Gardening in the Weather You are Given
Gardening in the Weather You are Given
The vines early in the season.

Gardening in the Weather You are Given

by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA

Gardening

Seeding rows of adequately spaced seeds that all come up with no skips. Perfectly worked soil with just the right blend of clay, loam, and sand. Plenty of humus and organic matter. Perfect weather, raining an inch once a week for the whole season creating optimal growing conditions. A dream, temporal fantasy, or Heaven but never yet my reality.

Every year finds some new unexpected battle with the elements. Seems like if I lay drip tape as I plant my rows then I am in for a wet year that needs no irrigation. If my memory is still smarting from last years’ wet summer and I plant my rows in hills, seems like the weather takes its cue to be dry. There’s wind storms and hail, rain in sheets and scorching heat. It can all happen and I don’t know when.

In the meantime, we take what we get, cope with the weather extremes as best we can and are grateful for the crops we have. Although there is little we can do about the weather, we are not entirely helpless when contending with it. There are things we can do to help protect our garden.

Drought

Before I delve into the woes and symptomatic treatment of dry weather, it is not without a couple of benefits. One is fewer weeds; they need moisture to sprout as well. When hand weeding, hoeing or cultivating, the uprooted weeds do not have time or moisture enough to reroot, so controlling the weed pressure is much easier. With dry weather there is also typically fewer fungal diseases to contend with.

Dry weather is also great for bees. As long as plants are able to bloom, bees are able to work uninhibited in dry weather when there is no rain to wash the nectar out of the flowers.

Mulch

Mulching is a great way to hold moisture in. It’s a thick, relatively dry layer that buffers the soil beneath from the moisture-pulling sun above. The mulch also shades the ground and draws moisture closer to the surface where the plant roots can reach it.

In extremely dry conditions, when the mulch has done all it can and it’s still not enough, it can actually become a hindrance. In those passing pop-up midsummer showers that drop only a couple tenths of an inch, this small amount of rain that could possibly benefit your plants, may never actually make it through the mulch.

Gardening in the Weather You are Given
The vines late in the season.

Irrigation

Carrying buckets of water gets old fast. But in a bind, I’ve done the greater part of a day’s 10,000 steps with two water buckets in my hands. Since then, I have decided that soaker hoses and/or drip tape are my friends. Really good friends.

Soaker hoses (a length of hose with holes in it) are usually moved from one row to the next. Khoke made his own soaker hose last year. He took a 30 ft length of old hose, cinched off one end and then drilled a small hole every six inches down the hose. We would move this from one row to the next.

Drip tape can be moved as well but it is usually laid beside the row it is supporting and left there for the season. You can have 45 rows of drip tape stretching the length of the garden and connected to a pipe at one end. You need enough water pressure to accomplish this but not so much as to damage the drip tape. My dad always had to put a pressure regulator on his pipe because his water pressure was too high.

It can be a temptation to turn the soaker hoses or drip tape on and leave it go overnight. There may be times when this is necessary but it isn’t a good idea to do this regularly. I knew a man who devotedly followed organic methods in all his farming. He had a big greenhouse full of tomato plants grown to sell at a Farmers Market. He produced big, beautiful, tasteless tomatoes. Part of his problem was he ran too much water to them at a time and it leached all his hard earned, compost-created nutrients away. He would have been better off running water to them for 2-3 hours a couple times a week. This would have sufficiently watered the plants without washing the minerals down below root depth.

This past year we moved our garden for a season to let our regular garden rest and to help break the established cycle of unwanted insects. This new garden site had no stand pipe to offer irrigation water. So, when it began to get dry, I carried buckets of water from a creek about 300 yards from the garden. This got old fast as the dry weather persisted and then the creek dried up. Now my water source was by my house and twice as far away. That lasted for about 2 trips.

So, Khoke pulled several coils of water hose out of the shed to connect enough length to reach the pond in the pasture above the garden and siphoned water down from the pond for the garden. The water that we siphoned did not have much pressure but it ran to the garden and that was beautiful enough.

Although I did bucket and carry some of this water, I let most of the water run into some informal canals to irrigate the garden. One corner of the garden pulled up to just a smidge of a slope and it was to this corner we laid the hose. From there I took my garden hoe and made shallow trenches, just about as deep as I would expect to plant beans in. I dragged my hoe along the upper side of the row all the way down the length of it, as near to the plants as I dared without damaging their roots. Then I laid the hose at the upper end of the row and let the stream slowly makes its way down the peppers, between a double row of green beans and on to where the late season lettuce began. It took a good couple of hours for it to travel that 200 ft row as the thirsty ground drank the water on its way to the other end. Then I moved the hose to another row where the cabbages and eggplant were waiting.

Running my hoe through the ground was just to guide the water to where I wanted it to go. It also encouraged the water to soak in by giving it a couple inch head start from the surface. Laying the hose unchanneled on top of the ground will soak large surfaces of soil indiscriminately. The rows and aisles alike will get a soaking. But the shallow trenches guide the water exactly where I want it instead of waking the weed seed that is hoping to sprout in my aisles.

My father would often use a sprinkler. It was easy to move and set up. However, it too will soak a large area indiscriminately. Another downside of using a sprinkler is when you have that layer of water on leaves under the scrutiny of the hot midday sun, these leaves will sometimes sunburn. Be careful when watering in the heat of the day to try to avoid getting the leaves wet. Dripping wet leaves and soil in the evening can promote fungal diseases. Dad would try to only use the sprinkler in the early morning or early evening.

If I am planting in dry weather, I will dig my holes a little deeper than normal and won’t fill it all the way in. The dished, unfilled, hole will catch and hold water better. But I don’t want that hole dished like that if I get too big of a rainstorm rolling in. Once the plants become established (and taller) the hole can be filled in as I am hoeing.

Hoeing/Cultivating

My maternal grandfather was born during the Great Depression as the youngest child of 13. He farmed his whole life and depended on the farm to provide for not only the family he was raised in but also the one he would have. One year as a young man, his area was in the throes of a terrible drought from which everyone suffered equally. People watched the leaves on the corn curl tighter and tighter.

Through this drought my grandfather faithfully cultivated his corn every week, driving his horses right through the ridicule from his neighbors.

“Why cultivate? It’s too dry to grow weeds. ”

“You’re just wasting whatever moisture is in the ground by churning that soil.” But at the end of the season, he was the only one with a crop. Why?

People think of cultivating and/or hoeing as a means to reduce or eliminate weed pressure. This is true. But this is not the only thing cultivating/ hoeing does. Both do churn or loosen the soil. This loose soil covering the settled earth, acts as a dirt mulch. It shades the ground and breaks the syphoning away of moisture. Hard packed ground acts as a wick that syphons the moisture from the soil as the sun bakes it. Loose crumbly surface soil shades the earth beneath it and interrupts the syphon. Then the moisture that lays beneath the surface is accessible to the roots.

With this in mind, I like to hoe and/or cultivate my garden after it dries out enough to do so on the other side of a rainstorm. I don’t know when it will rain again so I save the moisture when I can. Most measurable amounts of rain will dissolve the crumbly loose dirt and mat it again. Should the rains delay and I fail to loosen the soil, the matted dirt will crack and dry too deeply, dehydrating my plants quicker than necessary.

Drought Stressed Plants

I try not to wait too long to rescue my plants from drought stress. They can become stunted or permanently damaged. I plant everything in my garden on purpose. I want it to do well and thrive and I am counting on it. I don’t buy watermelons; I eat the ones I raise. If my crop fails, then I will wait until next year to eat watermelon. So, it really matters to me that they do well! This is true for all my garden. Severely drought stressed plants can go into dormancy. Often biennials will bloom in the same season they were planted because they went into and came out of this drought-induced dormancy. I have seen carrots in particular do this. A heavy soaking rain snaps them out of this dormancy, now they think it’s time to set seed.

