Running out of water. Now what? By
We spoke a few weeks ago about the drought that we’re experiencing, and what that could do to our global food supply. It’s kind of scary stuff. Our reliance on a few genetically modified breeds of corn has backed us into a proverbial corner, and a failure of that crop is going to drive up the prices of everything from a loaf of bread to a gallon of gasoline. One of the commodities that is really going to get the Bum’s Rush is beef.
We get about 20% of our protein from straight-up meat products, and most of our commercial meat in the United States is grain fed. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, and with H2O being in somewhat short supply these days, that’s going to become an increasing problem. We’re also projected to add about 2 billion hungry souls to our big blue marble over the coming decades, and they’re going to want something to eat too. Some analysts are predicting that over the next thirty years or so we’ll see most of our planet’s human population switching to a vegetarian diet. How do you like those apples? Or tomatoes, if you prefer.
Back in the good old days before agribusiness and frankenfood, we grew things in accordance with our climate, and we were actually pretty good at it. Granted, the people who lived here before we were a great big honking country didn’t have bountiful grocery stores or the advantage of places like The Urban Farmhouse, and certainly didn’t enjoy the splendor of the fast food drive-through, but they ate pretty well. We’re also big fans of the backyard garden and people growing some of their own food, and perhaps we can take some cues from the Native Americans and learn how to cope with our changing climate.
The first step is deciding where you want your garden to grow. Many of our Urban Farmhouse fans live within the city of Richmond, and garden space is at a premium. Your natural inclination might be to choose the biggest open space around your house, but the sun-drenched spot of browning turf may not be the best place to grow food. The sunniest spot isn’t always the best. The hottest part of our day is generally the mid-afternoon, and that’s when your little veggies tend to get fried. Look for a spot that gets some good morning wake up sun, and then some afternoon shade. You can create this with some man-made intervention. Plant near a fence or natural border, or create some shade with burlap sacks or old sheets.
Now take a look at your soil. Most of us are digging in historic fill, or the detritus of the building of our homes. Sandy soil is horrible for planting, and especially if you’re experiencing a water shortage. Water just runs right through it. A little bit of clay is good, as is clean, organic matter. You can create this with some careful composting, and a bit of mulch. Mulch will add to the soil as it breaks down, and a thin layer on top of the soil will help to retain moisture. Keep in mind that some types of mulch are treated, and some types of wood, like oak, release things into the soil that may skew your balance of minerals and nutrients.
And how much do you water? On a big, commercial farm, watering is often done with large, sweeping machines. This adds a great deal of water, but much of that evaporates before it ever enters the earth. A better tack is to directly water your plants. They don’t get thirsty at the leaf, but rather at the roots. When you first begin to plant, a good watering program will allow the plants to grow deep, full root systems that will help hardiness later on in the season. And how do you know if you’ve watered enough? Stick your hands in the soil. If you can mold it into a little ball and it holds the shape, it has enough. It should just begin to clump.
When you water, go directly to the plants. A sprinkler is fun to run through, but not always effective for watering. You can go old school and walk the rows with your watering can, or you can use a drip hose. This is a hose that allows water to escape along its length, and actually uses about half as much water as a traditional sprinkler. You can run it right along the stems of your plants, with all of the water going where it is supposed to, and not your neighbor’s yard.
And how do you plant? There is something very pleasing about neat, tidy rows of crops, but that isn’t always the best method. For one, different plants may need differing amounts of water and are ill-suited to be next to each other. Grouping certain plants together can, however, be very beneficial. Rather than putting all of your tomatoes in one spot, and all of the lettuce in another, as much as it may make your garden look uber-organized, grouping certain plants together can be a good thing. By creating these little mini-forests of plants you can create little ecosystems, and the plants will naturally bond together to share nutrients, sun, shade, and water. There is a system that the Native Americans used called the Three Sisters. They would nest beans, corn, and squash together, and those plants would form a nifty little agreement. Beans seem adept at adding nitrogen to the soil, which the corn loves. The corn would grow big and strong, providing a nice place for the beans to place their vines, and would provide much needed shade for the squash. The squash grew prickly leaves and stems, which most pests hated, thereby protecting the corn and beans from insects. Real cycle of life stuff, right?
It really doesn’t take a grant from the USDA to grow food. And you certainly don’t need a special, highly technical genetically modified crop to make a cucumber. You don’t need to grow a million tomato plants or empty an aquifer to make something that you can eat. You just need a little piece of land and some common sense. Then let Mother Nature take over.