It’s been about a month now of “too much of a good thing”—clear blue skies with a few puffy little clouds, a gentle or blustery breeze, and no rain to spoil your canoe trip or picnic with friends. While all these sunny days have been great for the seasonal visitors, it’s getting to the point of desperation for the local farmers.
There are plenty of perks to farming sandy soils. During wet times, the excess water drains easily. Combined with rich organic matter, the soils has loft, breathability, and is worked easily. But when things turn dry, sandy soils dry right up with it. One day’s pleasant rain can simply be gone by the next with a beaming sun and a brisk south wind. Without plenty of mulch or good leaf cover, the soil will soon be frightfully dry a LONG ways down.
This is why sand-loving plants and trees develop penetrating tap roots so that dry times are not nearly as stressful for them. But a towering pine tree certainly has more means of surviving a drought without assistance than a little eggplant could ever hope to accomplish. Pathetic, drooping or wilted leaves are sure signs that the sun and the wind are gaining the upper hand in the garden.
It used to be that irrigating the garden wasn’t much of a concern in the Northwoods. Before our trio moved to the farm full-time, Grandma would plant winter squashes and a few other odds and ends in the modest garden behind the farmhouse. The hearty seedlings received only sporadic attention until it was time for harvest. Somehow, they made it through the hot and sometimes dry August stretch on their own.
This was the way of things for the first two years when we began the lengthy task of revitalizing the homestead. Sprinkle a bit with the watering can to get the little plants going, and there was no need to irrigate. It would rain, quite consistently, every third day. The clouds would build up, a gently shower would ensue during the afternoon, and then the leaves would pata-drip with a musical lilt into the evening. Sometimes the rains slipped through during the night, leaving the soil damp, soft, and fragrant by morning.
Then, on the third year, the drought started. Perhaps you didn’t hear about it because it was quite regional and didn’t affect the corn and soy growing regions further downstate. But we felt it here. Eight years of it.
Each year, the drought started earlier. The first year, it really hit in August. The second year, it started in July. By the peak, things were already getting dry in April or May and staying that way. Water tables dropped. Many folks we knew who lived on the lakes nearby had their shallower wells run dry, which meant the inconvenience of having to haul in water and do ones laundry in town. But the thought of having the well run dry at the farm, with all the needs for the animals, was a terrifying and very present thought.
Eight years of drought trains you well, as a sustainably-minded farmer. Soon we had a fleet of rain barrels under each eave, to catch what little bit of rain did fall. We knew that irrigating the garden to keep the crops alive and producing was imperative, but we wanted to be as responsible about it as possible.
Instead of relying on our well, which was already held in demand for the animals and personal needs, we added a sand point near the garden that draws water from a higher table that is part of the wetlands bordering the east end of the farm. While this water is not suitable for drinking, it is actually much better for the garden than well water. Nutrient rich and not as cold, the water from the sand point has proved an extremely important part of the garden’s success.
Overhead sprinklers that shoot sprays of water across the garden are fraught with sustainability problems. Most of the blue gold is lost to evaporation before it even gets to the grounds, and more is lost from evaporating off the plant surfaces that it coats. Too much watering on leaves that are then stressed by bright sun at the same time leads to mildew infestations, tip burn, and other health problems for plants. If plants begin to suffer from these ailments, they are more susceptible to attacks by insects or funguses. In effect, top watering can cause more harm than good for your garden.
The best place to put irrigation water during hot, dry, windy periods is right where the plants need it—in the ground, just under the surface. We were able to do this by burying lines of soaker hose irrigation (a product made from recycled tires); a somewhat awkward assembly of pressure reducer, anti-backflow valve, water filter, and hose Ts; and a Medusa-esque array of garden hoses. With two lengths of soaker hose in each wide raised bed, we can move the irrigation system around within the garden to water specific rows as needed. Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, or zucchinis (which require a higher use of water in order to produce crop) can receive more frequent irrigation attention than slower-forming carrots or onions.
But even with the most sustainably-oriented irrigation system, nothing compares to a good, steady, soaker of a rainy day. We need such a day now—or two or three or four. Just tonight, as I was digging potatoes, the soil just crumbled into dust, some of it blowing away in the wind. The pasture is hard—baked dry by the sun—and the grass refuses to grow. No grass means we’re scrambling to find places for the sheep to graze. And no grass also means likely no second-crop hay to help us get through the winter for feeding the sheep. With everyone else in the area also feeling the effects of the dry weather, there won’t be much hay to purchase from other folks either.
While the long-range forecast for this week is hardly hopeful, I am still wishing for rain—for our farm, for the forest, for the lakes, for the water table, for us all. What are your most memorable rain stories? What are the dry stories? Take some time to share them with someone this week. Either way, it can be too much of a good thing…or not enough. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com