Photo by Bob Walters
Gardening weather has been crazy these past twenty years. You could almost count on four-foot snowstorms in mid-September here in the Rockies back in the day, marking the end of harvest. Over the last two decades we gained two extra gardening months, May and October. Official charts hopped us from Zone 4 to 5. Back then summer afternoons used to rain like clockwork in the mountains. Dry, unremitting heat took over; long-timers worried the forest-floor duff would combust. When it rained, we ran to count the drops.
In the past decade, more surprises have been the norm: 3.5 feet of freezing snow at May's end destroying fruit blossoms, freezes at June's end decimating crop leaves but not stalks, fall blizzards icing unharvested, but salvageable, apples. To our befuddlement, this past year has been overcast, humid. Colorado snowpack was over 751% typical of mid-June. I'm wearing a bug net when gardening, an unthinkable “first.”
In September 2010 a wildfire swept our land several times, baking apples on the trees, turning pasture and meadow into black sand. The gardens survived without water for a scorching month until we were able to harvest as usual. The kindling-dry pioneer cabin with holes in the flooring sadly succumbed to the flames, but the antique yellow rosebush snuggled near it survived unscathed.
Our fire chief told us the gardens, which roughly encircle our house, had saved it because they held more moisture than the surrounding vegetation. The take-away: our efforts to build soil moisture in the gardens over the previous years had paid off in these particular circumstances. (Following fire mitigation recommendations, around the house we had also left no flammable trees or bushes, scalped the non-garden vegetation, cleaned the gutters.)
Three years later came the epic Front Range flood. Kayakers paddled Denver streets; houses, food, trees jumbled and tumbled through caved-in roads down creeks-turned-thundering-rivers. Our pasture and meadow had regrown from deep, fire-invigorated roots; they, the gardens and orchard survived with little erosion. Their humus-structured, spongy soil allowed water to slow, spread, and percolate through to underground streams and aquifers, running off the surface with less erosive force. And the deep roots held soil in place.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service tells us one percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre! For maneuvering gardens and orchard through these extremes over the years—drought, fire, cold and flood--we thank the soil biology community: microbes, worms, and the rest that creates this soil sponge. We thank traditional communities, farmers, researchers, soil scientists and conservationists, eco-restorationists and permaculturists for articulating the principles and practices below that increase soil organic matter and thus support the microbes creating this sponge, which holds the precious water.
The Soil Sponge Principles
Keep a living root in the soil at all times
At season's end, use a diversity of winter cover crops, which could include food crops, natives, and other useful, non-invasive plants. In our short season, we plant cover crops under maturing harvest crops and keep some volunteers such as clover or native legumes. Diverse living roots feed a balance of soil microbes, keeping soil alive, healthy, and water-holding. Avoid turning over soil; that breaks up the fungal hyphae that dry-area gardens so desperately need to hold water as it sequesters carbon.
Keep the soil covered—no bare dirt
We experiment with intentional ground covers as well as those that just show up to the party, such as French sorrel, black medic, bearberry, succulents —each may work with one or more main crops, while not with others.
Blanketing the soil with a thick (six-inch) layer of moist mulch (plant material, not plastic) under crops can really cut down on watering. We try to include material fungi like best, such as rotting straw on veggies, wood chips on orchard trees, and a variety of volunteers such as comfrey and some natives. Soil biology dies where soil bakes in the sun and crusts over--or freezes.
Grow a variety of companion plants together aka polyculture
They can occupy different niches above and below ground—sturdy corn, vining beans, and sprawling squash being an indigenous historical model; there are many others. I like to experiment with native forbs near or even in with the crops; mostly their seeds just land in the garden and we leave them, then we see what works and what doesn't. Polyculture stimulates a diverse, more resilient soil biology and pollinator community, provides more organic matter, and keeps the ground covered, which increases water-holding capacity.
Include animal integration
We do this via long-composted manure from our chickens and another farm's cow manure. Some orchardists turn chickens, weeder geese, and other domestic livestock onto the growing area to clean up the fallen orchard harvest and gardeners invite them to eat down cover crops in the spring. Their deposits in the soil bank add fertilizer and organic matter and their hoofs help plant dung-fertilized seeds in their hoofprints, all of which helps create spongy, water-retaining soil.
No synthetic biocides.
They kill pollinators, beneficial insects and fungi—members of the soil ecosystem on which we depend to grow food and retain water. And if the soil is not yet good and firmly held in place, in a flood they could end up contaminating people and areas downstream.
Save Your Seeds
They will be the most drought, heat, fire, cold, and flood-adapted to your particular area. This was natural for our gardening forebears. This is especially important in areas with topographical variation like the Rockies.
Or welcome them. Some are edible and medicinal. See how they interact with your crops. They are already adapted and represent a sophisticated ecosystem that has worked well for eons. See individual states' native plant society lists if you are not sure what grows around you.
Their roots can go deep, holding soil in place and retaining water and carbon in their roots and stems/trunks. Eric Tonsemeier's work is a great reference, as is your state's native plant list.
Explore the wealth of water-harvesting techniques and choose the ones you like for storing water in your soil. See Brad Lancaster's work for strategies.
I hope someday to see a sampler of these principles cross-stitched and hung in my home. Over the years we have implemented these little by little; the gardens and land show us what works best where and when. Each year is different. We are grateful for Mother Earth's guidance on how to make it through drought, fire, cold, and flood right now.
Pam Sherman has gardened with her husband at 8300' on an old pioneer farm on Colorado's Front Range for over 25 years. She researches and writes on gardening in marginal and extreme conditions.
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