Besides the obvious signs of stunting from not enough water in drought stress, water also helps with the uptake of nutrients. So, even if there isn’t an actual mineral deficiency, it can look like it because there isn’t enough water to vehicle the minerals to the plants that need it. A classic example of this is Blossom End Rot, which is just a calcium deficiency. But it can exhibit symptoms even if there is enough calcium in the soil when there isn’t enough water for the plants to absorb them.

In the weakened state of stress, plants can become more vulnerable to insects and disease. Granted, the dry conditions do not promote a lot of (primarily fungal) diseases to thrive either. But a notable exception to this is Powdery Mildew, a common garden problem. Unlike many other diseases, this one is one that thrives in dry weather on the weakened drought stressed plants of multiple species but particularly the squash family. You aren’t quite as likely to see it in normal or wetter conditions when the plants are strong enough to fight it off.

Under drought duress, corn will curl its leaves during the day to conserve water loss. Badly stressed plants can become toxic due to the high nitrate concentration levels, particularly in the lower parts of the plant (this does not affect the ear of the corn). These leaves can be harmful to animals.

Grasshoppers

Interestingly, excessive outbreaks of grasshoppers can be caused by consecutive years of drought conditions. Birds and little neighbor kids who like to fish are not the only ones who reduce grasshopper populations. When grasshoppers lay eggs, a lot of these are lost to pathogens and parasites which live better in wet weather. Dry weather inhibits these natural control mechanisms and grasshopper populations can get out of control. Do not underestimate how much damage unchecked grasshopper populations can do. There are enough modern farmers who have suffered dramatic crop losses without citing the ancient Egyptians and their sweep of 6 legged woes.

Wet Weather

An excess of rain comes with its own unique problems. At least when it is dry, I can feel like if I just work harder, I can help correct it. But with rain, there’s no way to shut the faucet off.

In late May of 2019, I had my garden planted and it looked lovely. I welcomed the coming rain clouds as the garden could use a drink. However, when it did come, it rained hard for several days. Finally, I told Khoke that I was going out there to save my garden from the Lake Livingston growing in it.

Water ran in streams, washing out whole rows in places. It pooled in my tomato patch and the lower end of the cabbage row. I walked to the garden edge with my shovel, kicked off my boots, and waded in. I sank to nearly mid-calf. Then I took my shovel and dug trenches, directing the water I could not stop, out of the garden. The water zigzagged the garden but I directed it down aisleways, crossed rows where convenient and spaded an easy exit for it. This drained the pooling water, rerouted the coming water and helped dry out the garden faster. I was still left with plenty of loss. I lost a third of the tomatoes and cabbages. They did not recover from the standing water and had to be replanted. Plants can drown too. Their roots need to be able to breathe and although they can hold their breath longer than we can, they have limits.

Another thing that happened is the water-logged soil compacted badly and this set the garden back for the whole season. Our soil is a heavy clay loam which makes it more subject to compaction anyway. We could and did loosen the surface soil but the subsoil remained very hard. This compaction makes it difficult for roots to grow freely.

It is common to have weather extremes here. A few weeks of wet followed by a few weeks of dry, or the other way around. This can be hard on plants. Wet weather causes plants to grow shallow roots. They have all they need near the surface. But if it turns dry all of a sudden, these shallow roots become drought stressed much quicker. Plants that are suffering from drought stress are in an overall weakened state and drown quicker when met with heavy rain. I’ve had pepper plants that seemed to muscle it through drought stress only to wilt and die after a soaking rain.

If I find myself facing wet weather; or the forecast calling for rain I don’t need, there are a couple things I can do to prepare. The first is just dragging my hoe through the soil to channel the runoff where I want it to go. It doesn’t take a deep trench, just about deep enough to plant beans in, if that much. This is simply to divert and direct the water where I want it to go. It won’t run uphill, so I have to zigzag these lines to exit at the lowest part of the garden.

