Considering the Effects of Short Rain Bursts

As many people know, the Midwest is suffering through a terrible drought at the moment. The forecast calls for the drought to last through October as a minimum, so there isn’t any relief in sight. What many people don’t realize is that some parts of the Midwest actually have received some rain, but the rain hasn’t been especially helpful. There are a number of issues to consider and I’m sure I haven’t reasoned them all out. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that even the best irrigation can’t completely replace rain. With the limits of irrigation in mind, here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to during this particularly hot summer.

The first is that the main problem with irrigation is water temperature. I had wondered about this for a long time, but I’ve come to the conclusion that watering with a sprinkler uses cold water that could actually shock the plants. Rain water usually comes down warmed a little anyway. To test this out, at least partially, I watered part of our corn row using water warmed by the sun in our hose and the other part of the row using cold water. The warmed water has grown larger, more robust plants. Now, there could be other factors that affect our corn, such as quality differences in the soil in one part of the garden as contrasted to another part, but on the surface, it appears that anyone who uses warmed water (such as that found in a rain barrel), has an advantage over someone who irrigates with well water (such as I do).

Second, irrigation water lacks mineral content. I’m starting to think that rain water must pick up a certain amount of nutrients from the air that the water from our hose doesn’t provide. I’d need to back this up with some sort of laboratory analysis though and I’m not even sure where to send a sample. Even so, it does seem as if there is some nutritional factor in rain water that doesn’t appear in well water. At least I’m not fighting the chlorine and other additives of city water.

Third, there is no lightning when you irrigate. Lightning releases nitrogen into the soil. Plants absolutely must have nitrogen to grow well. You can artificially supply this nutrition with fertilizer, but there seems to be a difference between fertilized plants and those that receive the nitrogen naturally. I don’t use any commercial fertilizer on my garden, but I do supplement the garden with compost and I do things like plant winter rye to improve the quality of my soil.

Fourth, irrigation applies the water in an unnatural way. Rather than having randomly sized droplets provide the water at varying speeds over the relatively long time of a summer storm, irrigation uses uniformly sizes water droplets that apply water at a consistent rate over a short time. The water from rain seems to penetrate deeper for a given amount of water than irrigation does (as checked by digging into the garden after each event and actually measuring the penetration using a ruler). Penetration is a key here because surface penetration tends to promote weed growth, rather than nourish your plants.

I’m currently working to quantify my observations so that I can better understand the role of rain in promoting good garden growth, but this summer has provided me with some insights into how global warming will ultimately change our world. Even if we overcome the effects of droughts created by global warming by using irrigation, the overall effect is still going to be a loss of robust plant growth in the garden. Yes, you’ll get most plants to grow, but not in the same way as they would with just the right amount of rain. Let me know your thoughts about irrigation versus natural rainfall at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Weeds, Weeds, and More Weeds!

I must have struck a chord with a few people on Monday (see Real World Global Warming). My inbox has received more than a few notes about weeds. Apparently, Wisconsin isn’t the only place that has been hit hard with them. I’ve received e-mail from a number of locations in the Midwest and a couple of places in areas like Texas. They do seem to be a problem this year. I think that weeds from prehistoric times have taken a sudden urge to sprout.

As I mentioned in my post, we’ve taken a new approach to weeding this year. The weeds are so bad that we’re weeding and immediately mulching. Otherwise, within a couple days time, it seems as if the weeds are coming right back. So far, the mulching technique seems to be working. The areas that we’ve managed to eradicate weeds from are staying weed free with the mulch in place. I can only hope the mulch lasts through the summer.

I’ve noticed a difference in the weeds this year too. We’re having more problems with quack grass than normal. Quack grass is especially troublesome because normal pulling does little to remove it. In fact, if you use normal pulling techniques (or worse yet, cultivate with a rototiller), you only help spread the quack grass. The major problem with quack grass is that it can grow through anything. We actually had it grow right through our potatoes and you’ll often see the stuff growing up through even tiny cracks in concrete and asphalt.

