According to NOAA, the frequency and severity of both droughts and floods are increasing (learn more here). Here I will share lessons learned from farming during a drought on my small organic vegetable and flower farm in eastern Connecticut. My farm’s sandy soils and low water table make my operation especially vulnerable to drought. I hope that these lessons learned will help other farmers and home gardeners to contend with drought conditions. I found that the small size of my farm helped me to be more nimble and readily able to adapt my growing practices to the unexpected drought conditions, whereas a larger farm that is more dependent on heavy equipment may have had less flexibility to change their growing practices in response to the drought. I hope that more small farms and home gardeners will proliferate to help increase food security in the face of the uptick in severe weather events. With the present instability in the climate, there is took much risk in relying on just a handful of huge farms to provide our food.
Connecticut typically receives ample precipitation, evenly distributed throughout the months of the year. A friend of mine once observed that “it can always rain in Connecticut.” Our mild climate makes growing a variety of crops relatively easy. Late spring 2020 brought an unusual surge in hot, sunny days. In May there were hardly any cloudy days suitable for transplanting seedlings. We then were hit with an unusually late frost just after Memorial Day. June 5, 2020 finally brought a drizzly, cloudy day suitable for planting without worrying about tender young plants getting fried by the sun or frozen in the night. Then we received no rain until mid-September. Streams dried up, and the neighbors’ wells went dry. Sunny day followed sunny day for much of the growing season. I adapted as best I could and learned a few things along the way.
Coping with Transplant Shock
Transplanting is the most vulnerable time for a young plant. The plants' roots, crucial for taking in water, have been disturbed and damaged from getting handled during the transplanting process. The young plants’ leaves, grown soft in the protected enclosure of a greenhouse, are now drying up in the whipping wind. Factor in a lack of soil moisture, dry air and heat from a drought, and you have the perfect conditions for transplant shock, a condition in which the newly planted seedling dries up and dies, or at best is delayed significantly in its growth. Watching newly planted crops struggle, some of which had been lovingly tended in the greenhouse for months, was disheartening. Hoping to save them, I threw up some low hoops and a layer of shade cloth which was once used to shade the greenhouse. The shade cloth seemed to help significantly in reducing transplant shock. I weaned the plants off of the shade cloth gradually. I started off keeping the transplants covered with shade cloth all the time, then began opening the shade cloth at night and on cloudy days. I then progressed to taking the shade cloth off for a few hours in the morning on sunny days, and finally removed it completely. I didn’t have enough shade cloth to cover all the transplants, so I experimented with using row cover, and found that to also be helpful. The row cover gives the plant some protection from the wind, and slightly reduces the amount of light received from the sun, although not by as much as the shade cloth. I now consider shade cloth to be an essential tool to contend with transplanting during drought conditions.
The drought made me truly love and appreciate the gift of rain, something I had taken for granted before, as water is typically abundant in Connecticut. In the image, a double rainbow appears above the farm house during June 2019.
Direct Seeding During a Drought
As the drought progressed and my transplants struggled to find their feet, I switched as many subsequent successions as I could from seed starting indoors to direct seeding. Squash are especially vulnerable to transplant shock, and so I direct seeded my later successions of summer squash. I sowed the seeds thickly to account for any that would fail to germinate due to the drought, and irrigated them overnight after planting. A long, deep, overnight soaking helped the seeds to have enough moisture to sprout. I thinned the squash and they grew very healthfully and nicely, despite getting their start in the scorching heat of June and maturing at a time when there had been no rain for two months. Other direct seeded crops did not fare so well. I had crops in a field mulched with wood chips fail to germinate. In normal times, wood chip mulch helps to hold moisture in the soil. During the extreme drought conditions, the wood chip mulch was absorbing all the water and preventing it from getting into the seeds. Fall plantings get their start in late summer, and many of our fall planted, direct-seeded crops struggled, especially in the wood chip mulch. I would strongly recommend raking off your layer of wood chip mulch during a drought. Something I have yet to experiment with, but that might be valuable during a drought, is to mulch plants with white plastic, to cool the soil and seal in moisture. Some farmers even cover their newly seeded fields with a sheet of white plastic, and then remove it once the seeds have germinated. Different mulching strategies and direct seeding can help in a drought.
