Water: The real essential

Water is critical to the survival of all living organisms and that includes all the plants in your garden.  Some gardeners and farmers live in regions where rainfall is plentiful during  the growing season but if you live in an arid region like I do summer precipitation is almost non-existent and irrigation is essential.  Even if you live where adequate precipitation to maintain a crop does usually occur, it may not always come during critical stages of plant growth that can affect quality and yield.   Convenient access to a reliable source of water can be a factor in locating your garden.  Also what type of irrigation system you choose can impact the layout of the garden.

There have been many developments in irrigation technology since Kain wrote his book “Five Acres and Independence”.  He also farmed in a region where irrigation and water conservation were not as critical to farm productivity and sustainability.   However, as noted in my first paragraph, even in regions of adequate precipitation you can end up with water stressed plants if the distribution of that moisture doesn’t come at the right time.

The new technologies include drip irrigation, timers, and rain sensors.  These technologies can be expensive and depending on your particular situation they may be unnecessary.  Some of these technologies only work with particular irrigation systems so it is best to assess what system will work in your situation.  For example timers and rain sensors are useless if you have a flood or furrow irrigation system.

Flood and furrow systems require you to personally monitor the field both between and during irrigations.  To use these systems you will need to develop a good sense of what adequate soil moisture looks and feels like.  Also you must know the critical stages of plant development where water stress could negatively impact yield and quality of your crop.

Timers and rain sensors work better with drip or sprinkler irrigation systems.  These systems also tend to be better at conserving water with drip being far superior to sprinkler at water conservation.

Which irrigation system you choose will depend on your source of water and financial resources.  Flood and furrow irrigation require gravity to work so your source of water must either be pumped up to the highest point in your garden or field or your source of water must be higher so it can flow to the lower portions of the field.  The field or garden must be leveled with a slight slope to allow water to flow from a high point in the field to a lower point.  How much slope is required to get uniform irrigation throughout your field or garden will depend on the texture of the soil.  Clay soils require less slope than sandy soils to achieve good coverage.

Drip and sprinkler irrigation aren’t as sensitive to field level but do require the ability to pump water into the system whether it is from a well or from a surface body of water.  One complication of many agricultural regions of the arid Western United States is they are serviced by irrigation districts that are designed to deliver water to furrow and flood irrigation systems.  In order to use drip or sprinkler irrigation, you may need to construct some sort of holding pond or tank for water delivery.  From this water holding structure you can pump water into a sprinkler or drip irrigation system.

Flood and furrow irrigation requires the farmer to make the decision as to timing of irrigation and be present while it is occurring.  Sprinkler and drip irrigation systems, if hooked up to timers and rain sensors can be allowed to run without the farmer or gardener present during irrigation.  However, both drip and sprinkler systems need to be periodically checked for plugged up nozzles and emitters to insure  they delivering water.

To help make a decision on which irrigation system will work best for you, talk with other farmers and gardeners in the area you want to garden or farm.  Also talk to local Extension agents.  Then assess what you can afford and what your source of water will be.

More Essential Factors of Production; Is it a subsistence garden or a market garden?

Once you have decided which vegetables to plant and what varieties, it’s time to design your field or garden.  In his book, “Five Acres and Independence”, Kain presents a diagram of a large garden layout.  This is not the only way to plant a garden.  Additionally if you plant it exactly the same every year without rotating vegetable groups you could end up with a buildup of soil born plant pathogens that lead to crop failures.

Before you even decide on the design of your garden, you need to determine an appropriate garden size for your situation.  A wise place to start would be to measure out the size of Kain’s suggested garden.  Try to imagine what tools and time you would need to prepare, plant, maintain, and harvest the garden over an entire growing season.  Ask yourself the following questions;

  • Who will help me work in the garden?
  • Is this a market garden (income generating) or a subsistence garden (personal use)?
  • How much time do you have available to work in this garden?
  • What resources, such as seed, fertilizer, mulch, irrigation supplies, and quantity of water do you have?

Now that you’ve answered all these questions where do you want to plant this garden and does it have to be contiguous (i.e. one big garden or a series of smaller gardens)?  If the garden is not going to be a market garden or various structures make it impossible to have one garden as large as you want, there is no reason not to have multiple smaller gardens.  In fact your farm may have a number of microclimates that you will want to take advantage of such as shade, full sun, or wind blocks such as buildings or windbreaks.  In fact some of your garden may need to be grown in a greenhouse or hoophouse for year round production or extended seasons.  Greenhouses and hoophouses will be the be the subject of future posts.

Gardens and fields can be any shape so don’t worry if you can’t find a location that is exactly Kain’s dimensions or rectangular.  The size and shape should be governed by the available space and whether it is a market garden or a subsistence garden.  Something to think about that is not mentioned in Kain’s book is the positioning of plants for ease of harvesting.  As plants grow, space between them will diminish.  this is especially true of vines.  Also tomato plants tend to bend over as they get taller and laden with fruit.  You may need tomato cages and trellises for bean and other vine crops.

If you plan of planting sweet corn you will need to plant it in blocks of neighboring rows or hills with multiple stalks.  The reason corn must be planted in either of these ways is that it is a wind pollinated crop that if the stalks are not planted close enough together will result in ears that are not filled out.  This does not mean you cannot use the Native American practice of the “Three Sisters”.  This is a system where corn, beans, and squash are planted together in hills to support each other.  More on this system in future posts.  As long as you have multiple stalks planted on the same hill you will probably get adequate pollination of the corn.

So far I haven’t said a lot about where to locate that garden.  Mostly that is a matter of personal preference, such as convenience to kitchen, packing sheds, or accessibility to farm equipment.  However, adequate sunlight, and proximity to sources of irrigation water are also important.  The latter will be the subject of my next post.