Rules of Engagement for this thread:
The purpose of this thread is to get a whole bunch of possibilities and ideas for dryland farming (no-irrigation gardening
, dry farming, or whatever you want to call it) together in one thread. There are a squillion different gardening
systems, conditions, and preferences. So, maybe lots
of these ideas will work for you, maybe some
will work for you, and maybe only one or two will work for you. That doesn’t mean that the ideas I have put forth, or the ideas that other people
will hopefully post to this thread, don’t work, at all, anywhere; and it would be great
if we didn’t derail the purpose of this thread with all kinds of ‘discussions’ about why something doesn’t work, and what works the best
, and asking for citations and proof. These are just ideas. They will all probably work somewhere, sometimes, for somebody.
These are just ideas
to get the ol’ creative juices going, and help people start to think
about how they might be able to cut down on watering
, or eliminate it completely. This is not a recipe, or a tried-and-true method, just ideas.
If you feel the need to pontificate about your personal feelings about a particular topic that is likely to derail this thread, and lead to silliness, then it would be awesome
if you started a thread of your own, so you can get specific about a certain thing that you are feeling passionate about. Then we can keep this thread as a place to put forth ideas that might help somebody somewhere who is trying to grow without irrigation
, or at least lessen their water consumption in the garden
Stay focused, and play nice.
If you have a successful dryland farm or garden, or you are setting up a system, start a thread in the Projects Forum, and document your process and successes - yes, and failures! - in the hopes that it might help someone else.
And please tell us where you live, so people can get an idea of things that might work where they are.
I plan to set up my own project
thread for this, but I wanted to start the conversation here, and get a little brainstorming happening. There are a couple of other dryland farming threads that have some great ideas, and I’ve tried to get quite a few of them in here, but there is LOTS of room for more ideas, personal successes, and general sharing. So let’s get some ideas flowing!
Why dryland farming?
So, if for some nasty and unforeseen reason, you were suddenly without irrigation water, could you still grow food? (That's a collective 'you', me included.) I am thinking of places and circumstances where people have no access to conventional irrigation systems, but want or need to grow their own food. I am thinking of situations where suddenly the water is gone, or poisoned, or the system breaks down somehow - maybe the electricity goes out - for a few weeks or months. Could you still grow food to feed
yourself and your family? Do you have access to organic matter to bulk up the water holding capacity of your soil? Do you have the ability to dig swales and other catchment and infiltration earthworks to take advantage of every bit of rain that falls on your property?
And what about the people who actually have to PAY for their irrigation water?!
That’s insane. And many worry about spending so much on water to grow a garden - is it worth it? Not to mention the fact that city
water has so many chemicals in it. Nasty.
My interest in dryland farming comes from the very real possibility of limited access to water. We will always need to eat, but we may not always be able to get the water - from a 'conventional' system - that we need to grow food. So what do we do? My thinking is that we need to at least
be prepared for the possibility.
We have a well on our property. It is a very deep well - I guess they had to go down about 650 feet to hit water. So far, every time we turn on the tap, good clean water comes out. But what if one day it didn't? Or if something got into the water and we couldn't use it? I plan on growing quite a lot of food, so what if our well is unable to keep up with the watering that a 'conventional' garden system would use? We also have tenants, so we need to make sure that they always have access to water.
These are the things that run through my head (and I'm sure, many of your heads) when I think about my garden, and how I want to set it up for resilience. Being able to grow food with the least amount of inputs makes us more resilient
. And not having to rely on a system that can break down is the resilientest (yes, resilientest
particular soil situation is . . . well, we don’t really have any. We have sand and rocks. Big rocks. So we are learning what we need to do to grow here. I went with buried wood
beds, topped with organic material, a bit of sand, and some amendments and clay. It has worked great this first year, but it’s not perfect. There is always room for improvement.
Advantages of growing without irrigation:
Obviously, you’ll conserve water.
For the many who have to pay for water, you will save money.
You’ll save on the electricity bill. We have a well with a pump
, and a pressure tank. So, we’ll save on the electricity bill, as well as saving wear and tear on the pressure tank and pump.
You’ll save money by not having to buy hoses and pipes and drip systems and/or sprinkler systems, not to mention all of the replacement parts year after year.
You won’t have to buy plastic stuff and strew it around your garden!
You’ll save time. Lots of time not spent watering, moving hoses and/or sprinklers, redoing the drip lines every year, or each time you want to hoe or replant (or fixing them, or replacing them!), etc.
Your plants could have deeper, stronger roots
. This will not only help them to get more water from the soil, it will help them get more nutrients. The plants might
also create more root
exudates if they have bigger, stronger roots, which would be a good thing (that’s just speculation; something to look into)
. And it will ALSO help your plants resist flopping over in the wind, if you live in a windy area.
