Lynne and I both have special dietary requirements, and the principle part of that diet is fresh vegetables. Having been a successful gardener long before we got married, I set out to impress my wife with an endless cornucopia of garden-fresh, organic food. Soil + seed + sunlight + water = free food, right? It couldn’t be any easier.
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The first obstacle is that our two acre lot only has two modes–swamp and desert–depending on the weather. The second obstacle is that our well is 85 years old, only 18 feet deep, and is prone to running nearly dry during the summer months even without having a garden to water. Given you can’t ordinarily grow corn in swamp-like or desert-like soil conditions, this garden presented a few challenges that I initially underestimated. Being the chief forecaster for Dayton Weather Spot sadly does not give me access to the weather mechanisms over Ohio, and even in a perfect year a garden in my yard was going to be tricky.
In spring of 2012 I scouted out the perfect spot in the yard for our garden. Runoff from our downspouts and sump pumps collected in a large “lake” that would form beside our house. The local road crews were unable to bury the drain tiles necessary to drain our yard in a timely manner, and that issue alone removed well over an acre of land for consideration for our garden spot. Having this much unmanaged water in the yard did nothing but make gardening impossible and mowing difficult.
Behind the house was an area of land that was “high ground” compared to the rest of the yard, and while it still got very swampy, there were never any large-scale puddles. Controlling the swamp would be key to a successful garden (…or so I thought), and I spent a lot of time with a shovel taking topsoil from higher ground, and placing it into the puddles.
After leveling a 50′ x 75′ area by hand with a shovel (it was too wet to till), I waited for the rain to stop. Instead of having dry spots and puddles, I had a muddy mess of muck…Not exactly puddles, but about the furthest thing you can imagine from dry land. That’s okay, surely the weather was going to cooperate. Right. By June it finally stopped raining long enough for me to lay down large tarps to kill what was left of the grass, and then till our garden spot. A few days later, I got the whole thing planted…around 4 weeks after I prefer to get it done, but it was done.
The first thing that happened was more flooding rain…enough to bring back the swamp. The problem with having seeds planted in mud is that they don’t get the oxygen they need to germinate and root properly. They rot. Beans and corn are notorious for this, but no vegetables are exempt. The second thing that happened was drought. Temperatures soared to over 100° several days, the ground cracked, and the few plants that actually germinated started to dry up and die. The copious amounts of water that killed the first half of the crop were barely a match for the heat and drought that killed the second half of the crop. Out of approximately 1500 corn seeds planted, we had around 12 plants.
2012’s garden was an epic failure. I’ve been gardening since I was five years old, and it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. …I pledged to never have that happen again! I swore that 2013 would be different! …And it was. In 2013, I experienced drought THEN floods instead of floods then drought. While it wasn’t quite the disaster that 2012’s garden was, I only had around 50 corn plants make it out of the 1800 seeds we planted.
The good news is that my continued prodding to the street department (or pure coincidence) prompted repairs “downstream” from my yard and the large puddle (we called it “Lake Miler”) that used to form beside our house during the wet season was gone! …If water could now freely escape our property, then maybe there was a way for me to divert it, store it, use it, and control it for our garden instead of always falling victim to it.
I set about on a mission in spring 2014 to finally win the battle against water. I built raised beds to keep crops out of wet soil, I built bean fences to keep beans off the ground. I built large tomato cages to keep tomatoes out of the mud and away from slugs. I built two large compost bins to enrich the soil. I dug a pond by hand in the garden. I routed our sump pumps and downspouts to the pond. I ran the pond’s overflow to a series of canals to properly irrigate crops. I constructed small earthen dams and a makeshift lock system to control the amount of water standing in the garden. …And I dug a long ditch to route the extra runoff to the new drain tile at the street. …Not necessarily in that order.
In a series of future blog posts, I will be tackling the topics of raised beds, hugelkultur, composting, hand-dug ponds, moving water with pumps and gravity, crop selection, and many other garden topics. Successful gardening is often much more than just soil, sunlight, seeds, and water.
Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, and be sure to share this article with your gardening friends.