Water-Wise Gardening Year-Round
Early Spring: The Easiest Unwatered Garden
West of the Cascades, most crops started in February and March require no special handling when irrigation is scarce. These include peas, early lettuce, radishes, kohlrabi, early broccoli, and so forth. However, some of these vegetables are harvested as late as June, so to reduce their need for irrigation, space them wider than usual. Spring vegetables also will exhaust most of the moisture from the soil before maturing, making succession planting impossible without first irrigating heavily. Early spring plantings are best allocated one of two places in the garden plan: either in that part of the garden that will be fully irrigated all summer or in a part of a big garden that can affordably remain bare during the summer and be used in October for receiving transplants of overwintering crops. The garden plan and discussion in Chapter 6 illustrate these ideas in detail.
Later in Spring: Sprouting Seeds Without Watering
For the first years that I experimented with dry gardening I went overboard and attempted to grow food as though I had no running water at all. The greatest difficulty caused by this self-imposed handicap was sowing small-seeded species after the season warmed up.
Sprouting what we in the seed business call “big seed”—corn, beans, peas, squash, cucumber, and melon—is relatively easy without irrigation because these crops are planted deeply, where soil moisture still resides long after the surface has dried out. And even if it is so late in the season that the surface has become very dry, a wide, shallow ditch made with a shovel will expose moist soil several inches down. A furrow can be cut in the bottom of that damp “valley” and big seeds germinated with little or no watering.
Tillage breaks capillary connections until the fluffy soil resettles. This interruption is useful for preventing moisture loss in summer, but the same phenomenon makes the surface dry out in a flash. In recently tilled earth, successfully sprouting small seeds in warm weather is dicey without frequent watering.
With a bit of forethought, the water-wise gardener can easily reestablish capillarity below sprouting seeds so that moisture held deeper in the soil rises to replace that lost from surface layers, reducing or eliminating the need for watering. The principle here can be easily demonstrated. In fact, there probably isn’t any gardener who has not seen the phenomenon at work without realizing it. Every gardener has tilled the soil, gone out the next morning, and noticed that his or her compacted footprints were moist while the rest of the earth was dry and fluffy. Foot pressure restored capillarity, and during the night, fresh moisture replaced what had evaporated.