"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A "No Water" Tomato

I worry that we will someday be faced with a drought situation like the ones taking place in several other countries including parts of the United States. This has lead me to consider various water retention alternatives such as rain water storage, wide spacing of plants, deep planting and so on. While I do not practice every one of these methods daily, I do experiment with them all in order to have the knowledge and experience if the need should arise. I refer you to Throwback at Trapper Creek's blog for some excellent information and real life experience dealing with these subjects Water – harvesting, using, and protecting.

Some of our garden vegetables, once established, can withstand going without much precipitation because they have long roots that are able to seek out moisture. Carrots, parsnips, salsify, various endive, parsley, strawberry spinach, garden sorrel, etc. all seem to do really well in this situation. Many other plants can also survive and produce on very little water, with a little help. The trick, in our garden, is to plant these vegetables as deeply as possible and space them far enough apart so they do not compete with each other for water. Tomatoes and peppers are perfect for deep planting as they will root along the buried parts of their stems.

I have been playing around with the idea of growing plants with no water for a few years now. One of the best candidates for a certain experiment I have been working on has been a cherry tomato plant. No water, as in no water from me after the initial planting. A small cherry tomato plant with a good root system was chosen as it would seem to be closer to its wild South American counterparts and having a smaller fruit would, in theory, need less moisture. Each year I have saved the largest seeds off these plants and productivity seems to be increasing.

In this particular trial a hole around 3' deep is dug in an area of dry hardpacked earth. It is then filled with a bucket of raw kitchen scraps whose moisture the plants roots will reach in about a 1 1/2 months when water is most needed in our area.


A half foot of rich composted soil is then added. The plant is placed into the hole, surrounded with more rich soil, damp leaves or grass are also added to help hold in the moisture. At this point the plant receives the only water I will give it other then what, if any, mother nature provides for it.


More dirt covers the leaves and as the plant grows I continue to add leaves and dirt three or four more times during the first month until the plant has about a foot of this dirt covered mulch above the soil line. The moisture will be held in, the plants roots are deep and as they grow will eventually have access to the moist rotting kitchen waste.


Productivity is less then if it was watered regularly but our plants have grown tall and healthy producing exceptionally sweet cherry tomatoes. It is a little more effort to plant this way, but I do know that if faced with a water shortage I would still be able to grow tasty tomatoes.

I am also considering trying some small water wicking beds for certain crops on the outskirts of my garden. There is a lot of information on this creative subject at http://scarecrowsgarden.blogspot.com/search?q=water+wicking+beds.

One of the best books that I have read on the subject of growing food with little moisture and many other helpful topics is Steve Solomon's book "gardening when it counts." I highly recommend it to everyone.

18 comments:

Accidental Huswife said...

I'll be interested to find out how the no water tomato works. A great source for this kind of gardening is Gardening When It Counts -- fantastic book that converted me from high density, high input square foot gardening to wide raised beds. So much easier and better for my area! I've successfully grown peppers, squash, various greens, and artichokes without watering after the initial planting. I guess that's not too surprising in a more wet climate but in ours it takes some planning.

el said...

Wow, lack of rain is SO not my problem, in fact, my problem is the opposite of yours and AH's, so I can get away with intensive gardening in small-ish beds, plus, it's a lot less land to weed ;) However, I have always wondered about the "what if's," especially regarding our greenhouses. These things require a lot of water and it means I run the hose from the rainbarrels to them; no biggie for the most part, especially with all the mulch in there. But I have been known to lose whole outdoor crops due to August flooding.

Getting a big root system sounds pretty imperative for a low-water garden, so I am glad you posted this, Mike, about your plans. I am sure those cherry toms will be great due to a lack of the wet stuff! Me, my tomatoes are almost too juicy if I grow them outside. Great for salsa, not so great for sauce.

SuburbanGardener said...

Very curious how this goes. When did you start this trial in the ground?

Silke said...

That is so interesting, although lack of water is not something we have here this year. It does remind me though of gardening in New Mexico during the drought. We planted lots of tomatoes which we only watered sparingly (we also had so much clay in the soil that it held the moisture pretty well). The tomatoes loved it (especially all the sunshine) and we had a great harvest - they did have tougher skin though, but the taste was super concentrated and soooo good! Here, we almost get too much moisture. I'll be curious to see how your no-water tomato does. :) Silke

Mr. H said...

Accidental Huswife,

I will post a picture of the first tomato, last years tomatoes were great.

Your climate would be most challenging, we have been very fortunate so far. I do think it is good to consider certain issues before they arise in order to be better able to deal with them. I

I would love to know how you plant your squash, we have an unirrigated field that I want to use for squash but worry the plants would not survive the summer.

