Cultivating Drought-Resistant Heirloom Varieties for Your Permaculture Garden

Sunflower

Copyright Ingrid Pullen Photography

I live in Washington State, USA, and you may already know that we’re experiencing a state-wide drought. This is shocking: everyone jokes about how it’s always raining, so you’re lucky if you get a tan, but it hasn’t rained as much lately. Supposedly we were going to have the same amount of rain but the snowpack would be depleted, which in turn affects the rivers and creeks, but I’ve noticed we’ve had less rain, and a hotter sun.

Some people I’ve talked to are getting to the point where they consider it par for the course, and are shrugging it off as if to say, what are we supposed to do about it? Others are searching for solutions, and are finding them in permaculture systems.

I’ve been worried about what drought, wildfires, and climate change in general will mean for food security and rising grocery store prices. Even the lushest areas of Washington have a high risk of wildfire this year, and other states in the US struggle with drought, raised risk of wildfire, and are voicing concerns about what this means for resource management. Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and South Dakota are all being asked to respond.

As far as food goes, I’ve already noticed produce getting more expensive and it’s only encouraged me to take the matter into my own hands. Look, the point of this article isn’t to scare you, and anyways, you and I both know there’s a solution.

Harnessing The Power of Permaculture

I recently moved into a house in an urban area to put some roots down, and some friends and I are getting to work on the land we have available to us. Using mostly free, repurposed materials and local plant starts and seeds (I figured local plants and heirloom varieties would be better adapted to local conditions already), I planted a modest garden, focusing more on quality than quantity, and set back to observe. So far, I have several large pots and a repurposed book case with carefully controlled conditions.

The free soil from a neighbor is mixed in with compost and then mulched well with leaves, grass clippings, pine needles and the like. A friend brought in a vermicompost and we have a few compost piles cooking to build the soil over time. Thanks to the mulch, I haven’t had to water as often.

I also planted using symbiotic relationships; no fertilizer, pesticides, or amendments have been added, yet they’re doing well even in the heat of the sun. At first I watered often, but then I realized I should approach my garden as if city-provided water wasn’t a given. After all, though we take it for granted, it’s supplied by humans and could technically be gone at any time.

It was then that I began conditioning my plants to be drought resistant.

I have a tendency to baby my plants. I coo over them, am very gentle and loving, and call them my babies. However, I’ve recognized that though nourishing and replenishing, natural conditions are often capricious, forceful, and demanding of a species to adapt in order to flourish. So I did an experiment to see if I could condition sunflowers to be drought resistant.

I soaked sunflower seeds and watered them frequently during germination. Once they appeared sturdy enough, I purposefully decreased my watering frequency from every day to once every three days or so and put them in direct sunlight; 9 out of 35 survived both slugs and minimal water and are strong and tall almost four weeks later. My friends and I will do the same thing with the seeds we harvest from those 9, or however many survive to flower.

A gardening friend told me this means I now have heirloom sunflowers. One in four of my original seed stock have adapted to drought conditions (and survived slugs). I’m no expert, but I’d venture a guess that it’s a pretty good success rate for rapid adaptation.

Yes, my garden is feeling the drought here in Bellingham, and some plants have died, but others are doing alright; some are even thriving. I’m challenging the garden to handle the drought and adapt to a changing climate. As I learn more, and have friends to help, I’ll adapt too!

The Next Projects: Hugelkultur and Swales

A group of friends are coming over soon for a work party. We’re building a hugelkultur, which means “hill culture” in German, to further adapt to changing conditions. Basically a hugelkultur is an exaggerated raised bed–I’ve seen some that were four feet tall, and some just a foot tall–filled with logs, sticks, sawdust, compost, and soil. All these goodies create a niche for decomposers and other soil organisms that form symbiotic relationships with plants. The plants use the nutrients over time and have an abundance of what they need. The logs also act as sponges to hold in water and stretch out any rain that falls.

We’ll also build a series of swales to capture water and intersperse it throughout the plant’s root beds. Since these will be dried up most of the time, the sides of the swale will act as a raised bed while not full of water.

As a Whole….We’ll Have a Drought Resistant System

So we’re creating a system that’s resistant to drought while also adapting the plants to the drought conditions that are symptomatic of a changing climate. Through seed saving, we’ll garner seeds that will adapt specifically to this little patch of land we call the yarden within a few years, but also to the area as a whole.

I’ll keep you updated on the status of the hugelkulture and swales, and how well the plants do in the face of the drought. If you have any suggestions or want to share tactics you use to drought-proof your garden, please leave a comment below!

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