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Is The Secret In The Woods?

Is it possible to grow produce without any irrigation whatsoever – even in a drought when temperatures are soaring into the 100’s? Some people believe it’s possible; however, as far as I know the only people who believe it live in northern climates. Has anyone ever tested it in zones 7 and above?

If not, I volunteer.

Now, I’m still going on with my self-watering container garden as planned. However, my recent decision to do my utmost to create my own potting soil by composting as many leaves as I can (and our mostly wooded five acres provides a lot of leaves) led me to wonder why, if people can grow seeds and plants more or less straight into a straw bale, couldn’t a person pack organic matter firmly into a pot, water and fertilize it, and successfully grow lettuce or a tomato in it? That would save a lot of money on potting mix ingredients, such as peat moss, perlite, and commercial compost.

That question made me suddenly thirsty for gardening information in general. And always in the back of my mind was the question, “Could I ever be able to garden here without irrigating?” Ruth Stout could, by watering her garden thoroughly before the heat of the summer set in and piling up to a foot of spoiled hay around her plants.

But then, she lived in an area of Connecticut in which overnight frosts in June are not uncommon – such frosts add moisture to the soil – and I’ll bet the folks up there never see three and more weeks straight with temperatures above the mid-nineties. Supposedly her soil was similar to ours – sandy – but there are several different degrees of “sandy”.

Seek, and ye shall find

My sudden thirst sent me to my Kindle, where I visited the Kindle store and searched, “free book gardening.”

I wasn’t expecting much.

No, lie. I wasn’t expecting anything. That is, anything quality. I was expecting to encounter poorly-written books by authors who have no business writing and are just trying to make a buck by writing “books” (is anything under eighty pages in length really a book?) about topics that people do a lot of online searches for.

Like, oh, say, gardening.

But then I found a smallish book entitled Growing Food God’s Way. It is co-authored by three people, two of whom I’ve never heard. But when I saw Joel Salatin’s name, I was on it. The natural farmer has had a bunch of books published by traditional publishers, so I figured anything with his name on it had to be good.

I also expected the book to be more or less about the way that he farms, the livestock rotation and all that.

It turns out to be about this guy in Washington state of whom I’ve never heard, Paul Gautschi, who runs a farm based on natural design called “Back To Eden.” I’m only a third of the way through the book, and so far the discussion has centered around the miracle of wood chips.

Due to the horribly low water pressure from his family’s well, way back when he and his family moved on to their rural property he had to figure out a way (actually, ask God for a way) to grow an orchard without needing to irrigate it.

A few of the many benefits of wood chip mulch

He does so by piling wood chips over the area every spring. Seventeen years later, he realized that he would have a lot less work to do on his garden if he did the same thing there.

When we lived in Plano, Texas, I used wood chip mulch on my garden to keep down weeds and hold in moisture. However, I never piled it up as Paul recommends. The higher the pile, the more moisture retention. Also, roots grow like crazy and get more nutrients so you get a better yield. This increased nutritional uptake makes the plants healthier, which practically eliminates pests and diseases (I’d like to see a zucchini or pumpkin plant with zero squash bugs on it the entire season!).

The best news of all for me, who nearly quit gardening because of the native soil that doesn’t hold moisture in, is that composted wood chips are as great at holding moisture as peat moss. That is, the humus produced by decayed wood mulch can hold up to twenty times its weight in water, releasing it as necessary.

My upcoming experiment

Thanks to the abundance of fire ant nests on our property, I’m pretty sure I’ll always prefer to follow the method I’m going to begin next spring. Unless –

But I’ll get to that in a moment.

However, I would like to tell other people who garden in the South what they could expect by trying the wood chip solution. I especially want to talk to people in our situation, whose soil has a high percolation rate. So here’s what I’m going to do.

Next year, I’m going to plant two two-feet square beds. Both beds are going to have chicken wire on the bottom and sides to keep out Mr. and Mrs. Mole. In one bed, I’m going to put down three inches of peat moss, into which I will plant. The peat moss will hold moisture a lot longer than the sandy soil here, so I should not need to irrigate the bed very often.

The other bed I will simply amend with some goat manure. Both beds, after I plant into them, I will water thoroughly and then cover with six inches of wood chips (which will come from our woods).

After that, I won’t water them. Nature will water them, or they won’t get watered.

I’ll add more wood chips every year, and give a report every fall as to my results. If after three years no irrigation – or very little – is necessary, I will write a ninety-nine cent article that I will publish to Kindle.

I’m also interested to see if soil made by composted wood chips, in combination with a non-composted wood chip mulch, discourages ants from building nests in the beds. This may interest Southern gardeners even more than the irrigation issue!

Whichever way you slice it, I aim to answer the question, “Can you grow food in the South without needing to irrigate?”

P.S. – It should go without saying that my mini-orchard is going to be covered in wood chips. I expect I’ll need to irrigate it during the hottest and driest summer – at least for five years or so, until the wood chips have created a peat moss-like soil which will hold onto a lot of moisture. But even if I have to irrigate only half as much, I will consider the experiment to be a dramatic success.

P.P.S. – If you’re interested in watching the “Back To Eden” documentary, you can view it for free at http://backtoedenfilm.com.



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