Water Wise: Gardening in times of heat, drought and smoke
It is no secret the heat is on; conditions are drier and it affects us all. Some of my top tips for gardening through hot, smoky summers are as follows:
1. Mulch, mulch, mulch. It may seem like old news, and it is. Mulch helps soil retain moisture, stay cool and eventually breaks down to add organic material to the soil. Last year we spread 30 bales of organic rice straw over our 2 acres of seed gardens then planted through the mulch. (That is me transplanting corn above) We left the drip tape on top of the straw to help hold it in place and to have a visual on possible leaks. You can also place your drip irrigation or soaker hoses under the mulch to retain even more water.
2. Garden in the shoulder seasons. Fall and spring are usually cooler and moister. Jumpstart your season in Late January or early February by starting seeds indoors and transplanting as soon as possible for frost tolerant plants. For your summer garden varieties the idea is to harvest your crops before the hottest, driest and now smokiest part of the summer sets in, usually August. For example, when looking for tomato or corn varieties, choose varieties that mature in 70-80 days vs 90-100. What we call a 'winter garden' can be started in August with direct sowing under row cover and seedlings started in the shade for September or October transplanting.
4. Go no till or low till. Yearly tillage to loosen soil and remove weeds also destroys soil structure and kills worms. We have transitioned half of our growing space to no till using old bill board tarps. We mow or weed eat old crops then place tarps on the soil for 4-6 weeks at a time and when they are lifted off the area is weed free and ready to plant. The tarps combined with permanent mulch work wonders for soil health. Low till means setting your tiller at the most shallow setting to only scratch the surface of your soil and disturb weed roots.
5. Provide shade for sensitive crops like peppers, cucumbers and even tomatoes. Invest in shade cloth that can be hung over your garden space on posts. This can bring down the temps enough to help with fruit set since heat over about 90 F will kill pollen. This is why tomatoes will have a hard time setting in that middle of the summer. You can also work with your space and place plants to receive afternoon shade from a tree or house. Another method is to plant your peppers and cucumbers on the east side of pole beans or corn to receive afternoon shade.
6. Focus your water at the right time and quantity. Plants generally need more water to get established and during fruiting. Watering in the early morning or evening can avoid daytime evaporation. If your soil is covered with mulch get in there and feel it. If it is moist don't water. By watering deeply, less often, roots are encouraged to dive deep.
7. Recycle water from household uses. This could be as simple as a bucket in the shower to catch water when you wash to a grey water system or rain water catchment from your roof.
8. Use floating row cover to start your garden extra early, protect frost sensitive plants and to conserve moisture. We use this in August and September to direct seed fall crops. The row cover is laid directly on the ground over the area directly sown and helps to keep the soil moister during germination. I also use it with new transplants in the spring and early summer to stop birds eating them and to keep them moist.