Ways to Take Care of Yourself in the Heat
The crops were not the only living things to be affected by the hot, dry, and sunny conditions. Myself, my intern and my farmhand all struggled with the heat, despite being used to working outside in the summer. I found working in the early morning and in the evening to be helpful. While it’s hard to find enough time to get everything done during the busy growing season, taking breaks, especially during the heat of the day, was essential to our wellbeing. When I had to work in the heat, I found it much more tolerable with a frozen ice pack stuffed in my bra or strapped to my belly. It looks ridiculous, but the relief was palpable. I would find that both my comfort and productivity would go up when I was wearing an ice pack. The discovery happened accidentally when I suffered a painful wasp sting to my belly, and sought relief by putting an ice pack on it. I found the ice pack made the heat of the day much more bearable. Working long hours in the heat, especially in the 120 degree Fahrenheit greenhouse, I turned to sports drinks to stay hydrated. Sports drinks help replace electrolytes lost during long periods of intense physical activity. I ended up buying a big canister of sports drink powder, which both saved money and reduced the burden on our planet from single-use plastic bottles. Nicole, an intern on the farm, also had some great ideas to beat the heat. She used her watch to set timers to remind herself to take breaks and drink water. She also purchased a wide brim hat with a cloth that covered her neck and lower face, to protect her skin from UV rays. Her mom sent her a long sleeve white shirt made from UV protective fabric. I must confess to needing to be much better about taking care of my skin. I spend a lot of time in the sun, have white skin, am speckled with moles, and have a family history of melanoma, all of which are risk factors. This summer, I plan to make like Nicole and to be much more vigilant about covering up my skin from the sun. I also am installing lights in my greenhouses, so that I can work there at night.
The Critters are Hungry
During the drought, the brush and woods surrounding our fields turned from green to brown. In August, I found myself looking back on a picture of the farm from early May in astonishment, wondering how the farm could have ever been so green. I did not have to mow the lawn during summer 2020. The crops were a green oasis in a sea of brown. Deer and woodchucks ate the crops like never before. Their food sources in the woods had dried up, and so they risked the exposure of our open fields in their determination to find food. While I haven’t yet found any reliable solution to the critters, short of investing lots of money into an extremely high deer fence, I do want to pass on the hard-earned knowledge that with drought comes increased pressure from furry four-legged pests. I may end up getting a dog to help scare away the wildlife.
Variety is the Spice of Life
There are many benefits to growing a wide variety of crops. I struggle to find a balance between wanting to increase the variety of what I grow, out of my own personal love of trying new things, and as an insurance in case one crop has a bad year, and between wanting to simplify and reduce my workload by growing fewer crops. A drought highlights the benefits of diversity. The tomatoes flourished during the drought conditions. The zinnias bloomed less prolifically, and the dahlias were slow to get started. The summer squash thrived during the hot and dry weather, while the cucumbers were plagued with striped cucumber beetle. The beetles seemed to be a problem unrelated to the drought, as they were prolific throughout the east coast in 2020, even in areas that were not affected by drought. The cucumber beetle explosion was likely caused by the previous winter being exceptionally warm and mild. If it’s not one thing, then it’s another. Anyways, the green beans thrived and produced abundantly during the drought, and so did the carrots, which were irrigated aggressively after sowing to ensure germination. Carrots are notoriously slow to germinate, and very sensitive to drying out during their long germination time. I’m amazed that I managed to grow a big crop of carrots during the drought, and for that I have to thank our reliable and deeply drilled well. Once they germinate, carrots seem to have a high tolerance for drought.
The image shows just some of the diversity of crops produced on the farm, with radishes, summer squash, kale, cucumbers, shishito peppers, cherry tomatoes, basil, green beans, dahlias and sunflowers portrayed in the photograph.
I hope my ramblings here help you to prepare and cope should you ever find yourself farming or gardening during a drought. I am writing this in the aftermath of a major snowstorm, while the farm is buried under all the precipitation we missed during the summer, wondering what challenges and opportunities the 2021 growing season will bring. I know that whatever the season brings, flexibility, adaptability, variety and self-care will be important to succeed.
If you want to Learn More
I previously covered the story of how a puddle on our farm became an oasis for pollinators and frogs during the drought in my blog post, "The Puddle Pond." I also reviewed the tomato varieties grown during the drought of 2020 in my "Tomato Review" post. Sterling Organic Farm has vegetable and flower subscriptions that can help you eat seasonally and have a deeper connection to the land. The vegetables and flowers grown on the farm are divvied up into weekly shares picked up on the farm by our members. What is on your plate or in your bouquet will shift as the seasons change and will depend on the weather conditions. It is a great way to eat healthier, understand where your food/flowers come from, know and support your local farmer, and reconnect to the land. If you would like to learn more or to join the flower and vegetable subscriptions, please click here.