If runoff from a nearby slope is a problem, you may need to dig a ditch around the perimeter of the garden to divert it. This will help keep erosion from being a problem. A straight channel can cause too much erosion because the water can flow faster.

The other thing I do if it is unseasonably wet is pull soil from the aisles and hill up my row or plants. This mound will help shed water. There have been times when it was very wet with the sodden garden struggling to dry out and I have pulled the mulch off that had been previously laid to help the ground dry out.

If you really need a specific row to dry out faster than it is, even if there is no standing water, dig a shallow ditch on either side of the row about root depth. This can draw the water out of the row and help it to dry faster.

Pollination

Frequent rain showers contribute to poor pollination. When a flower has the nectar washed out of it from a rainstorm, it takes 3 days to replace it. This nectar is what attracts and feeds the pollinators who then consequently end up moving the pollen around. But if it happens to rain a little every 3 days then the pollinators are not coming as they should and the plants and pollinators both suffer. This happened one summer in Tennessee (in 2008, I think). The rain came twice a week that summer and my father actually had to feed the sugar water to the bees all summer long to keep them from starving to death.

The garden plants grew well all that year. The weeds too as far as that’s concerned. We didn’t have so much rain as to drown the plants, and the vegetables and weeds competed with each other in ground too wet to cultivate or hoe. They bloomed and bloomed all summer long but the insect pollinated plants didn’t end up pollinated very well. Our watermelons were misshapen due to uneven and poor pollination.

Each pollinated seed stimulates a growth hormone to plump the flesh of the fruit or vegetable it is in. Partially pollinated watermelons often have a shriveled end. Corn not fully pollinated has missing kernels on the ear. Every single kernel has to be pollinated to plump.

Wind pollinated vegetables such as corn can be affected by rain as the pollen does not blow while wet. But the pollen recovers its ability to travel as soon as it dries out. Self-pollinating plants such as most tomatoes, peppers and beans should not be affected by rain induced pollinations problems. In fact, rain or wind shuddering the plant is what shakes the pollen loose inside the flower to pollinate itself.

Gardening in the Weather You are Given
This diseased pepper plant needs to be pulled out and disposed of.

Disease

It isn’t just fungal diseases that love wet weather, bacterial and viral diseases do too. Anthracnose, Rust, Mildew, Grey Mold, Corn Smut, Blight, and Damp-Off are just a few of the host of diseases that come out of the woodwork in wet conditions. Aside from the commercial chemical cocktails that are usually sprayed in response to this, there are a few practical habits one can use to help manage and/or reduce disease in the garden.

It helps to try to avoid harvesting when the plants are wet. This is most important with anything in the bean family. You don’t even want to pick them with dew on them. They are very susceptible to the spread of disease. Sanitize your clippers as you go from one plant to the next by dipping them in a bleach or rubbing alcohol solution.

When you find badly diseased plants, by all means pull them out and dispose of them. Disposing means burn them or put them in a garbage bag. Not the compost pile. The bacteria/fungus/virus is usually pretty happy to live in your soil while it awaits another host.

Try not to irrigate or do watering in the evening. Drippy wet leaves and moist soil that doesn’t dry out overnight can promote disease.

Wind

Wind rarely harms low growing vegetables. Tall plants and grain are the most susceptible and there is little that can be done for it. Sure, if you live in a windy area, you can plant wind break hedges, these can be very helpful. But the winds that are the most problem are storm winds and these cannot be predicted long in advance or prepared for.

Corn and grain can be blown down. I helped harvest a sorghum field once that had blown down. The stalks were young enough they attempted to stand back up then the wind flattened the field again a couple weeks later – only from a different direction. Those stalks were tangled. One of those jobs one is glad to have past not present.

