Roots 'n' Shoots: Lessons from Gardening in a Drought

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Lessons from Gardening in a Drought

As the world goes round and progresses through each of its cycles El Nino has claimed its turn with a triumphant roar this year! The Northern Hemisphere has reported record crop yields, lots of rain and bountiful snow. The Southern Hemisphere (specifically Africa) has reported widespread crop devastation and several areas had declared natural disaster zones! Here I will be posting the seasons’ fight against the worst drought to hit South Africa since records started in 1904 (second lowest annual rainfall was 1945, but the longest dry period was 1930-1933, see Ref 1), the observations I made, the final throw in of the proverbial towel and the plans for the coming winter.

My vegetable garden has already experienced below average rainfall for the 2014/15 summer season and the 2015/16 round was looking dire. Early rain in September (51 mm, 42 mm more than last year) gave me hope, but almost no rain in October and November (46 mm for both months, ~30% of the rain than last year) had nearly wiped out our 15 000 L of stored rainwater. The high heat, solar radiation and measly rain had left the vegetable garden battle fatigued – not to mention the household as well since we couldn’t seem to gather enough grey water from the house to keep everything in the yard alive and we worked like slaves to save the plants (and wild animals, by means of the chicken waters being drained every day).

A quick table of our rainfall for this summer season (and a comparison to last year's):


Much needed rainfall in December and January refilled the tanks, much to my relief as well because I was starting ‘prioritise’ plants for watering – some losses were inevitable. The garden did not do well mostly due to the fact that it only received enough water to stay alive let alone provide a decent crop. Some vegetables did fair better than others, so here is a quick list for drought “viable” crops:

Tomatoes – did especially well in the vegetable cage, we had an overflow
Beets & Carrots – did not seem to mind the heat and set root very well
Peppers – seeing that the fruit is mostly hollow, little water is used and fruiting isn’t impeded by the heat
Peanuts – my ongoing experiment with peanuts actually thrived in the heat!

What about potatoes and sweet potatoes? Not so much, small tuber formation given the litres of water I chucked on them. Pumpkins & Zucchini – nope, very few and tiny fruits. Given the drought I was hopeful for at least 50% of last year’s harvest but then on the 9th of January a freak hailstorm hit Roodepoort and wiped out our harvest – even breaking the vegetable cage (luckily no plants were damaged!)! Our tiny pumpkin harvest, any tomatoes, peppers and other soft fruit that were not completely covered by shade netting got decimated. Those fruits with only a little damaged quickly succumbed to rot in the heat of the following days.

The chicken coop got hailed shut and one of the chickens was being broody in the veld. So we were convinced that she perished in the veld during the hailstorm. Luckily I was at the window when she arrived just after the worst of the hail. I rushed out to grab her but couldn't get the coop open so she went back into the house with me. I dried her off and she stayed in one of the cat boxes overnight. Fortunately she made it through the night and had no injuries - though she was straight out of her broodiness afterwards!

So it is safe to say that after the hailstorm I just basically declared defeat against the elements! I didn’t even want to look at the garden lest alone repair the damage. I think I abandoned it for about a month (fortunately it rained enough during this time and additional losses were avoided)… Presently I have revitalised and resuscitated most of the garden and have made some plans for the winter.

Initially I did not want to plant any vegetables for the winter as last year’s winter garden was a disaster because it was merely too warm for the winter vegetables to crop properly. I have been hearing rumours of a cold winter this year and the outrageous food prices have given me new motivation to plant everything under winter veg!

I am planning the bulk of the winter vegetable garden in the vegetable cage – it is a lot colder there in the winter than the main garden since it is situated in a dip of the yard. The vegetable cage will housing the bulk of the vegetables, such that I’ll plant all the cabbages we eat (tender stem broccoli, cauliflower, pak choy and leaf cabbages), leafy greens (lettuce & baby dash spinach) and lots of peas! The main garden I have reserved for soil building and leafy vegetables that can cope better with more warmth, such as wild clover (to be turned into the soil at seasons end), bush beans, Swiss chard (lots of Swiss chard so that the chickens can have their beloved greenies in winter too) and tons of onions (spring, shallot and leeks!).

Main lesson from gardening in a drought? Well you better plant a whole lotta flippin’ tomatoes!

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