The past two years have been very challenging years for gardeners. I find myself wishing for a “typical” year as we seem to have swung from one extreme to the other. Last year was a complete wash out, with many crops not coping well with the seemingly constant rain. This year we go to the complete opposite – dry! I cannot believe how fast my crops are literally wilting after I water them. I got taken by surprise by the extremely hot weather a few times, and while spending too much time at work, ended up missing a few waterings. It seems there is little forgiveness for this. How many times I uttered the phrase “but it was supposed to rain” as I looked at struggling plants. A lot of how well your crops will cope with weather extremes depends upon your soil type. Heavy clay soils tend to hold on to moisture; in wet years this can lead to a lot of fungal diseases. Sandy soils dry quickly, so in years of little rain it can be difficult to provide enough water. If you have a nice loam soil, then you have the equivalent of Goldilocks’s porridge that was “just right.”

This winter squash and corn patch benefits from afternoon shade. Note the wilting plants in the front left of the photo, and the bone-dry grass in the foreground. Photo by mrl2022.

I wrote an article a year ago where I commented about how well some varieties of green beans coped with the wet weather. It is interesting (making the best of it) to see how those same varieties of beans coped with the dry conditions. Although not a formal scientific study, the observations of these plants are notable. I generally plant three varieties of bush green beans: green, yellow, and purple. These are the same specific varieties I plant each year. During the wet year, the green were the first to die off, followed by the yellow.  The purple seemed to tolerate the wet weather quite well and produced a huge crop. Now that we have a dry year, the opposite seems to be holding true. The purple was the first to die off, the yellow are struggling some, but the green seem to be thriving. In a “normal” year, I have all three varieties producing a large crop. It is only in times of extremes do the tolerances become important. Most farmers choose varieties of crops that are well suited to their particular set of growing variables (soil, sun, soil chemistry, cultural habits, etc.). Interestingly, I have one variety of pole green beans that seemed to thrive in both the wet and the dry years. 

These family heirloom pole beans seem to thrive in all types of weather. No wonder they have been in cultivation for hundreds of years! Photo by mrl2022.

Watering sounds easy, but it can lead to trouble. Frequent irrigation with no rain can, over time, lead to salt accumulation in the soil. This is because when water evaporates, the salts dissolved within can stay behind. We usually do not see this here in the northeast, but the southwestern United States can. Due to time limitations we all suffer from, it is tempting to water a short sprinkle frequently, but this is not good for your plants as it encourages shallow roots. It is better to water less frequently, but for a longer period of time to encourage deep roots. Deep roots help the plant survive during times of drought. Having said all that, I have never seen the soil so dry as I did this year. I water with a sprinkler, and this year I had to increase my watering duration by 50 percent to adequately wet the soil. If your garden is small enough, it is a good idea to use drip irrigation. It wastes less water by putting it right by the plants. This requires running plastic piping throughout your garden, periodically poking a hole in it, and running a drip line to each plant. It is somewhat tricky to then rotate your crops the following year as the plumbing will generally need a different configuration. Careful planning may allow for some flexibility in this situation. Drip irrigation has the added benefit of not wetting the leaves, which can cause burn spots in some plants, and contribute to diseases in others. A less expensive alternative is a soaker hose which just seeps water along its entire length. This is simply snaked through the plants.  Remember though that watering is expensive! If you are on city water, you will have a substantial increase in your bill, and if on a well water, higher electricity costs. This assumes your well has enough water to keep up with the increased demand. The bigger the garden, the more water needed.

The last thing I wanted to comment on was shade. Although I generally think of shade as an enemy of agricultural crops, it can certainly work to your advantage in certain situations. This year, afternoon shade has helped keep some crops from drying out. My winter squash and corn seem to be thriving with some afternoon shade (this is the hottest time of the day!). The plants in my kitchen garden do not seem to wilt if in the shade of a poorly placed mulberry trees (I did not plant it so close to the garden; it was there when I purchased the house). Many times, gardeners will use shade cloth to cool heat-sensitive crops like lettuce. Shade may decrease the temperature by ten degrees. This can help the lettuce resist bolting. Don’t forget to select varieties resistant to bolting as well. Be careful of shade though. Hot, wet, and shady can lead to powdery mildew in a number of our favorite ornamental and food plants (phlox and zucchini for example). Most of our agricultural plants need six hours or more of sun each day.

This variety of cucumber thrived in last year’s constant rain, but struggles to hang on during our current dry weather. Photo by mrl2022.

The thing to keep in mind is that these extremes do not usually happen. You may get a few years in a row like we have had, but there are many more typical years to come. Use these years to your advantage and learn what you can. Try not to let yourself get frustrated. I find myself thinking about my soil composition more now than ever. This would be a great time to get your soil tested. Adding compost can help aerate clay soils, and hold moisture in sandy soils.  Compost not only adds nutrients to the soil, but also improves nutrient retention. I like making observations and comparisons in these types of years. For example, in last year’s wet, the cucumbers grew like crazy. In this year’s dry, they have not grown much at all. Apparently, cucumbers like a lot of water (but not soggy soil which leads to disease). Experiencing and now knowing this can help me grow better cucumbers in years to come. So many people rate their garden as successful or not by the amount of produce produced in a given year. Of course, each year this is the goal, but when you learn more about your soil and plants this can help you grow more crops during your entire lifetime. To me, the knowledge is the most valuable part!

Matt Lisy