For the past 25 growing seasons, we have used the dryland practices described in this article to direct seed and transplant vegetables all season long without irrigation. Of course, rainfall has been necessary to finish out some of our longer term crops, and yields have generally been better in wet weather. Nevertheless, we consistently get good stands of produce without precipitation or watering in the plants, and our income from dryland fruits and vegetables has increased every year without expanding acreage. Although not a substitute for irrigation, the following moisture preserving ideas may possibly be helpful to growers making do with limited access to water or simply desiring to reduce the size of their hydrological footprint.
Originally developed in the Midwest as an alternative to chemical no-till which aided soil warming and mechanical weed control, we adapted ridge-tillage to horsedrawn market garden production by attaching the rough equivalent of a ridge-till sweep to the middle of the riding cultivator. We initially used a cast-off roto-tiller middle buster found on the farm, then upgraded to a heavier duty customized 12” sweep, and finally settled on a 10” furrower purchased from Agri-Supply.
Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.
Over the last twenty plus years of intensive vegetable growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, CT, we have constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of our crops and soils. Much of the land grows vegetable crops year round so the intensity of production demands very careful soil care. Over the last several years a system was developed on the farm which has proven to be quite successful. The various methods are still being fine tuned; but with a high level of success and it seems appropriate to share what has been done.