be absolutely invaluable in the garden.  Also like TJ, I have a nearly inexhaustible supply of woodchips thanks to a living hedge populated with invasive bushes that need regular trimming.  But I did not always have unlimited woodchips and I also used to scavenged for mulching materials.  If you just can’t find woodchips or at least not in a timely manner, I find grass clippings are a pretty good substitute.  It has nitrogen and will rot down quickly.  The soil beneath improves very quickly.  All you need to do is rake after mowing (or offer to rake a neighbor’ Lawn).

Another great option would be fallen leaves in the fall.  I used to rake a neighbor’s lawn to harvest the leaves.  The make a great mulch (as in ground cover), but are best if shredded.  I shred mine with a Worx blower/shredder/vac with a hose attachment that fits to a round garbage can.  I can haul around 30 gallons of shredded leaves very easily.  I especially like to apply the leaves in fall and let them age and condition the soil over the late fall, winter and early spring.

Either of these options can be a great ground cover and are especially helpful in preventing evaporation.  I am of the opinion that soil should never be bare and exposed to wind and sun.  Either/and grass clippings/fall leaves can be a great option to cover that soil quickly while waiting for a supply of woodchips.

This is just a thought and I wish you the best of luck.  Please keep us updated.

Eric
 
Michelle Heath
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Matthew, first of all thank you for shooting your video with your phone in the landscape position.  I learned a few things and you gave me some new ideas to ponder.

The hugel path idea is one I never considered but I can understand the reasoning on doing that in an annual vegetable garden.  That might be good to incorporate in an already established bed of asparagus or rhubarb.

The dust mulch idea is one I never would have though of and since it doesn't really add anything to the soil, probably one I would never consider unless I was out of mulch too.  That did get me thinking about the buckets of river sand I have in the garden though.  Essentially that could be used as mulch too.  

We have been promised wood chips for two years now but they always go to our neighbor.  We bought a small chipper/shredder a few years ago and have been making our own wood mulch this spring and mulching with shredded leaves.  It's been a lot of work but the effort sure has paid off.

I'm a big fan of pre-germinating.  I didn't get a chance to order seeds before the pandemic and had only picked a few seeds up beforehand, so I used some old seed.   Most germinated just fine but some old bean and pea seeds I had in the freezer did nothing.  I've been soaking beans and corn for several years now because it seems like as soon as I plant, it never rains.

Thanks for the great video and looking forward to more.

 
Mathew Trotter
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Eric Hanson wrote:Mathew,

Much like TJ, I find woodchips to be absolutely invaluable in the garden.  Also like TJ, I have a nearly inexhaustible supply of woodchips thanks to a living hedge populated with invasive bushes that need regular trimming.  But I did not always have unlimited woodchips and I also used to scavenged for mulching materials.  If you just can’t find woodchips or at least not in a timely manner, I find grass clippings are a pretty good substitute.  It has nitrogen and will rot down quickly.  The soil beneath improves very quickly.  All you need to do is rake after mowing (or offer to rake a neighbor’ Lawn).

Another great option would be fallen leaves in the fall.  I used to rake a neighbor’s lawn to harvest the leaves.  The make a great mulch (as in ground cover), but are best if shredded.  I shred mine with a Worx blower/shredder/vac with a hose attachment that fits to a round garbage can.  I can haul around 30 gallons of shredded leaves very easily.  I especially like to apply the leaves in fall and let them age and condition the soil over the late fall, winter and early spring.

Either of these options can be a great ground cover and are especially helpful in preventing evaporation.  I am of the opinion that soil should never be bare and exposed to wind and sun.  Either/and grass clippings/fall leaves can be a great option to cover that soil quickly while waiting for a supply of woodchips.

This is just a thought and I wish you the best of luck.  Please keep us updated.

Eric



Yup! I use clippings and leaves as mulch all the time. Well, leaves are a bit harder to come by because it's largely coniferous forest out here, but if I ever find myself driving through a neighborhood in fall and find bags of leaves sitting out on the curb, I often snatch them up. We're on 93 acres in a very rural and very hilly area, so mowing isn't something that happens out here. And I've burned through my second weedeater in 12 months just maintaining a fire break. I convinced the landlady to cover half the cost of a scythe rather than buying another cheap weedeater that won't even make it through a full season out here, and it should be here within the next couple of weeks. Then I'll have all the mulch I need and much more pleasant and long-lasting tool to use.

