Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Drought Watch 2012
What still no rain?

Prickly gooseberry dried on the bush in the woods.

I suppose this is where the city and the rural diverge, at least at the moment as those in the city are being encouraged to water to prevent a fire hazard where many of us in the country can't. Though I know that city folk have been seeing the signs from ponds and creeks turned into mud holes or mud cracks, box store landscaping dead and the great swathes of dead looking grasses and crispy shrubbery.

Some of you may have had rain over the weekend or yesterday which is AWESOME. We were not one of them though the sky teased and taunted us the entire day with heavy, grey clouds and rumbling thunder. Unfortunately, the two week forecast looks dismally pleasant if you were planning a beach holiday someplace with normal tide lines. I wouldn't go camping: forest fires.

In fact, fire is becoming a serious worry of mine when I look at the state of our forest at the top of the hill. I honestly ache for the trees. Thankfully the graceful giants directly around our house are still looking alive.

All that to say, this blog is officially on drought watch until further notice.

What is drought? 

Simplest definition? A drought is insufficient water in the water cycle. Need more? Okay. So a lack of precipitation possibly combined with high levels of evaporation and lower than normal surface flows cause insufficiency of soil moisture and the eventual depletion of larger water reserves such as major river systems and groundwater. Doughting-out is a top down process. First you turn of the cloud taps which dries out everything else. Its reversal is also top down. Bring down the rain (or snow/hail/sleet) and soil moisture will return to normal, seeping into groundwater and rivers systems. Hurray!

According to the Ottawa Gatineau Watershed Atlas, there are three kinds of drought that are interrelated and can follow each other. When precipitation falls below 75% of normal, it is a Hydrological Drought (they don't mention the period of time required). This combined with a lack of surface flow can lead to a lack of moisture in the top one metre of soil - the root zone of crops, i.e., an Agricultural Drought. A Hydrological Drought is when major surface systems and groundwater are aversely effected.

Ontario's Low Water Response further defines this into levels of drought intensity roughly equating to Level 1 - hmmm, this doesn't look good - moving on to Level II - oh, yeah, the writings on the wall - and Level III - help! More officially, when you get to Level III drought, water supply does not meet demand "...resulting in progressively more severe and widespread socioeconomic effects."

At the moment, they use above ground measurements - precipitation and surface water flow to determine if we are in a drought rather than merely looking at crunchy leaves and fish flopping in a few inches of water. According to the above linked 2010 document, they are working on measurements for groundwater.

So, a Level I drought is when the 3 month precipitation or 18 month levels drop below 80% of average. Or if the river flow levels drops below the lowest average summer flow for a month in the spring or below 70% at any other time. "Hmmm... I think we have a problem."

If a further 2-3 week period (depends on demand) of very little rain - less than 7.6mm - follows, you have entered Level II. Alternatively, if the following three months or 18 month period of precipitation remains between 40% and 60% of average or if surface water flow drops between 50% and 70% during spring or between 30% to 50% below lowest average summer levels at any other time of year you have entered Level II. "The writings on the wall."

"Help!" is defined as continued levels below 40% of normal of precipitation or continued surface water flows below the level II percents. Confused yet?

I'll tell you my observations.

A small tree with leaves curled and dry though still green. Some birches are changing colour early but trees like young maples are just dying. I'm hoping some are just going dormant like the grass.

Pre-level I: Gee, it's kinda dry this year. We haven't had rain for like 2 weeks. I've had to water to establish seedlings.

Level I: The lower forest isn't muddy at all. Strange. And that grass is playing dead. If I don't water, my peppers are going to curl up their roots and die. No bonfires here.

Level II: O.M.G. If the trees in the rocky outcrops aren't dead, they're doing a good job pretending. Woah, the ground covers - both  in the forest and in the garden - are fried. I better just concentrate on saving things in the garden that I can't replace. And keep my nose on smoke alert. Didn't that creek used to have water?

Level III: I'll let you know when I experience it.

Whose experiencing drought?

The trees, the animals, the... okay so here is a map of Southern Ontario last updated July 12, 2012.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Dry peas for seed storing

Bowl full of dry peas for seed saving

In my usual highly organized way, I was walking by a pea patch and noticed that it was ready to be harvested for dry peas. In fact, some of the pods had shattered so in order not to lose any more, I hastily started stuffing them into my shirt. This got me thinking about other pea patches so I went to those too and added to them to my shirt basket. After all, I'll be able to tell them apart right. Right? Actually, the varieties I grabbed are pretty easy to identify but I don't recommend this as good seed saving technique.

