Gardening in Times of Extreme Weather

Olivia Sanders

Many folks kindly asked about how we fared in the rain from Hurricane Florence. We fared well, with no flooding and little erosion. I thought I’d share an update, some pictures, and some things I’ve learned about gardening in a very rainy season. 

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Top: Farm before Hurricane Florence
Bottom L: Collapsed tomato trellising after the storm
Bottom R: Runoff water collected in tractor bucket. The tractor was sitting in the barn during the storm. The water is from what flowed through during the weather event.

The weather is growing less predictable every year, and extreme weather events like these storms and droughts are becoming increasingly common. Because of the geography here, the weather can be very extreme, localized, and difficult to predict. We got only 5.5” of rain from Hurricane Florence, while our friends in the South Toe (same county, just over two mountain ridges) got 11.5 inches. Since we can’t change the weather, how do we use best practices to prevent damage to our crops?

These extreme weather events are new to us too, but I thought I’d share my observations about what’s working for us at the garden and what’s not. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are a lifetime of lessons to learn, but I’ve shared a few things we’ve picked up on. Some are from successes and some are from failures!

Slow water down on your landscape. Fast moving runoff grabs soil particles with it as it runs downhill. Slowing water down increases infiltration into the soil, which helps your plants grow and prevents that erosion. Many of the strategies below are some application of this concept.

Swales and berms helped us prevent erosion in this storm. Swales and berms are tools that help slow water down; swales are little gullies that collect water, and berms are rises that stop water from flowing. When you put a swale and a berm together “on contour,” meaning they go directly across the slope of the land, they act as little dams to stop fast moving runoff. (Those metal water bars that go across gravel driveways are similar to this.) While it’s helpful to put permanent, large scale berms and swales on your farm, if you just want to prevent some damage at the last minute like we did, you can run around the farm with a potato plow digging trenches uphill of all your fields

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Raised beds on contour are very stable. We have many raised garden beds that are built up from the walking paths, about 4-6 inches high. We have some that are laid in straight rows based on ease of cultivation, and some that are built “on contour,” meaning they go directly across the slope of the land. Between those, we found that the straight beds were more likely to erode due to fast moving runoff, while the contour beds stopped water and slowed it down, like little dams.

Alternatively, if drought is the problem, this strategy is still helpful– when the beds are on contour, they slow water down from moving off your property. The little dams act to hold water in the garden longer when you do have it.

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Mulch is great for protecting your soil and maintaining ideal moisture! Earlier this summer, a heavy rain fell on the garden, and we had some little chard plants surrounded by lots of bare soil. We thought, this is great! The chard had so much soil surface exposed to absorb the rain! Wrong. Within days, it was dry and cracked like the desert, damaged by the pounding rain.

This time around, we laid some hay mulch in between the plants. This layer slowed down the rain hitting the soil surface and prevented that damage. It also prevents the water from evaporating, keeping the soil moist longer. You can see how this strategy would help in a drought situation too.

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Choose shorter, sturdier corn varieties than we did! Like us, you may want to grow the biggest, baddest dry corn around, the one that grows 18 feet high, has two big ears per stalk, and takes over 100 days to mature. Learn from my mistakes–that’s not the corn for small mountain gardens! Tall, heavy, late maturing varieties in a small scale garden can so easily blow over in the high winds we get these late summer storms. Maybe you’ll have way better luck than us, but I just want to warn you so you don’t get disappointed by fallen, immature corn like us.

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Farming has always been a risky endeavor, and as the changing climate increases the likelihood of these extreme events, it’s only getting riskier. I am grateful we are gardening in a community that cares about how we all get fed. If you have any suggestions of your own to add to the conversation, don’t hesitate to comment or contact us!

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