The First Drought Pod: Growing Tomatoes In Drought

Reader Contribution by Ron Ferrell
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Western Oklahoma is, and has been, in a serious drought for several years now and even with some rain over the last few weeks, the outlook is bleak. The farm ponds and large lakes are functionally dry, diminished crop yields, and native grasses are challenged to grow enough to keep the cattle herds fed.

Vegetable gardening has suffered severely in this rural community, both from disinterest and the challenges of gardening in a drought. My brother, Rick, has tried to grow a few select vegetables over the last few years, but he has given up due to an inability to keep the garden wet. His garden area is mostly sand, making gardening even more difficult due to lack of rain and lack of organic matter in the soil.

The original Drought Pod I designed and built was for him. My goal was to create an organic mass system that was easy to maintain by providing both moisture and nutrients to his vegetables via this totally passive system. Tomatoes are his main crop of choice.

In my opinion, if one can be successful at growing tomatoes, then you are a real gardener.  It is an indication that soil, nutrients, and moisture are well balanced. Growing any other vegetable will be then easy.

Using available materials from my brothers farm, I created a Drought Pod using a round bale feeder, horse manure, cow manure, spoiled alfalfa and wheat straw hay.

Organic mass is the key to my Drought Pod system. The bigger the organic mass the daily watering requirements are minimized, and all the nutrients are provided from within the organic mass.

How We Built the Original Drought Pod

In Rick’s garden we positioned the round bale feeder for easy access around the feeder. We soaked the ground thoroughly with well water before adding organic materials.

Using a Bobcat with a front end loader, I dug out two large loads of muck from the horse corral and two loads from the cow pens where hay has been fed in round bale feeders for years, so it is deep, aged, wet from urine more than rain and very rich.  On top of these 4 loads I added an entire large square bale of spoiled, deteriorating alfalfa hay to act as mulch and more organic material as the bale composts along with the  manure.  

I want this entire organic mass to be thoroughly wet during the construction phase. Ironically, even though they’ve had minimal rain for the past few years, when I dug into both the horse and cow lots, under this thick packed layer, it was very wet, reinforcing my theory about heavy mulch and moisture accumulation. The animal urine is rich in nitrogen, so that type moisture is a double bonus for the Drought Pod. It speeds up composting process while adding nitrogen for the plants.

At this point the 6 loads of organic material is over the top of the feeder.  I know this wet pile is about to start composting, and that is the goal.  Eventually all the materials inside the round bale feeder will be super rich compost.  To recharge the Drought Pod, just add more loads of manure, old hay, and whatever organic materials are available. Think lasagna gardening.

Planting the Feeder Area

With the drought pod, the planting area is around the outside of the organic mass, and not in the mass, as it will be too hot.  We used a pitch fork and hand tilled in more spoiled alfalfa into the sand around the feeder to use as the planting area. To that we added about 12″ of old wheat straw as much for the planting area once the tomatoes are in the ground.


Drought pod constructed on March 15, 2014

Tomatoes planted about April 23, 2014.  No rain, but plants were watered in with garden hose.

April 30, 2014 Rick reported the rabbits had eaten the tomatoes off, so he was about to give up.  At this point the plants had received no supplemental water, other than the day they were planted on March 15.

Now it is the end of May and Rick reports that the tomatoes, WITH NO CARE, had made a miraculous recovery and were actually about 12″ tall and vibrant.  I sent my niece to take pictures as proof on June 6, 2014.

Rick says, “I can’t believe it”.  It works as it’s intended:  No care, minimal water after construction with maximum growth.

June 13, I travel to Western Oklahoma for a cattle drive and to see Rick’s Drought Pod tomatoes for myself.

While there, I made a 20 gallon batch of very rich compost tea and gave each plant about 1 gallon of tea for a nutrient boost.

By planting directly beside the organic mass, the tomato roots intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients, and both are found in abundance from inside the organic mass inside the Drought Pod.

Through observation of my urban Drought Pod, which is much different in design because of available materials, and use of a moisture probe, I’ve learned that the ideal soil moisture outside the Drought Pod is low to medium, while the moisture content inside the pod is wet.  The tomatoes never have wet feet, but can get increased moisture and nutrients as they desire by tapping into the organic mass inside the Drought Pod.  I believe that all plant roots are smart like that.

My urban Drought pod tomatoes at 55 days, and I ate my first tomato at 55 days.

My next blog will be about my version of compost tea.

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