Three pods: top to bottom: golden podded (originally from Cottage Gardener), arbogast (originally from Extreme Gardener) and purple podded (originally from Bifucated Carrot

Good seed saving technique begins when you notice a plant, or better yet several plants, growing exceptionally well in the way you want it to. Either it has disease resistance, high productivity in difficult weather, pest resistance, an interesting pod, leaf characteristic or growth pattern. You would mark that plant with a piece of coloured string, for example, and say, "I will not pick these. These will be my mother plants."

The peas within: Golden Podded, Purple Podded Soup and Arbogast (one has some feeding damage at the end).

Then you will watch nervously hoping that nothing happens to your plant(s). When the peas are fully ripe and dry - easy to accomplish in this weather - you will gather them. Most years, because we have that thing called rain, I have to hedge my bets and pick when fully ripe and mostly dry but before the seeds germinate inside the pods or otherwise get ruined. You can pick them while still leathery but ripe to dry someplace before shelling. Just make sure they are hard as a pebble dry before storing in something air tight. I often store my peas in paper envelopes in order to help prevent rotting. Some people add desiccants to their seed storing containers. If I am going to store for more than a year, I usually transfer them to a glass jar at some point. Of course, the rule is cool and dry for seed storing. Did I mention dry?

Rouge out any seeds or pods that look diseased or eaten. Carefully check pea seeds for little holes that might indicate an insect interloper.

Interesting variation in my purple podded soup peas: the peas at the top have purple coloration as well.

The non-model gardener way (my way usually) is to note a particularly nice plant or patch of plants such as the yummy Blonde* pea with its luscious pods or that Petite Pois (I think) that was growing in a horrible part of the garden so well then say to myself "I must remember to leave some of those to grow on." Hopefully the children don't entirely raid them before I can communicate my intent.... like with the Petite Pois though I did manage to salvage sufficient planting material. Then I neglect them for awhile until I notice that I really should collect them.

Labelling is super important of course. I usually write not only the name of the plant but also pertinent growing information such as "was prolific in dry weather" or "very early" followed by the year I collected them. This is one thing I am becoming MUCH better at as I am tired of renaming my seeds 'mystery XYZ.'

Now, if you want to get fancy, you can do some pea breeding and experience a little Mendelian joy. A science project for the kids assuming they have long concentration spans. Here is a blog by pea breeder and organized person Rebsie: Daughter of the Soil. She's also into TPS (True Potato Seed - go ahead, throw that acronym around at parties) and more.

Another - Andrew's Blog - plant manipulator.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bringing in the Garlic

This year, I decided to squish leek moth but not harvest early to see how much, if any, damage was done to the cloves. The plants were dying back so I dug them up.

A palmful of garlic goodness

About a third of the plants were entirely dry and yellow - keep in mind we are in a now Level II drought so I've noticed things maturing faster than usual. The rest were dying back.

My beds were dotted with grassy weeds tossed onto the sides during harvesting as you can see here.

A couple plants escaped having their would be reproductive heads - scapes - ripped off. This can lead to smaller bulbs as the plant diverts energy to bulbil production. In this case, there was a marked difference but this is not a year of plenty.

Scapes full of little bitty bulbils or mini cloves. You can use these to start a whole colony of garlics if you wish. 

The bulbs were given a gentle rub to remove dirt before their stems and roots were trimmed. These are hard necks so I don't braid them. You can still get fancy with them but I haven't bothered.

Hard working kids.

There were two plots nearby each other. The first were garlic that was in its second year of adaption here. What varieties these were is lost in time as they came from my old garden but I seem to have a preference for those with a red hue to their skins.

Garlic variety: mystery mixed.

The second garlic patch was in its first year of adaption, ie. I bought the bulbs last summer.

Garlic varieties: Music - big white ones and um? well... more mystery mixed!

One side of the patch had a lot of damage that I've never seen before. It doesn't seem to come down from the scape as I imagine leek moth would but from the outside. Not sure what it is.

Something's been sampling the garlic.