We do also have a small wood chipper, but I haven't had time to repair it in the thick of planting season. And even if I did, I'd have to expend a lot of time and energy to pick up sticks all over these 93 acres and barely put a dent in my needs.
 
Eric Hanson
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Mathew,

Each area has its own pluses and minuses.  For me, grass clippings and leaves are abundant.  Unfortunately not so for you,  nice that you have a little chipper and maybe you can get it working.  I imagine that with all the acreage you have you probably have the material needed for mulch but yes, it likely is to be tedious.

I keep mowed paths in a meadow and I have at times raked the clippings in the pathways and along the road frontage.  Those pathways provided me with a surprising amount of mulch.

Is there any chance that you could get some straw bales?  A layer of straw can serve much the same function as woodchips.  They won’t last much more than a year, but it is some good stuff if you can get it.

In any case, good luck in finding your mulch.  Perhaps a variety of mulches might work. If you have any other ideas, please do tell us.

Eric
 
Mathew Trotter
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Michelle Heath wrote:The dust mulch idea is one I never would have though of and since it doesn't really add anything to the soil, probably one I would never consider unless I was out of mulch too.  That did get me thinking about the buckets of river sand I have in the garden though.  Essentially that could be used as mulch too.  

I'm a big fan of pre-germinating.  I didn't get a chance to order seeds before the pandemic and had only picked a few seeds up beforehand, so I used some old seed.   Most germinated just fine but some old bean and pea seeds I had in the freezer did nothing.  I've been soaking beans and corn for several years now because it seems like as soon as I plant, it never rains.



Thanks for you great input! I agree... and I don't think I stressed it enough in the video... dust mulch is a last ditch effort to conserve water, not a long term solution. The long-term risk of erosion is too high, and it doesn't build the soil. I otherwise think Solomon is a brilliant gardener and garden writer, by my major contention with him is that he has always denounced organic mulches in favor of a dust mulch. In the short term, the harm is minimal and the benefit is great. But they need to be used judiciously and with an eye toward moving into long term solutions.

Pre-germination has never been a huge part of my planting strategy, but to Solomon's credit, it's one of the things he highly recommends for a lot of crops. And like you, I wasn't and to get a lot of seeds on account of the pandemic, and haven't had income for 3 months now, so I was 100% dependent on whatever seeds I saved and whatever old, unfinished packets I had laying around in less than ideal storage conditions. Germination rates in the ground were pretty poor for a lot of the seeds, even with heavy and repeated sowings. Pre-germinating the seeds ended up being the thing that saved me.

Thanks again for the comments and feedback. Hope to be seeing you around!
 
Mathew Trotter
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Eric Hanson wrote:Is there any chance that you could get some straw bales?  A layer of straw can serve much the same function as woodchips.  They won’t last much more than a year, but it is some good stuff if you can get it.



Unfortunately, I haven't had income for 3 months on account of the pandemic, so I haven't been able to buy in anything this year. It's been a real test of my abilities as a gardener. All of my seeds were ones that I saved or had leftover from previous seasons, and I even planted lentils from an old bag my mom had laying around from the supermarket, and potatoes a friend had bought from the store and didn't get around to eating before they sprouted. It's been an interesting year full of struggle and heartache, but it's also been impressive how much I've accomplished with so little.

I literally just saved a quart of turnip seeds from the year's crop.  It's a bit obscene, but also nice to know that I'll die of boredom or malnutrition long before I starve. 😂
 
Eric Hanson
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Mathew,

Ouch!  Sorry to hear about the unemployment.  To say that is a bummer is a vast and ridiculous understatement.

Any chance you could just cut or pull some grasses from those 93 acres?  It would be a tedious pain, but at least there would be some sort of mulch.

BTW, nice job on finding random seeds.  Actually the lentils sound pretty ingenious.  That was a pretty good idea.

Hang in there,

Eric
 
Mathew Trotter
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Hi all! I figured I'd dedicate this thread to the work I'm doing in dry gardening rather than creating a new thread every time I have an update. To that end, I've now done a deep dive on how I set up my three sisters bed to (theoretically) grow all of my calories (with a boost from a dozen chickens) without any irrigation and in a relatively small footprint.

I don't have any yield data yet, and I'm not expecting to hit that goal 100% this year (for a number of reasons, including that this is a new space with unimproved soil), but I want to track how this bed performs this year and (hopefully) continues to improve in successive years (though, I will be creating additional beds so I can rotate different crops through these beds.)

You can check out my deep dive here:  
 
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Very interesting work. Multiple things I need to consider incorporating ;)
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