The Dog Days of Drought

By Cam Mather

I am worn down. Nature has just about broken me. This drought has gotten into my brain and is corrupting the files. We have had a brutally dry summer and I’m getting really sick of doing Mother Nature’s work for her.

Now I know I have no reason to complain. I grow vegetables on a very small scale compared to most commercial farmers. And the fact that I actually have the luxury of being able to water and irrigate means I really should just shut up and stop complaining. Farmers in the southern U.S. – now they have a right to complain. The images I’ve been seeing on the news of withering corn and cotton and wheat plants are really depressing. I can’t imagine being one of those farmers who has invested that much time and money into a crop and then have to watch it dry up and die.

But I do think I have some basis for empathy, and this summer has greatly enhanced that ability. I grow in a very drought-prone area, so I’m used to this, and I expect it. The last two summers, though, have been particularly wet with more rain than we would have liked. On a good note, all my heat-loving plants like peppers, eggplants, sweet potatoes and tomatoes are doing great. The downside is that I have been watering all summer and it’s become a real grind.

I keep thinking about all the people who toured my garden early in the season, which was very wet, and raved about my soil. “Oh your soil is great!” “You’ve down such a great job on your soil!” Well I have put a lot into nurturing it for the last decade or so, but moisture disguises the reality of my soil. My soil is sand. When it’s moist it looks wonderful. When it gets dry as it is now, it looks like, well, a beach. A beach with a lot of organic material in it, but sand none-the-less.

So watering becomes a process of trying to return a specific area around a vegetable plant to something that will retain some moisture. If I’m using a watering can this means 6 or 7 sprinklings of water. The water from the first sprinkling generally runs off, and then each subsequent one soaks in a little bit more. If I don’t keep putting the water to it, it’s just not worth doing.

This is the beauty of our drip irrigation system. It drips water at a slow rate so that the soil can gradually absorb it. After a day of irrigation there is a wide, wet area around the plants and it looks like it should, after a day of rain. But I only have so much irrigation hose and while I do move it around the garden to essential areas, I can’t get to everything.

So now it’s turning into one of those “Well what do I water next? What’s the driest?” Or, now that I’m selling at the farmers market in Tamworth, I think about what is selling best and represents the greatest potential income and therefore needs to get watered first.

I start by 6 a.m. but I can’t last much past noon. It’s just too hot these days. And I still have to water all my berries which are done for the season, but which I want to keep moist this summer so they’re ready and better than ever next year.

Our flowers are suffering now. All the sunflowers are looking wilted simply because I can’t afford to put any water on them. Michelle and I love sunflowers, so this is a hard decision to make. But Mother Nature has forced us to make this choice.

I find droughts like this grind me down. It’s not just the physical exertion of watering, every day. It’s the mental frustration. A good rain would allow to me to back off for a few days, but it just hasn’t happened in about 8 weeks. Just like the plants I’m really, really desperate for a good rain. And there is none in the forecast.

And of course Mother Nature really likes to toy with your head, because during that time she has teased us many times. We’ve had rain in the forecast endlessly. We had a four-day stretch with cloud every day. Dark clouds that threatened rain. And they did spit a few drops on us, but no rain. You know those images of crazy people waving their arms madly at the heavens, cursing the rain gods? That would be me. Lack of moisture is causing me to lose it.

This happens at this time of year every year we have a drought like this. And in the 13 years we’ve been here I have come to realize that it is the norm. The rain rolls across the Great Lakes and dumps when it hits land in Western Ontario. By the time it gets to Eastern Ontario it usually has very little left. I watch the radar on the weather channel. The rains clouds get weaker and weaker the closer they get. And I know, I should have bought a place in Western Ontario. But I couldn’t afford as much land there as we got here because surprise, surprise, it’s more expensive there.

So this is the hand I’ve been dealt and I shall deal with it. Each year I bring more rain barrels on line. And I order more drip irrigation tubing. And I become more determined to earn more of my income from growing food, which forces me to buck up and stop complaining and water the garden. And yes, OK, I really should just stop complaining.

But it’s important that the people who read blogs like mine need to understand that moving out to the country and growing food doesn’t come without its own challenges. Yes, city life can be stressful, but being dependent on rain and sun and the climate in general can take its toll too.

On a brighter note though, the vegetables that are getting watering look great. People are raving about our produce at the market and this is very gratifying. And I took this photo of sunflowers that seeded themselves in the vegetable garden. Apparently some bee pollinated a sunflower last year that was either plain yellow or had the reddish tones, with the other flower’s pollen, and this plant couldn’t decide what to be, so it just decided, OK, some petals will be plain and some will be fancy. Not a bad choice. Very trendy I think.

Michelle’s Note: Cam wrote this blog late last week. Yesterday we managed to get a bit of rain. Not enough to make up for the weeks and weeks of drought, but enough to perk up the sunflowers and Cam’s mood, just a bit.

