Archives for posts with tag: dry spells

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

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The weather has been miserably, exhaustingly hot and humid, with almost no rain.  At seven days and counting, this is the longest heat wave (high temperatures over 90 degrees) that I can remember.  I have been making sure to water the garden daily (and the lettuce twice daily) to keep it as moist as possible.  Luckily, there have been no signs of dehydration or wilting so far.

One might think that the heat-loving tomatoes would be ahead of schedule and, in fact, all of them are tall and energetic, overshooting their cages by at least a foot.  But some things cannot be rushed.  In spite of weather conducive to accelerated growth, the fruits that have set are not ripening any quicker than they would under normal conditions.  Like it or not, we will have to wait until early August for tomatoes.

Still, two Sungold cherry tomatoes did turn from plain green to golden green, a sign of impending ripeness.  It was just in time for Rachel and me to use them in a ceremony celebrating our Silver Wedding Anniversary.  As noted by our celebrant, tomatoes are referred to as “love apples” in many languages and are said to possess aphrodisiacal powers; seeing them in our dreams signifies domestic harmony.

What better way for us to symbolize our growing together—both literally and figuratively—than to feed each other the first sweet tomatoes of our 25th year as a married couple?

I got what I asked for (see June 25, 2013) and summer arrived in spades on the Fourth of July.  We’ve had mostly 90-degree days ever since.  The humidity is high and it rarely gets below the 70s at night so almost needless to say, our pool—and our one small air conditioner—are getting a lot of use.

We’re a bit exhausted but the vegetables seem to be enjoying it.  The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are all heat lovers and are growing by leaps and bounds.  The squash and cucumbers are also looking pleased with the warmer weather.  We have not had any rain to speak of so I have been careful to run the water every day (the remaining heads of lettuce get a mid-day sprinkling as well) to keep anything from drying out.

Not everything is responding well to the heat, however.  The arugula has been struggling to get beyond the seedling stage even with frequent watering.  And some of the carrots and beets have been in the ground since April.  The carrots in particular are looking a bit scraggly and are probably in danger of bolting.  So we decided to pull out all but the last row of carrots and turnips.

We were not surprised to find the turnips large and meaty—they have been performing well all season—but we were positively ecstatic to discover that the carrots had quietly grown to normal size.  We planted a mixture of seeds that were marketed as a rainbow of colors but comprised only red, orange and yellow, the Roy in Roy G. Biv (I guess that puts us on a first name basis with the rainbow).  Of these, the red grew the largest (and sweetest).

In the space left behind, we transplanted a six-pack of cauliflower seedlings that we purchased a week or two ago from a small, family-owned garden center nearby.  Of the Bishop variety, the seedlings have been toughing it out in their plastic container waiting for an opening in the garden.  We arranged them in a staggered row, loosened their root balls and buried them up to their first set of leaves (their stems had gotten quite long).  These are the only vegetables we did not start from seed and it will be fun to compare the outsiders’ progress to that of the natives.

Between uprooting and planting, we noticed that something has been getting into the basil and nibbling on the leaves.  I can’t say I blame whoever is responsible—the basil is incredibly lush and irresistibly fragrant—but I will say that they are not very tidy.  Several of the basil leaves are covered with scat (frass might be a more appropriate term).  We clipped and discarded the affected leaves and reminded ourselves to carefully wash whatever basil we use.

Independently, Rachel and I both came to the conclusion that we should collect and use our rainwater.  She got the idea reading through a gardening book (the very useful and practical Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron Kujawski and Jennifer Kujawski).  I came to thinking about it after flipping through a garden supply catalog (I don’t remember which one).

We often get a lot of rain here, especially in the summer when passing thunderstorms can dump several inches of rain in a very short time period.  Sustained rains are great for gardens (assuming they do not cause flooding or damage anything with the force of the falling rain) and keep the plants’ thirst quenched for several days.  Theoretically, a garden that receives an inch or rain per week (on average) does not need any other irrigation.

But during the heavy storms, most of the rain goes down the drain, soaks into the lawn or washes into the ravine.  (Or, sometimes, fills the pool with roadway material.)  Three inches of rain, delivered all at once, does not keep the garden moist for three weeks.  If we can capture some of the excess rain and use it to supply the garden’s irrigation system, we can reduce the amount of water that we draw from our well.

We could buy a turn-key kit but, fortuitously, we have two old plastic garbage cans—don’t worry; they are very clean—that would be fine as reservoirs.  To convert them, we will need some sort of adapter to connect the downspout (from a roof gutter) to the cans.  We will also need to buy pipe and fittings to connect them to each other and to the garden hose.  Our house is located uphill of the garden so it would be a gravity-fed system.  We’ll be moving the adjunct herb garden from the stoop (see February 8, 2013, part 2) and if we locate the rainwater storage there, we will get an additional eight feet of pressure head.

Now, we must consider (optimistically) that some of the time, rainwater will accumulate faster than we can use it.  This means that there should be an overflow mechanism to allow excess water to spill out when the cans get full.  It might be as simple as a hose tapped from the top of the cans to direct the water to the lawn (where it now goes all of the time).  Or, we might make it fancy and attach a sprinkler head or fountain fixture.  Either way, the trick will be to keep the water under control.

And giving due respect to Murphy (and his law), we must also consider that we will not get enough rain for it to be useful.  This means that we should be able to easily connect the garden hose to the house’s hose bib to keep the vegetables watered during dry spells (or worse, a drought).  Convenience is a key factor here because if we fail to revert to the well supply, the garden could dry out.  I will look into ways to automate this but diligence will still be required.

Collecting our rainwater is something that we ought to do, like maintaining a compost bin.  I’ll add it to my list of projects…