Not irrigating will probably help the soil retain more nutrients because the water won’t be washing it through.
I’ve heard that many veggies that are grown without irrigation - grown with only the rain and the available soil water - have a better, stronger flavor. Potatoes and tomatoes
are ones I’ve heard of that have stronger flavors. I’m looking forward to experiencing that. It would be interesting to know if less water creates a greater concentration of good stuff, too - nutrients and whatnot - because there is less water in the vegetables diluting the nutrients, and the flavour.
What other advantages can you think of?
Setting up the System
I am in the process of setting up some parameters for a non-irrigated market garden experiment for myself, so perhaps others can get some ideas, too. I’ll be putting up a new thread in the Projects forum to document what I’m doing, what’s working, and what isn’t.
I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of dryland farming. The concept of dryland farming must be fairly unknown, ‘cause Spellcheck keeps trying to make it into two words. HA! Kinda irritating, actually. >
I think one important thing to remember when setting up systems like this is that these are long term
systems. They won’t be working their best right off the bat. They will take time to set up, and time to soak up all the water and get really hydrated - they need time to hit their stride and really give the best benefits. I’ve heard that swales and hugelkultur really hit their stride in the third year. That’s not so bad.
The following are just a few things about my particular slice of paradise, and my thinking as I contemplate setting up the dry land
garden. (You can get more details about our land, soil, and garden set-up in the link in my signature, if you’re interested.)
I want an area for ‘staple crops’ - things like corn, quinoa, squash, potatoes, and dried peas and beans, and possibly onions, leeks and garlic. The other garden area is for other things like tomatoes, cukes, lettuces, broccoli, herbs, etc. For things that I harvest every few days, to take to market, and for our own table. The bigger area will be for long term things that are generally harvested in one big bunch. There is another area of land that will eventually be put into production, but it will need a little more work.
The first area I’ll be working on will be approximately an acre
, maybe a bit less. I know some
sort of irrigation will be happening for a while, to get the system going. But the goal is to irrigate less and less, until I don’t need to irrigate at all. I’m hoping that three years from set up I will be growing without irrigation.
The problem with using the buried wood beds topped with organic matter which I have in the market garden area now is that things like corn and quinoa are too tall and heavy, and will probably fall over. It’s just not a strong enough
growing medium to hold them up. The quinoa might
be okay, as I can plant them closer together and they may be able to hold each other up. Potatoes, peas and beans will probably do very well in that set up, as will the onions, leeks and garlic. I might have to find another way of growing corn.
Ideas, ideas, ideas!
Aside from the more 'obvious things' like swales, buried wood beds or hugelkultur, getting organic matter in the soil, and mulching, here are some other little tidbits that I’ve heard/read about that I’ll be keeping in mind as I create my irrigation-less garden. Some of these are from Carol Deppe
’s The Resilient Gardener, some I’ve heard in different videos, read in books
, articles, to other threads, or thoughts that popped up in my own little head
Squash plants can root along their vines, giving the plants more access to ground water. So make sure to leave the ground unmulched under the squash plants. Perhaps have the ground mulched, to retain moisture, and pull the mulch back as the plants spread.
Squash should be direct seeded in the garden. Squash have a tap root that is usually broken/damaged if grown as a transplant. If direct seeded, this taproot will grow normally and help to reach water deep in the soil.
All manner of seeds can be pre-soaked or sprouted before planting, which makes it less necessary to keep the surface of the soil consistently moist to germinate the seed. It will have enough water in itself to sprout and put down roots.
Carol Deppe (Pacific Northwest gardener) always grows potatoes without irrigation, just on the residual moisture in the soil.
Plant a variety of crops, so if some succumb, you have others. Diversity.
Crop rotation - heavy drinkers alternate with light drinkers?
Include animals in the system - lots of benefits.
Creating healthy soil and water catchment in surrounding pasture/field/yard/forest helps the whole farm in general.
Trees and shrubs in surrounding areas.
Pay attention to the weather. Make notes, keep records of past years. This may help to identify trends, and to know when best to plant and harvest different varieties - if you know a spring rain is coming, get the seeds in so they can take advantage of it. First frosts, last frost, first rains, last rains, etc.
Overwintering crops, where applicable.
Staggered planting dates of the same crop.
Plant seeds into a slightly depressed furrow in the garden bed. Often, even a shallow furrow will catch dew, or hold moisture longer.
Use flat stones as mulch.
Experiment with dew collection techniques.
Mulch pathways heavily, instead of growing grass or weeds, or leaving bare earth. Lay down lots of wet cardboard (if you do that sort of thing) to hold water and keep down competing weeds, and cover heavily with wood chips, straw, or some other mulch material.
