Summer Drought, and Garlic
Updated: Aug 3
By Peter Heffelfinger
August 2, 2023
This year’s drought, which started early in the spring, made the soil bone-dry by late May and into June. My garlic partner Jerry, who has gardened in the valley for many years, says it is the driest he has ever seen it. Skagit, Whatcom and Snohomish Counties were placed on emergency drought status this week, along with nine other counties in the state. Three small, public well systems in rural Whatcom County have run out of water for their customers, and three more are close to running out as well (Cascadia Daily News, 7.30.23). Rising temperatures, less rainfall, increased snow melt, and reduced stream flows have all been a factor. The city of Anacortes has a large amount of water rights to draw on from the Skagit River, and in the past it has ceded some water to agricultural users in the valley during summer droughts. We shall see if there will be water limitations for city of Anacortes residents and for some Fidalgo Island users in August.
[Image to right: beans climbing into the sun.]
My large vegetable garden near Campbell Lake relies on a shallow dug well that draws from the watershed flowing out from the south end of Whistle Lake. The well is already down to the low levels usually only occurring in late August. Fortunately there's an emergency backup: a much deeper, artesian well just above it that supplies the main residence. But we are entering into a new era of climate change, which the U.N. recently described as moving from global warming to global boiling.
The heavy half inch or so of rain we had last week eased things a bit, but did not really penetrate the soil deeply. With the sustained hot weather and the increased need for water in our gardens, it is vital to conserve water wherever possible. To check if your plants need watering, dig down an inch below the top surface of the soil with your finger to see if the subsurface layer is still a bit damp from the last watering.
If it is totally dry, then the plants need a deep watering until that lower area is sufficiently moist. Frequent but only shallow watering is inadequate, causing plants to droop excessively in the heat, drop flowers, fail to set fruit, or cause defects such as blossom end rot.
Water deeply, but with a sufficient interval in between waterings for the plants to absorb the moisture fully. Do not wait until the leaves start to sag, which means the plant’s internal water pressure, known as turgor, has dropped too low and the plant has gone into survival mode.
[Image to left: wood chips between plants, cardboard mulch among plants.]
If you haven’t already done so, shield bare soil from direct exposure to the sun by mulching with whatever is on hand: straw, cardboard, compost, inverted nursery pots, wood chips, or if needs must, plastic weed blocker fabric or black plastic. Make sure the water gets directly under the layer of mulch instead of being absorbed by or diverted away from the plants by the protective materials. Drip irrigation systems and soaker hoses also work well, delivering small but regular amounts of water. If you are watering by hand or hose, do so in the morning when evaporation is less and plants can absorb moisture before the heat of the day. Overhead watering in the hot sun can also burn leaves. As a rule, water the soil directly, and thus the roots, rather than the foliage.
[Image to right: soaker hoses at the roots of corn stalks.]
For larger plants such as cabbages, I make a berm of soil around the base of each stem to create a 6-8 inch wide shallow crater, to hold a small pool of water for the plant to absorb rather than having the water run off. One can refill the pool as needed if hand watering.
For tomatoes, to prevent early and/or late blight, it's especially important never to water the leaves directly. Water the soil below carefully, not causing any soil to splash up onto the stem or any low hanging leaves. Blight spores in the soil will infect the plant if they land on plant tissue. Remove all low hanging leaves around the base of the plant up to a level of 6 inches to prevent infection.
Last year’s garlic crop was hit by black fungus on the roots due to my overly wet site.
My new garlic patch site is just down the road, at a neighbor’s garden and a longtime reliable garlic-growing site. It's at a retired farm, with now just a small herd of sheep and hay fields. I spent three days last fall, next to a former pig sty, digging out rocks to make fresh raised beds in the mostly clay soil. Over the winter I trenched around the beds to allow the heavy rains to flow down the slight slope. The garlic, all newly purchased seed stock, looked fine all winter and produced early scapes and leaves with a minimum of rust. I stopped watering the almost mature garlic three weeks prior to harvest, to start drying out the bulbs and prevent fungus on the outer sheaths covering the cloves. In spite of a winter topping of compost and a layer of Starbucks coffee grounds, the soil became rock hard during the dry spring, with deep cracks opening up. At harvest some of the mature bulbs had been deformed by the compressed soil, while a few stayed oval in shape and were not fully developed into distinct cloves.
Overall the garlic, Korean Red and Chesnok Red hardneck varieties, will be usable but not as prolific as my usual plantings of Music and Deja Vue. I did try a few rows of softneck garlic this year, a large, slightly purple variety grown successfully at the same site over the years, which looks ok so far. Friend Jerry’s garlic bed nearby, built up over the years with compost, suffered less damage, but the bulbs were significantly smaller than his usual standard.
In contrast to my difficulties, at the Anacortes Middle School "Garden to Table" program aided by Transition Fidalgo, a section was planted last fall with an unknown hardneck garlic variety from Samish Island. Grown in a bed with 12 inch high side boards and a mix of commercial soil and compost, plus a slight layer of straw mulch, the bulbs were disease free, a good size, and very attractive -- what garlic should look like. Perhaps that's what's required these days: optimum drainage, fresh disease-free soil, and perhaps a bit of good fortune in not picking up a fungus from local seed stock. Some of the cured bulbs will go out soon to Transition Fidalgo's Share-the-Bounty stands, while some will be saved for the students this fall to learn how to use the "stinking rose" in the kitchen.
Other plantings this year have been doing well. My Angelo Pellegrini Italian heirloom pole beans and Rockwell Pioneer dry beans (both from Uprising Seeds in Bellingham) are about to start producing. I just put in a second crop of Bulb Fennel starts, with cardboard mulch and nursery pots to protect them from the sun. The leeks, with regular watering, are starting to size up and are rust-free so far. The potato plants have mostly died down and the tubers are ready to harvest. The tomatoes are almost to the top of the hoop house and are setting fruit, helped by the local bumblebees, but no ripe ones yet except for the early Sungolds.
[Image to left: cardboard mulch along pepper plants]
All the peppers, both sweet and hot varieties, are looking especially bushy since I finally tried the early pruning method: removing the tops of the single-stemmed young plants, and leaving at least three leaf intersections with side buds below. A radical step, but the result is amazing growth so far, with innumerable buds on very stocky plants.
(Thanks to my favorite hot pepper website: peppergeek.com)