10 Responses to “The Dog Days of Drought”

  • Izzy:

    Just discovered your site – nice to see someone handling “peak oil” with gardens more than guns, and solar more than silver…
    I am no expert gardener, but I’m hearing about ancient techniques, such as underground trenches, long pots stuck into the ground (fill with water, let it soak underground), and filling deep holes with fresh manure (bugs come, and turn the soil for you).
    All of these methods seem to have in common: don’t even try to water the surface – get deep underground, to encourage the development of the root system.
    Also thinking that a little shade might be a good idea next year. (Watch it rain next year!)

  • Pauline:

    Love the sunflowers.
    Keep smiling

  • Lorna:

    Thinking good thoughts of rain for you! I know the frustration-we just returned to the Middle East after a summer holiday and are back in the hot and rainless desert. I have one tree and three shrubs in my back “garden” that didn’t completely perish over the summer (now how is that possible?!) and I feel compelled to keep them alive with irrigation; however, my head and heart just can’t wrap themselves around the senseless act of irrigating non-edible plants with priceless water in the desert! There is a strong need to see something living and green though. Hard to put that feeling into words. I still haven’t watered. Yet. But I know I’ll break down soon and give them one last breath of life. They really are very sorry looking, and they did survive the heat and lack of water for so long.

    Thank you for posting pictures of things beautiful and green. I am looking forward to the day!

  • Cathy McPeek:

    Take care of yourself and avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke, no crop is worth dying over…literaly! And don’t you have a pond? Jump in once in a while. Rig a solar powered pump to a high point and build a above ground water tower out of a PVC Septic tank/cistern. Drip from there.

    It is always easier to grow in raised beds with custom made soil on a small scale. But I can’t afford it. Thanks to junk mail, my paper shredder generates bedding for the chicken, and fiber for between my rows which helps retain moisture. Can you put to use those bales that way? Are you able to read the moisture in the soil with a guage? Can you water at night to take advantage of a slower evap rate at that time? More water for the roots and less for the rainless clouds.

  • This time of year is always a drag for gardeners. We are all ready to relax a bit for the winter. Although we don’t live in a drought prone area (Pacific Northwest near Seattle) it also doesn’t rain as much here as people think. We live on an island with lots of mini eco systems and we just got a little rain today for the first time in 6 weeks. My house is located in the one spot that gets the least amount of rain all summer and like you my soil is so sandy that I could dump a lake on it and it would need it again the next day. I actually have to dig trenches and fill them with compost then mulch like crazy before planting to give the plants something to live in. Kinda like container gardening without the container. After two years of composting, watering, and fighting with it I have decided to build raise beds filled with good soil. I’m not getting any younger so I am going to play god and build my own soil from the ground up sort of speak. Here’s looking forward to a plentiful harvest and well deserved rest for all gardeners and crazy as we are we will all be just as anxious to get to it again in the spring.


    P.S.- Besides reading your current post I am working my way through your archives. Thanks for posting.

  • Hi Ron
    Thanks for your comment and your ideas. We are definitely working on investing in more drip irrigation and we’ve just acquired some much larger containers for water storage. I’m sure Cam will be blogging about the changes that he makes soon!

  • Hi Gerrit! I think SFG refers to “Square Food Gardening.”

  • Excuse my ignorance, but what is SFG?

    Wow Cam, that’s a powerful post. I spent one summer working as a farm hand on a moshav in the Negev desert and was seriously impressed by the Israeli innovations in drip irrigation and desert farming in general. So I know a little bit of what you’re referring to, but we had endless rolls of irrigation hose, not this manual slog you’re going through.

    As I read your post I kept thinking about global warming and the new normals that are going to make life very difficult for people. I sure hope your area isn’t in line to get hotter. If it does, you might need to learn some from Israeli farmers.

    Sustainable Living Blog

  • Cam,

    Hang in there. I grew up on a farm and was always stressed by the weather. It is funny when I left I stopped caring about the weather. I was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders so I empathize with you.
    Since you do have water available for irrigation why not invest in more hose and a pump. Maybe even fabricate a small water tower.
    I realize that you do want to do everything with renewable power and if you used your excess power available to fill a tower then gravity could do the work during the day and night.
    Don’t take me wrong I don’t know a lot about your situation or the layout of the land or what resources you have available so maybe what I am saying is off base. I know that it is real easy to give advice and suggestions when you are not the one doing the work so don’t take anything I say the wrong way.
    I enjoy reading about your farm and struggle to make things work and although I don’t agree with all of your viewpoints I admire what you are doing and wish you success.

  • Mark:

    I know it’s hard to contemplate, but QUIT TRYING TO FIX YOUR SOIL. Quit watering the sand! Switch to SFG; it’s not too late!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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