So now we can go back to using the heavy stuff - garlic cloves - for cooking after a month or so of subsisting on garlic scapes - by no means a hardship. Some of these previous bulbs will have to be put aside for planting. I like to put about sixty cloves in the ground so that'd be about twelve. Normally, the advice is to plant the biggest cloves from the best bulbs. These are planted in the fall. For more on how to grow garlic, see Paul Pospisil's article from Boundary Garlic Farm.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dryland Gardening - Ottawa Style

My so-called lawn right now after two months in a level 1 drought

So we have had no significant rain for months. This is atypical for the normal slightly soggy Ottawa. I don't irrigate, partly on principle and partly because in my nearly three acre clearing, it wouldn't be easy. I also don't have a high producing well or the desire to drain it so I rely on rain, the odd watering can filled from rain barrels (or in desperation the well) and mulch.

My pumpkins are me-e-e-e-e-e-e-lting: planted in a hasty bed - sod cut out to form a path then tossed on top of some compost over the middle or bed part of the sod. No weeding, just raking smoothish and then planted with pumpkin seeds. I've had to haul a watering can here over the last few days. 


It acts as a barrier between the sun and the soil. This helps maintain soil moisture and prevents weed seeds from breaking dormancy and cover the soil for you in the symbiotic dance of the soil and plant. In other words, bare soil is vulnerable so, given the right conditions, when soil is disturbed, its seed bank will burst into life and cover the cut.

On the left of this photo, grass mulch and on the right, wood mulch path.  It helps that california poppy is also a drought resistant reseeding annual.

Organic mulch will break down over time improving the soil's texture and ability to retain moisture as well as adding food to the soil ecosystem. Organic mulching is like sheet composting so you should be aware that dry matter like wood chips and straw are high in carbon versus grass clippings that are higher in nitrogen(1). Though I've never experienced this, if you heavily mulch with carbon rich stuff, it is possible to suffer nitrogen deficiency so some people suggest amending with a nitrogen rich source such as blood meal (or pee). I've also used well rotted bagged composted as mulch around my heavy feeding plants when in the city with excellent results.

I had some of this so-called black corn plastic (it's supposed to break down - sure) left so I mulched between my tomato rows with grass clippings at the seams. It eliminates weeding isn't pretty. I really need some straw but after reading this, I'm looking for a good source. 

Inorganic mulches such as stone will also help cover the ground though won't break down (fast at any rate) which has a plus of having to renew less often and the negative of not contributing to soil fertility and tilth. I also have been known to use plastic mulches such as clear for soil warming and black for weed exclusion. Both will retain soil moisture but apply carefully by forming shallow indents around your plants and seal the slits with sand to help funnel overhead water to the root zone. Some people put irrigation tubing under the plastic.

Brussel sprouts mulched with leaves and bark. Despite the fact that my broccoli plants have been desiccated this year by earwigs (which hide out under wood), they have left these alone? They don't like to eat in their bedroom?

Plants can also act as living mulch(2). Either by close spacing and successive thinning or interplanting. Low water levels may mean that the mulch plants over competes with your main crop.  In more permanent plantings, living ground covers can protect the soil. If the plant is vigorous enough - like comfrey - it can be used as a chop and drop mulch right there or in another part of the garden.

"What drought?" say large rooted horseradish and asparagus. 

In my country paradise, it is not as easy to come by materials as the city where it was commonly bagged and left on the curb side so I am left to experiment with more ideas. Green manures or cover crops which are often grown to improve the soil such as winter peas, rye and buckwheat can be sown and then cut at a the right stage so that you can plant into them(3). I've always used volunteer 'weeds' as mulch by pulling them young and laying them back on the bed. Only a few of them will reroot - yellow dock tries hard - or seed - purslane - despite being pulled. Works best when done on a dry day.

There is a lot of woody debris lying around so I use variations on hugelkultur especially in paths to act as sponges between beds to absorb and emit water.

Land Contouring

Garden planning is partly about flow of air(4), sun, and water. When it comes to limiting water loss in dry weather, you can change the shape of your land to get water to flow where you want it too. This helps direct excess water away too if required. Terracing is an old technique to limit erosion and water loss on hills. Our clearing is on a slight slope, so I've been digging paths along the contours and then filling them with woody debris to help slow down water. I also plan on putting some storage ponds at the bottoms of the gardens. Though this year, like the natural pools in the woods, they'd be drying out by now.

Raised beds built along contours with woody debris infilling paths. Beans on left and plastic mulched sweet potatoes on right.