I’ve seen any number of sites recommend using roundup on quack grass. Don’t do it! You’ll only succeed in damaging your soil and other plants. In order to get rid of this pest without damaging other plants in the garden, you must loosen the soil completely and remove the long runner rhizomes.  The grass invades from the grassy areas surrounding the garden, so you should work from the inner part of your garden, outward. I’ve removed rhizomes four and five feet (yes, that’s feet) in length. When done carefully, you can remove enough of the quack grass to keep it controlled. I have never managed to eradicate quack grass from our garden, but I do control it well enough that it’s not much of a problem after the initial weeding. Even one rhizome nodule left in place is enough for the plant to start all over again.

I use a combination cultivator/mattock to remove our quack grass, especially considering the hard baked clay soil this year. This isn’t a genteel weeding device. Use the cultivator part to carefully break up the soil by going straight down on the edge of the quack grass that points away from the edge of the garden. Raise the tool up slowly and carefully. You’ll normally find the quack grass rhizomes on top of the cultivator tines. Keep working to remove as much of the rhizome as possible in one piece to ensure you get it all. Use the mattock end as needed to break up the soil or to sever the rhizomes when you get to the edge of the grass.

Is quack grass bad? Not really! It’s a good plant for controlling erosion. You can’t ask for a better grass to hold a hillside in place. It’s also the best grass I’ve found for the areas where we run our chicken tractors. The chickens can’t seem to kill the stuff off. They will kill absolutely everything else off at some point, but the quack grass keeps coming back. The quack grass also provides good nutrition for our chickens and rabbits. So, it’s not a bad plant—it’s just not wanted in the garden.

We’ve also been seeing more pigweed and lambsquarters this year. Both are easily pulled, however, even in the dried out soil we’re currently dealing with. I wasn’t surprised to learn that both of these plants have different names in other areas of the world, so I provided links to them. Finally, our dandelions are growing profusely everywhere. All of these plants are theoretically edible (especially the dandelions) if you can find a clean source of them. I’m contemplating making the dandelions pay the ultimate price for invading our garden—consumption in a salad. The leaves also taste quite nice boiled with a bit of lemon and olive oil. However, for now, we’re just weeding furiously to get the garden in shape and aren’t taking a lot of time to separate the plants. The chickens and rabbits, however, are in seventh heaven.

What sorts of weeds are you having to control this year? Do you think we’ll eventually get some rain? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fall Damage Revealed in Spring

Each fall we till the garden up and plant winter rye. It’s amazing stuff because it sprouts in fall and survives the winter months to continue growing in spring! There are a number of reasons for planting winter rye:

  • The ground cover holds the soil in place and reduces erosion.
  • It fixes nitrogen all winter long and acts as “green manure” when we till it in later in the spring.
  • Having something planted in the garden shades out the weeds, so we aren’t fighting the weeds as much.
  • Winter rye drinks up the excess moisture, so we can get into the garden earlier (without sinking up to our knees in mud).

There are probably other reasons for growing winter rye, but these four are the reasons we take time to plant it. Unfortunately, we had an early frost this last fall. So, the winter rye sprouted, but didn’t have time to establish itself before the frost hit. As a result, unknown to us, the winter rye died. So our garden is unprotected this spring and I’m already seeing evidence of erosion as shown here.

Erosion

There isn’t any time to plant more winter rye now. So, we’ll control the erosion in another way, by placing hay bails on the downward side of the garden slope. Using the hay bails will slow the water flow and at least keep the soil in the garden. Of course, the point is that nature doesn’t always cooperate with our plans, so it’s important to have a Plan B (the hay bails in this case).

The hay won’t go to waste. Later this spring, when everything is planted, we’ll use the hay to mulch the garden. Mulching reduces the need to water and keeps weeds under control, but more on that later. So, what do you do to control erosion and keep weeds under control in your garden? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.