When saving corn seed, look for corn that has good anchor roots. These are roots that come out of the stalk sometimes over a foot above the ground and reach down to anchor the plant better. These are a little less likely to get flattened in a wind storm. If you do have a windstorm, note the ones that withstood the gales and try to save some seed from those if you can.

It helps to have the tall garden crops grouped together. That lone row of sunflower on the garden edge is more vulnerable than if it were planted the next row over from the sweet corn. Also do the prevailing winds course down the row or do they hit them broadside? Those sunflowers are more vulnerable to being hit broadside; when the wind direction is perpendicular to the row. The wind is hitting a weak wall. But if the wind is blowing into the row from the ends, it is more likely to pass through with less injury.

There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding the direction of the rows and wind is not generally at the top of that list. Erosion control from water is much more important, though wind can blow soil away too.

Gardening in the Weather You are Given

Hail

There is very little if anything that can be done for hail. Sure, you can turn a bucket over your blooming Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart), but that doesn’t help the strawberry patch. If it is easy to access and a person is fast, shade cloth or tarps can cover the more vulnerable parts of the garden. Depending on the severity of the storm, these tarps may or may not even be helpful. A small amount of hail doesn’t do too much damage, though it can shred a salad garden or damage ripe fruit or vegetables.

The trouble with hail is there is often little to no warning. Hail can be hard to predict as it only accompanies storms with tall enough cloud formations that provide enough updraft to chill the water droplets into ice pellets with high altitude chill. It doesn’t take a hundred years to build up to a hundred- year storm, it doesn’t even take a week, it is just the probability of all the right factors coming together.

The two most outstanding hail storms I ever saw happened about a year apart from each other, when I was growing up. The first was on a hot July day. A storm rolled in and dumped several inches of fine pebbly hail. We literally had drifts of hail. It quickly became only a memory in the July heat.

The other remarkable storm had up to three and a half inch diameter hail. In that early spring storm, we learned that 2-inch diameter hail wouldn’t actually go through our greenhouse plastic but it did ruin it. It covered the plastic in what looked like little 2-inch diameter tube socks where it punched in but didn’t cut through. Where the 3+ inch hail hit were neatly cut holes where it never slowed in passing.

Opportunistic as we were, we went out, after the storm, and collected bucketsful of the hail while an ice cream custard was put together. We took it as a divine indication that we needed more ice cream in our life and hand cranked a batch with ice from the hail. Sometimes you can’t choose or change your circumstances, but you can definitely choose your attitude and response.

Cold Frames

Last October, Khoke and I (mostly Khoke) put in this cold frame. It is similar in principle to a raised bed only we dug this one down into the ground. We wanted to be able to grow salad through the winter and the raised beds usually get too cold for this, at least in our growing zone.

Gardening in the Weather You are Given

The frame pictured is made with a 2×8, 7ft. long at the back, and a 2×4 also 7 ft long across the front with the side boards tapering from 8 to 4 inches. This was made to fit a recycled sliding glass door for the window cover. A frame like this can be made for any size window, large or small. This south facing frame slants forward a little to maximize the southern exposure.

Once the hole was dug, the frame was set up so that the top was just barely above ground level. Inside the frame we dug the ground several inches deeper than the bottom of the frame and replaced the clay with the best compost we had available. We left several inches of headspace between the soil and glass so the salad can grow.

Into the soil I just sowed a mixture of lettuce seed that I had saved from my summer garden, no special variety. I watered it well and let it go. It was unseasonably cold last October and I was worried that the seed wouldn’t germinate so I put some stubby candles in the frame and covered it to warm the air and soil (but careful not to have the flame too close to the glass as it could break it).

Gardening in the Weather You are Given

They grew through the winter, amazingly. On the coldest nights I covered them with wool blankets, and through the -20ºF weather last December, I just left them covered through the day as well. But it survived anyway. We had salad all winter long and will until our spring salads take over. Right now I just have to make sure they don’t get too warm so I open them to let the heat out as needed.