A Green Home Lesson for Growing Tomatoes in Drought

Reader Contribution by Ron Ferrell
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Hello MOTHER EARTH NEWS devotees. My name is Ron Ferrell and I have been a follower of MOTHER since, well, forever. I have copies of MOTHER I’ve saved since the early 80’s and I’m so honored to be invited to blog for the magazine’s website. Alternative housing is my long-time focus, but of all things, alternative gardening brings me to write for MOTHER.   

I’m now conducting a garden experiment I call a “Drought Pod.” The Drought Pod idea comes after many years of garden experiments at my Ecohut farm, near Oklahoma City, Okla. The Drought Pod experiment is what prompted this blog for MOTHER EARTH NEWS!

A Brief History of the EcoHut

I bought 5 acres in 2006 and set out to build a recycled, sustainable house that friends named the “Ecohut.” I used about 40 percent recycled steel on this all steel structure, welded the entire structure, and with a helper, built the original structure in 2.5 months of a very hot Oklahoma summer. I started in mid June and moved in October of 2006. As the photograph shows, I designed the super roof for shade and water catchment, but more about that later. Gardening was not part of my thought process then, as I was totally focused on building my Ecohut.

The property was overrun with junk deposited by the owners. I had to clear away huge piles of junk to begin construction. When I was discussing the property with the owner, there was a barrel in the ground, in what was supposed to have been a garden. He said his Dad would put horse manure in the barrel, plant his tomatoes around the barrel and water through the barrel only (creating compost tea). Brilliant!

The summer of 2006, as I was building my Ecohut, I used the barrel to grow tomatoes. I added cardboard and heavy straw mulch and it was a huge success in terms of tomato production.  The heavy mulch kept the weeds down and most importantly, kept the root system cool. I watered very little and my tomato production was great.

A Green Homes Lesson for Growing Tomatoes

Fast forward to a couple months ago: Discarded along my street was a homemade compost tumbler made of a 40-gallon plastic barrel that obviously didn’t work the way the creator intended, so I took it home not having any idea what would happen next.

I had watched a video on YouTube about ‘Keyhole’ gardens in Africa, and it dawned on me that I could do basically the same with this free barrel. There were lots of holes already drilled in the barrel, so all I did was nestle it into the soil, add lots of organic materials and plant my tomatoes directly beside the barrel.

I used thermal mass in the floors of my Ecohut, but now I’m using the concept of “organic mass” in this barrel to grow tomatoes.

Introducing the Drought Pod

In my next blog post, I will describe in detail how to create a Drought Pod using found or recycled materials and what the organic mass consists of and how it works.

The last picture is my Drought Pod. I planted these tomatoes on April 16, watered only 2 times, plus compost tea and some rain. They are growing at an amazing rate and the plants are very strong, plus they are producing blooms and already set a few tomatoes. This photograph is 32 days of growth.

Drought projections are dire, so we must rethink how we grow food. My goal is to garden with less water and consolidated nutrients. Garden rows don’t have to be linear, but can be circular with this system. Ideal for small spaces. With the Drought Pod, the organic mass is inside the pod where it never dries out and by planting the tomatoes, or any vegetable directly beside the barrel, the plant roots can tap into the nutrients and moisture as they so choose. Plant roots are smart like that. Just remember, plants can be killed by over-watering just as they can under-watering.

Stay tuned.