Friday, July 22, 2011

Dry-Farming: Why It Works

Time for another update on our Dry-Farming experiment here at Weksny Acres.  (You can find a more detailed look at our dry-farming technique here, and our introductory results on tomatoes here.)

This morning as I sit here at my desk, looking out over our green garden and seeing red tomatoes and crops that need harvesting, I decided it was time to examine this concept of dry-farming more.

Why does it work?  It works because even though the top 4 or 5 inches of your garden soil is "bone dry", there is still a lot of moisture trapped under the surface.  Your plants just have to reach that water before they dry and shrivel up.

Before I get into how this works, I need to say something about how the average gardener waters their crops.  How many of you stand out at your garden with a hose and water?  (I have.)  We spray the water over the ground until it's good and wet then move on to the next part.  Sound familiar?  What is actually happening is we are just adding moisture to the top few inches of the soil.  It takes over an inch of water to really add moisture content to the soil down deep where the plants need it.  The result is that our garden plants grow shallow root systems to take in the water we are giving it.  The plants become dependent on us, and do not grow naturally.  By resisting the urge to water our gardens every day, we are forcing the plants to send their roots deeper into the soil, to the place where there is moisture and an abundant supply of minerals that every plant needs.

If you need proof of this, dig up some weeds that have been growing in the corner of your patch.  Have you noticed how hard they are to uproot?  How long their roots tend to be?  The weed knows that it's survival depends on finding water, so it goes deep to where the water is.  The results that we see are weeds that look healthy, green and growing, while our prize tomato plants just a few feet away are looking parched and dry.  The next time you are out walking around your garden on a hot, dry afternoon, compare the weeds to the crops so you can see firsthand.

If you are living in a region of the country where drought conditions seem to be the norm anymore rather than the exception, this old way of farming may be for you.  Here are some ideas to consider when you look at dry-farming:

Not all vegetables or varieties grow well dry-farmed.  A lot of what I am doing with the gardens this year is experimental with an eye towards what we'll grow next year.  I've planted multiple varieties of the different vegetables we're growing, just to see which grows best and gives the most fruit under these conditions.  (While on the subject of vegetable varieties, I cannot stress enough that you use an open-pollinating or heritage seed if for no other reason than the fact that you want to harvest the best fruit off of the best plant for your seeds for next year, which can't be done with hybrid seed. Like us humans, plants have their own gene mix, and you want to use seed from the plant that excelled in the hot, rainless summer.  These are the seeds that will be prone to perform, giving you your best chance for success next year.)

Letting your land rest for a growing season, while hard for those of us who have only a small amount of land to work, is very important to the dry-farmer.  By letting the land rest, or "lay fallow", you are allowing the soil to rejuvenate itself, and also retain and build up its moisture level. After heavy cropping, if not allowed to rest, the soil can become so depleted of water and nutrients that the land becomes its own little dust bowl. Combine that with severe drought conditions, and all life in the soil dies.  It will take years to bring that soil back to being a healthy, life-sustaining soil.

Mulching is so very important to the dry-farmer.  There are two ways for you to mulch.  Probably the better known way is to cover your soil with organic matter, such as leaves, grass clipping etc.  This method of mulching is good for trapping moisture underneath the mulch blanket, as well as retaining moisture in the soil.  You will still have to weed, but only the strongest weeds will be able to push their way up through the mulch.
The second method of mulching is dust-mulching.  I, for one, had never heard of this until I started researching this year.  In its simplest terms, dust-mulching is nothing more than taking a hoe or some other implement and breaking only the surface of the soil.  You don't want to go deep.  You are introducing air into the soil, trapping it, and using it's cooling effect.   But the real result of this hot dusty work is that it actually helps the soil retain its moisture below the surface of the soil.  When you are doing this hoeing, you are also removing weeds that are growing in the plot, keeping them from stealing the moisture from the soil.  It does work.  My wife and I finished weeding a plot that we have been dust-mulching.  It can best be descried as sandy loam soil.  We are in the middle of a heat wave right now and haven't had any rain in over a week. While I was on my knees (on ground so hot it burned through my jeans) I dug down to pull up a root ball and my hands hit moist, cool soil about 4 to 5 inches down.  Just to give you an idea of the current conditions, it is 99 degrees outside in the shade and we have had 0.01 inches of rain in the last 7 days here on the farm. I had my wife take some pictures to try to help demonstrate what we are talking about here.

That is the surface of our plot. See how dry, hot and dusty it looks?

This is one shovel-full below the surface. Notice the moisture-laden soil that was turned up. We have not watered this area at all this summer.

I'll say it again...this method of farming and gardening does work.

If you are suffering from hot, dry summers where all you can do is water your garden and hope to keep it alive, this centuries-old way of farming and gardening might just be for you. I hope that I explained it well enough from this small-farmer's perspective.  If you want more information or have a question about this or anything else garden or small-farm related, let me know and we'll explore it together.

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