The Dirt

Looking out across my virgin field these days, I wonder how to have a successful garden in times of drought.

The drought garden: The author’s first harvest was rocks. Photo By Margaret Williams

Never mind that it has rained a fair amount this winter. According to Dr. Jerad Bales of the U.S. Geological Survey, our region needs almost 20 more inches of rain by late May just to get us down to D1—a moderate drought. The odds of getting that much rain in so short a time are less than 20 percent, says Bales, who spoke at RiverLink’s Community Drought Forum last month.

So I gaze at my future garden and think of my grandmother, Gilberta Williams, who passed away a few years ago. She tended a garden on her 3-acre homestead outside Evergreen, Ala. Gilberta grew corn, crookneck squash, tomatoes, collards and butternut squash, among other favorites. I can almost taste the baked creamed corn she made from her garden’s bounty. What I remember best, however, is not the garden itself but her most regular lament.

“Oh, The Weather!” she’d groan, striking a pose of hands on hips and narrowed eyes. The Weather was a living entity, the bane of her gardening efforts, and it was always blowing down her corn, pelting her tender squash with hail or swamping her collards. She would have taken a switch to The Weather, if she could have. Never mind that Gilberta Williams was all of 5 foot 3 (and that’s before osteoporosis in her spine bent and shrunk her by many inches). She’d shake her head and grumble some more about The Weather.

Then next season, she would go at it all over again. The Weather never got the best of her. As Eliot Coleman says in his book Four Season Harvest, “Nothing defeats the determined gardener.”

So now here I stand, hands on hips. Grandmother’s garden was blessed with flatland and a long central-Alabama season. My rocky land lies 3,000 feet higher and hundreds of miles north in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My plot rolls and swells downhill toward Paint Creek. High winds often roar all night long as they rush down from the mountain peaks above. My growing season is much shorter than hers, and many summer nights are cool, so I might cover my hot-pepper crops on occasion to keep them toasty enough to set (a trick that will also help the soil hold moisture). Add the twist that my soil is a bit acid, too (great for the blueberries and rhododendrons I’ll plant later this spring; bad for my favorite vegetables, so I’ll have to lime it).

And the worst of it is, I have to worry about rain and the likely lack thereof. I’m not much for praying or rain dancing, and I can’t muster much enthusiasm for wishing hurricanes would hit the Gulf region just so they could send the leftovers our way. Besides, that usually results in too much rain in too short a time (remember the floods from Hurricane Francis?). So instead, I get scientific.

I scour seed catalogs, noting every variety that claims to be drought-resistant, such as the ‘Illinois Beauty’ tomato, ‘Ruth Bible’ beans or ‘True Platinum’ corn. Short-season vegetables pique my interest, too, since these crops can be timed to avoid the driest, hottest parts of summer. I even took a look at what grows in arid New Mexico and Arizona; but our drought is still wetter than the Southwest’s worst monsoon, so I turn toward heirloom varieties created in the Southern Appalachians, such as ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes or ‘Big Daddy’ yellow corn.

I pore over N.C. Cooperative Extension tips and Mother Earth News archives for drought and gardening tidbits. I read about rain-savers in Mountain Xpress (see The Green Scene, “The Art of Saving Water,” Feb. 13 Xpress). I study the water needs of everything I plan to grow (corn, for example, especially needs water in the silk and tasseling stages, and as ears are forming; tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons and such need it for setting flowers and fruiting).

I make a low-tech, anti-drought project list: Install a rain barrel on one corner of my house; set up a drip-irrigation system; learn about “conservation” tilling that helps preserve soil moisture and nutrients (some folks argue for “no-till” methods such as variations on raised beds or using cover crops all season long). I’ve already determined to grow organically: Enriching my soil will also help conserve water.

Nonetheless, I will also resist The Drought by trying to grow vegetables that love water, doing my best to mulch, irrigate and coddle them along.

I’m also looking at my land for ways to use its natural features to conserve water. The lower half of my field dips and rolls, and one of those depressions might be suitable for a small pond. I’ll be debating whether that’s a feasible project this summer. It will probably be easier to do simple things, like not watering my crops during the heat of the day and satisfying their thirst with a good morning soak instead (lawns and landscaping might do better with night watering, according to a Cooperative Extension handout).

I’ll also adjust my own thinking and habits concerning water use—the hardest task of all for a Southerner who grew up on the ever-wet-and-hot Gulf Coast. But as Benjamin Franklin observed, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

[Freelance writer and former city girl Margaret Williams shares her garden experiments with three big dogs and an equally stoic partner from Texas.]

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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