I work with a lot of raised beds as most years with normal rain fall and sun, they help the snow melt faster, the ground is quicker to work and the dirt heats up faster meaning better harvests. However, you can invert this and dig little trenches for crops that need more moisture and cooler temps. I normally use this technique with leeks as I expect the trench to naturally hill up as at the sides slide down but it also helps retain moisture.

If you want to prevent the ground from drying out too quickly, a wind break either solid like a fence, temporary like a thick planting of sunflowers or permanent like a hedgerow can help especially if it blocks the prevailing winds. We have a large, outcropping sited more or less on the north side of our property and trees entirely surrounding our clearing so I find that frosts hit just a little later here than the surrounding fields. There is also substantially less biting wind.

Here birch and raspberry are growing on thin soil near an outcropping. You can see that the raspberry canes are drying up and the leaves are dropping from the tree prematurely. 

Water Capture

Nearly empty rain barrels.

Timing your sowing and transplanting so that they correspond with the times of high soil moisture such as after the snow melt or rain (where are you rain?) is much easier and crucial in some areas that get seasonal droughts but when you have to irrigate, think water capture.

Firstly, you can recycle the water you use. Don't throw out your cooking or bath water but rig up a way of sending it to a storage spot or hose. It could be as simple as lugging buckets or as complicated as a series of grey water ponds for filtration. There are often regulations on the use of certain recycled water so read up on what they are for your area.

Here's something I put used water in. Someone left it on the curb side. I also use these large water bottles to make mini greenhouses.

Setting up a series of rain barrels at your downspouts can be an easy way to supplement your water. Your roof type will affect the residue in this water(5) and in urban areas, you may be given dirty looks if you don't cover them because they can be mosquito breeding grounds. P.S. in my urban home, I had a small pond occupied with larvae eating goldfish despite what that pet store person said about goldfish not being interested in invertebrate babies. My fish didn't seem aware of this dietary restriction.

In dry areas, some people would keep their water from being wicked up by the sun as soon as it was sprinkled down by devising slow watering devices such as an olla - essentially a buried, porous ceramic pot. You could be creative and make them out of ceramic pots though I've seen people use pop bottles too.

Plant Selection and Spacing

Blanket flowers is a classic xeriscape perennial. 

The only time the garden bed needs to be constantly moist is if you have a bog garden or if you are trying to germinate seeds; otherwise, it is wise to go awhile between deep waterings to encourage your plants to develop deeper, strong root systems. Letting some plants like pumpkins and tomatoes sprawl allows them to root along stem nodes where they touch the ground.

The peppers are loving this heat. These are mulched as they would start to droop with too much moisture stress.

Spacing them further apart will also for less competition for scarce resources. Also, take advantage of shade. Bet you don't hear that too often in regards to edible gardening? A partly shaded garden will work well for many greens and some root crops(6). You can get shade cloth for obvious reasons or floating row cover which helps hold in some moisture too.

And lastly, go for drought tolerant plants. Of course, you've probably heard of xeriscape gardening which is great for decorative beds. There are edibles that do well in drier conditions too(7) and lastly there are cultivars of beloved favourites that will beat the heat and dry better than there brothers and sisters. I find that indeed, edible golden podded pea, does better in the drought than some others.

I've left the weedy amaranth in the rows as a supply of heat tolerant greens. The earwigs ate the prettier red splashed one that I seeded. Here melons and peppers are thriving.

Now let's all go outside and watch the skies. It's bound to rain one of these days!

Do you know a lot about gardening in drought? Please share your tips.

(1) For more on composting, check out related post: Waste Not, Want Not - the Story of Crumbs - Part II
(2) The above link deals with white clover. The advantage of nitrogen fixers of course is that they make nitrogen available for other plants and aren't heavy feeders themselves so compete less with your crop plant. I've commonly heard of the mint family as being used this way such as mints or oregano. If you have grown mint, you'll understand that how it could be a good ground smother. Other plants work as different nutrient accumulators.
(3) They are commonly incorporated into the soil but I want to take advantage of their mulching capacity.
(4) Because cold air is heavier and sinks into lower spots, this means that you should be careful not to place certain gardens in hollows because they are more likely to experience first and last frosts at the end of the growing season.
(5) See here for a discussion. I haven't had time to look into it with detail though some metal roofs are commonly used for water collection.
(6) Related Post, Vegetables for Shade
(7) Related blog post on Drought Tolerant Edibles Plants for the North