Make sure garden beds are totally on contour, to take full advantage of the flow of water. And make sure that all swales are level and on contour so they work their best.
Fertilizing before the dry season actually makes the plants less drought resistant. When they take in the new fertility they start to grow, and the faster they grow the more water they need. So if you’re using fertilizer - organic fertilizer, of course - do it during the wet season.
Experiment with different mulches.
Experiment with different plant spacing - intensive spacing vs recommended spacing vs wider spacing.
Buried wood beds or hugelkultur, depending on where you live.
Swales heavily mulched.
Try different varieties of veg, to find the most drought resistant. Or create your own landraces and/or varieties that grow best in your conditions.
Grow as many perennial varieties as possible.
Play around with planting depths of seeds. Plant deeper in sandy soils that dry out faster, shallower in clay soils that are hard for the baby plants to push through, etc.
Plant tomato transplants deeply so they create more roots. Strip off the lower leaves, and plant deep. What other plants can we do this with?
Leave lots of dips and furrows in the tops of the garden beds, don’t rake it perfectly smooth. This will create little dew catchers, and the depressions don't dry out as quickly. It’s true.
Block the wind! Wind sucks moisture right out of the soil.
Direct seeding can be much better for some plants, as they have a tap root which is great for going deep to find water and nutrients. The tap root usually goes deep quickly - sometimes before any leaves appear above ground. They may also be stronger if not irrigated.
Dew ponds, and other atmospheric moisture capture techniques.
Perhaps deep mulches, where there is some summer rainfall or heavy dew, may absorb the moisture, and the moisture might not make it down to the plant roots. Then the moisture evaporates from the mulch and is lost to the plants. That’s where experimenting with different mulches comes in. Straw or weed mulch might let through more moisture/dew/rain than a more matted grass or leaf mulch.
Using sand as mulch might allow summer rainfall and dew to seep down to the soil beneath. How deep? Would the sand absorb so much heat in the sun that it could burn the plants? Might be a site specific technique.
Use early maturing/short season varieties.
Start some earlier than recommended, and some at the recommended time.
Start some early as transplants, some later as direct seeded.
Grow some in spring, some in summer, some in fall/winter, to see when varieties grow best. There might be some varieties that grow better at different times, or can grow in winter/spring better than summer (if you live in a mild climate). The varieties that like more water will be best to grow in early spring when there is more water in the soil after the winter rains. So frost tolerance and drought tolerance are both valuable traits.
Grow things in succession, and work out the best time intervals between seeding to get a continuous crop, instead of growing it all at once. This will be important for winter growing when things don’t grow fast, as well as for continued summer harvests - when things also don’t grow fast during the hot times - of things like broccoli, lettuce, cilantro, parsley, and other greens like mustards and pac choi.
There may be times during the growing season when it is too hot and dry to direct seed, so transplants will have to be used. It will be interesting to see if transplants will establish and grow well during the dry season without supplementary water, or being ‘watered in'.
Grow shallower rooted plants, or plants that grow quickly to harvest, along side tap rooted plants, or plants that have a longer season. Helps keep the soil covered until the larger plants can cover it and you harvest the smaller plants; and the plants don’t compete much. Plus you’re stacking in time and space, which is kind of Star Trekky and cool.
Grow heat sensitive things like lettuces with plants that provide dappled shade. Staked tomatoes and trellised peas, beans, and cucumbers would make good shade for things like lettuces and cilantro.
Experiment with planting in blocks as well as in single rows.
Harvest lettuces and other fast bolting greens as baby leaf through the dry season.
Have good storage capabilities so that veggies are available from storage during the dry or winter season when less is actively growing. Canning, drying, freezing, or root cellaring will probably be necessary.
Drought tolerant or early maturing veggies
(test out different ones to find the best varieties, and the best growing times):
(This is just a starting list. And not all varieties of all of these plants are drought tolerant. We need to find (or create!) the most drought tolerant varieties of these through experiment.)
What else? Do you know of any particular named varieties?
It may be necessary to change the foods we eat if we are wanting to grow all of our food, especially if we want to grow without irrigation.
Potatoes and other root crops can be grown during early spring,and stored through the summer. If we don’t have a cool root cellar we can can potatoes, or even dry them in slices or flakes (dry the potatoes, that is - I don’t know how that would work with other root crops).
And that’s my list so far of possible dryland farming techniques, ideas, and possibilities. I know there are lots
more. And I’m hoping people have examples of things they’ve grown without irrigation, that would be very helpful for others to hear about.
So, let’s hear your ideas, your successes, your plants that grow well without irrigation. And please also include where you live, so people can see what has worked in an area near them.
Thanks for playing!