Steve Solomon's book is well used around here.

Mr. H said...

Hi El,

We have lots of available water at this point but rain water cannot be counted on around here. I mostly just want to be prepared in advance as drought issues seem to be every where these days.

I can't even imagine what August flooding means, it is on of our driest months... the month we start to worry about fires.

I so hope to set up one of your hoop houses in the near future... I have the spot all picked out.:)

Mr. H said...

SuburbanGardener,

This will be my fourth year of growing this particular type of cherry tomato in this manner. We planted the one in the picture about two weeks ago and should get ripe fruit off it by early August, or sooner, if all goes well.

It works great if you have a sunny spot that you can't water regularly or at all. We have gotten super sweet tomatoes every year so far. Just not quite as many tomatoes as the plants in the main garden area. I think the kitchen scraps might help with the flavor, they certainly make the plants grow well.

Mr. H said...

Silke,

That is the first good thing I have ever heard about clay soil.:) I hope they do well also, otherwise I will look most foolish if I am forced to post a picture of a dead or downtrodden plant with no tomnatoes on it. I have faith that they will perform as they have in the past... they had better.

Cross your fingers for me...

Stefaneener said...

That looks like a VERY interesting book.

There's a farm near here that specializes in dry farmed tomatoes -- and they command absolutely top prices.

Since we're totally on sand here, it's going to take a few years of composting to make water-retentive soil, at the very least. My sister has wonderful, water-holding clay, and her corn is bigger than mine.

And whether it "works" or not is somewhat beside the point -- except for eating, of course. It's an interesting attempt, and will add to your knowledge.

Mr. H said...

Stefaneener,

Dry land farming is something I really want to get more involved with. So many interests so little time.

Your raspberries look great, I can't wait until mine are ready.

chaiselongue said...

I'll be very interested to see how this plant grows. We have put kitchen scraps underneath plants and this does seem to give them moisture, but we still water them in dry periods. Our ornamental plants, though, are all chosen to survive without any watering at all (other than rain of course) after the first year.

Mr. H said...

Hi chaiselongue,

This is the fourth year we have grown this particular cherry tomato this way. In our climate we usually have a little spring rain and then sometimes nothing until fall.

By planting the tomato deep, layering the mulch, and making sure the wet scraps will not be accessed by the roots to soon the tomato has more then enough water to survive. Keep in mind what works in my garden may not work in another climate or garden.

Thanks for visiting,

Mike

howlingduckranch said...

You must have longer, hotter days than us. I've yet to grow a decent tomato here!

Mr. H said...

HDR,

They will do fairly well with six hours of sun or more. Ours get about seven or eight, but it is very filtered as we live in amongst the trees. We always start our tomatoes from seed in early March so they will have a good jump start on life. Our summers can be cold and wet or dry and hot like this year is shaping up to be.

Take a look at El's blog "Fast Grow The Weeds", she grows a lot of her tomatoes in hoophouses. I would like to try that myself, because we do have difficulty getting the fruits to ripen before fall sets in. Some years we end up with green tomatoes ripening all over the house... they still taste great when ripe though.

By the way, we mostly grow indeterminate tomatoes as they always withstand the harsh weather the best, for us anyway. Try "Bloody Butcher" for a hardy, delicious, red tomato that comes on in about 55 days and thrives in a six hour day. Perhaps my all around favorite.. so far.

Mike said...

I know this is an older blog entry, but I just read it and thought it was very interesting! The one thing I wonder about when saving water is, what about the chemicals? Rain water is sometimes very harsh and the roof coverings that water is to be caught off of are usually covered in chemical preservatives. I know rain water falls on the garden anyways, but it seems that adding extra rain water might be adding extra chemicals. I don't know, what are your thoughts? Are there some type of filters for use on rain barrels?

Mr. H. said...

Mike - Honestly, I have wondered that myself as the roofs of most peoples houses are composed of products that do in theory leach out some chemicals. So unless I had a metal roof like we do on our barn this would concern me too. I have seen filters for rain barrels but they are only set up to keep out large debris not chemicals.

So, since I have a petroleum based composite roof on my house I am a little leary of using the water for my garden. If it was wood shingles or even metal I would feel much better about it.

Casey said...

this sounds great, thanks for explaining it so well. Thinking of doing it like that but maybe with a big hunk of wood in there too for extra moisture retention.

I would take flavor over number any day, each of those flavor profiles must be whole other nutrients for ya.

The tomato sauce was great, know what flavor it was?

Mr. H. said...

Casey - Most of our 2010 sauce was a combination of numerous different tomatoes...glad you enjoyed it.

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