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Sustainable Methods for Dealing with Drought

Given the wild weather that's been thumping parts of the U.S. and the rest of the world, I wanted to share an article I found recently titled, “Sustainable Methods for Dealing with Drought” by Dr. Phil Wheeler. While the author is primarily focused on farm scale production, the advice is just as good for the home gardener trying to feed their family. I'll include my notes and additional resources in italics.

Dealing with Drought - 3 organic strategies to make your farm or garden more drought tolerant so you can still produce a crop when rain is scarce. #drought #organicgardening

Sustainable Methods for Dealing with Drought

The first point to make is that it is easier to prepare for drought before you are in one than to try to rescue yourself from one your already experiencing. Regardless of what stage you're in, the principles which will be addressed here are the same.

Three processes are involved: Capturing the rain that falls on your farm, holding a good portion of it in the topsoil for immediate use, and allowing the rest to go into the subsoil where it can come back up to the topsoil when needed.

Dealing with Drought – Step 1 – Capture the Rain that Falls on Your Land

Capturing rain requires good soil structure. Good soil structure is usually damaged by simplistic N-P-K fertilization. Growers need to learn that there are six major nutrients; calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and sulfur. Calcium is the king of nutrients and must be dealt with outside of the pH concept. A good cation exchange test [CEC] will help you begin to balance the 6 majors to influence structure. At the same time as you are using nutrients to attempt to correct structure, you can also use sub-soiling and soil conditioners to get rain to go through the topsoil and into the subsoil.

Advanced methods of holding moisture where it falls include contour plowing, strip cropping, terraces etc. Cover crops always hold more rainfall than bare ground. For advanced total concept water retention, look into permaculture (created in Australia where water is extremely precious.)

In my garden, I aim to either keep the ground covered with growing things or mulch. The soil is only bare for short periods of time.  Naked ground = more runoff and evaporation. Healthy soil traps the rain.

For an excellent example of farm scale permaculture in practice, check out Restoration Agriculture, which was written by a farmer in southwest Wisconsin who has turned 106 acres of worn soil into a highly productive and ecologically diverse farm. The photo at the top of this post is courtesy of New Forest Farm, and features contour plowing and planting as well as extensive perennial ground cover. For a more detailed discussion of soil minerals, you can visit the Smiling Gardener Organic Fertilizer review. In the post “What if I told you weeds and bacteria could save your life?“, I discuss how cutting trees actually creates desertification.

Dealing with Drought – Step 2 – Hold Moisture in Your Topsoil for Plant Use

Holding moisture in the topsoil requires the presence of biologically active carbon. The main source of this is organic matter that has been turned into humus by the digestion of microbes. In order to get the soil biology to come back, a grower has to learn how to reduce chemical inputs that impact the microbes and provide new food sources for them. Changing to post emergence herbicides is a start. Direct application of carbohydrates such as molasses or sugar provides high energy feed for the microbes to use when they are taking up nitrogen for retention against leaching and release when needed by the plant. Green manure crops should be disked into the surface to provide a more complete food supply for the microbes. Treating them with small amounts of N and sugar will assure their immediate breakdown for use by the current crop. The presence of good humus will combine with the structure from balanced minerals to give the soil that great smelling, moisture and nutrient holding aggregate structure that we all would love to have.

Moisture can also be held by providing dust mulch covers which act as insulators against evaporation, but still allow the all important oxygen to penetrate for the microbes to breath. Very light tillage can be used to create the dust mulch cover without turning up moist soil.

Dealing with Drought – Step 3 – Create Pathways Between Subsoil and Topsoil

Let’s assume we have managed to get rain to go into our subsoil by breaking up hardpans and creating better topsoil. The sun on the soil surface will create a draw that will bring the moisture toward the surface. The more pathways for the moisture to travel the more that will come up to the root zone. Typical pathways include wormholes, openings and cracks created by sub-soiling, spaces created by soil conditioners, deep root paths, etc.

To assure that new plant roots can reach downward as far as possible, build an implement with a deep thin blade that can create a channel under each row. Late in the season, go out with a shovel and prove to yourself how far roots can go down that channel compared to roots that don’t find the path of least resistance.

From “The Lost Language of Plants“:

If you kill off the prairie dogs there will be no one to cry for rain.- Navajo warning

Amused scientists, knowing that there was no conceivable relationship between prairie dogs and rain, recommended the extermination of all burrowing animals in some desert areas planted to rangelands in the 1950s “in order to protect the sparse desert grasses. Today the area (not far from Chilchinbito, Arizona) has become a virtual wasteland.” – Bill Mollison, PERMACULTURE

Water under the ground has much to do with rain clouds. If you take the water from under the ground, the land will dry up. – Hopi elder

Burrowing creatures, such as prairie dogs, open millions upon millions of tubes in the soil of Earth. As Mollison notes, these “burrows of spiders, gophers, and worms are to the soil what the alveoli of our lungs are to our body.” As the moon passes overhead the underground aquifers rise and fall and Earth breathes out moisture-laden air. This exhalation of negative-ion-charged air through the many fissures and tubes opened by the burrowing creatures helps create rain.

How could indigenous peoples have known this? By all our standards of scientific knowledge they could not. We have neglected to realize that indigenous peoples have always had access to the finest probe ever conceived, one that makes scientific instruments coarse in comparison, one that all human beings in all places and times have had access to: the focused power of human consciousness.
– Stephen Harrod Buhner

Long story short – living soil, filled with critters big and small, will naturally contain pathways to allow water to move up from the subsoil.

The author has been observing farms for thirty years in the US and many foreign countries. Whenever there is a drought in a given area, the farms that have practiced the principles of sustainable agriculture always come out better. They may have a reduced yield, but in relation to their neighbors, they get a better yield. One of the reasons for this, besides the moisture management we have mentioned above, is that their crops and soil attract dew to a much greater extent than their neighbors. This has to do with a very complex relationship involving the electrical/magnetic nature of plants and soil.

It takes 2-3 years to restore structure and biological activity. Get started now!

This article was written by Dr. Phil Wheeler and reprinted with permission. In 1971, Dr Phil Wheeler started his own organic farming operation near Vestaburg, MI while working for Michigan Tech University. He and his wife Louisa raised their children while tending goats, collecting eggs, raising organic beef, pork and lamb for direct marketing and unloading truckloads of natural fertilizers. Phil then worked for a Michigan company selling and developing biologically orientated soil and foliar products. For about 10 years Phil was a partner in TransNational AGronomy, Ltd whereupon he started CSI with his wife Louisa. Phil is co-author of The Non-Toxic Farming Handbook. He and Louisa have four grandchildren and enjoy spending long weekends on their houseboat. You can join their sustainable farming mailing list and order detailed soil analysis at Crop Services International.

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  1. Excellent article! I do not live in a drought area but I’m originally “from” a drought area and know that it could happen in the future. Not wanting to be dependent on my water hook-up I planned and used permaculture designs for my backyard garden and put in as many swales (water collecting ditches) as I could. These swales also include all of my walkways. I compost year round in these swales using a “Double dig” method. I did install a rain barrel for all my hand watering and do have plans to put in more under my decking area. There are some very interesting ways to collect and hold rain water. I’ve even seen barrels designed to look like corner brick masonry and now there are whole interlocking wall systems that you fill. I’m considering these for my future greenhouse. Link: