A reader emailed me in the New Year to point out that it has been months since I last posted a garden update. They weren’t complaining, but they were disappointed that I’d abandoned my regular garden updates last summer.
The truth is, by late summer, I’d basically abandoned the gardens.
Unless you live in a cave, you no doubt know that California’s lack of rainfall over the past 13 months has resulted in a record-breaking, headline stealing, drought.
As we depend on an agricultural well for the farm’s water supply, we’ve been tightening water use on the farm since early last summer. If our well runs dry, which has already happened to some of our neighbors, we have no water. The animals (and humans) on the farm, until this drought period breaks, must have priority on water usage.
Although we planted a full-scale vegetable garden last season, by late summer we had already stopped irrigating heat-tolerant plants, including peppers, and eggplants, and as the tomatoes had already set fruit, we ceased irrigating those too.
I’d pulled most of the garden by late September, whereas in a normal year we can still be harvesting tomatoes in early November.
We anxiously awaited the fall rains, and in anticipation of their arrival I went ahead and planted kale, peas, and garlic in the late fall garden. However, October passed, then November, December, and by January we’d still had barely two inches of rain in our current rain year. I finally broke down in January, taking pity on the kale plants sitting in bone-dry garden beds, and watered them, twice, all the while keeping my eyes on the long range forecast models.
We did finally receive a little over three inches of rain last weekend though, but it’s still not a cause for celebrating, as we only stand at just over 5 inches of total rainfall in this rain year, not the greater than 30 inches we might expect, so we’re confronting another very dry season ahead.
At the moment we’re still trying to decide whether or not planting a vegetable garden makes sense for us this year. There’s no question that food prices in California will escalate this summer, unless we receive some significant rainfall in the next few weeks, but our dependency on a well for all of our water needs makes it difficult to justify the extra water use on the farm.
For now, I’m starting a few tomato and pepper seeds in trays, and by the time they need to be transplanted, we’ll have a better idea as to our total rainfall this season. Worst case scenario we can simply compost them if the rain doesn’t materialize. The majority of our produce this season though, is likely to come from the Farmer’s Markets.
In the meantime, while in the garden rummaging for seed trays, I discovered we had apparently sown a Skilton’s Skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus skiltonianus) in one of the empty seed trays. This individual is demonstrating its breeding colors, so perhaps at least a few extra skinks will sprout on the farm this year?
It’s not all doom and gloom in the garden at the moment though, and even I was somewhat surprised at the relative amount of green in the garden with the recent rain.
The Russian kale bed looks a little raggedy from the lack of mid-winter water, but perked up quite a bit after last weekend’s storm series.
The Lacinato and dwarf kales are a little smaller than I’d expect this time of year, but are pushing new growth, and if we see a little more rain the plants will no doubt catch up.
The big surprise, once I pulled back the row cover, was the garlic.
Part of the reason I covered the garlic in fall was not to protect it from frost during December’s cold snap, as garlic is actually quite hardy, but to help trap moisture. Last season the crop failed due to a lack of winter rain, but this season, with no supplemental moisture since October, the plants look much healthier. The water tends to condense on the inside of the row cover, and drips back onto the soil, but unlike plastic, it allows the plants to breathe. So, note to self, frost covers are just as useful at preventing excessive moisture loss during a dry winter, as they are at keeping Jack Frost at bay.
I removed the row cover this week though, as the daytime temperatures have been warm since the recent rain, and air circulation is imperative this time of year to prevent rust from forming on the leaves. Hopefully these plants will now make it through to May/June for the bulb harvest.
At the moment it stands that we’ll harvest the winter garden, but the question remains as to whether or not we can justify a summer garden this year.
With the exception of a few perennial crops, like asparagus, vegetable gardens are generally an annual investment. Although our orchard is only a few years old, it is a long-term investment.
Last season we severely restricted water use in the orchard, irrigating just enough to keep the trees alive, but there’s no question these young trees were stressed. However, there are signs of life, as our Aprium ‘Flavor Delight’ has been in bloom since the middle of January! Now, hot on its heels, the rest of the plums and pluots are starting to burst with bloom too.
I expect fruit production to be scant this season though, and we’re considering pulling the fruit from all the trees this year after fruit set, so the trees can conserve energy, and water, this season, but we’ll see what the weather does over the next few weeks.
In other garden news, after the collapse of the Rosemary hive last summer, miraculously, we have succeeded in coaxing all three of our remaining hives through winter, at least so far.
A hive inspection after the loss of Rosemary, however, showed that our Salvia hive was booming!
However, 2 weeks ago, Salvia looked precariously weak, and at one point I thought the hive was already a dead-out. I resisted opening the lid though to avoid chilling the bees, and opted to wait and see. All of our colonies are weak, for this time of year, as nectar has not been nearly as abundant this winter, but since the rain there are some encouraging signs that the hives are starting to build up again.
As soon as the clouds parted earlier this week, the rosemary plants, which are now blooming up a storm, were abuzz with the girls feverishly foraging for food, and entrance activity, in the sluggish Salvia colony, was definitely picking up, so there is hope for the bees this season. It’s likely to be another difficult year for these girls though, as our bees depend heavily on native forage in this area, so we’ll continue to feed these colonies to help them through what feels like an endless dearth.
There’s no question that the stars of our drought-stricken garden at the moment are the native plants. There’s a lot to be said for planting tough, durable, drought resistant, locally adapted plants, as the native garden areas look to be relatively unscathed at the moment. Some, like the sages, haven’t grown much over winter, and others haven’t bloomed much either, including our Manzanitas, but they’re holding their own.
My favorite Ceanothus ‘Puget Blues’ are starting to burst with color, and appear relatively unfazed by the lack of rain.
And even though the native deer grasses are past their prime for the season, they still provide plenty of winter garden interest, especially after we installed some garden lighting to highlight their architectural structure after dark.
The only problem is, now I don’t want to prune them!
One last winter garden bonus this season, is that after waiting three years for this volunteer Ribes sp. shrub to bloom, to identify it, despite record drought, and no supplemental irrigation, bloom it finally did!
It appears to be a malvaceum or sanguineum type, with pink flowers, and a pretty reminder that spring really is just around the corner.
Overall, the winter garden does hold some promise, but with reservoirs around the State still at critically low levels, and water tables continuing to plummet, it’s difficult to know how the gardens will do this year, so cross your fingers that this year we see a lot more spring showers, or this may be the first, and last garden update of the year.
In the meantime, I can’t believe that we’re now just two weeks away from kidding season!
Baby goats are on the horizon, and nothing says spring like baby goats, so stay tuned!