Gardening Articles

First, a Word About Varieties

As recently as the 1930s, most American country folk still did not have running water. With water being hand-pumped and carried in buckets, and precious, their vegetable gardens had to be grown with a minimum of irrigation. In the otherwise well-watered East, one could

routinely expect several consecutive weeks every summer without rain. In some drought years a hot, rainless month or longer could go by. So vegetable varieties were bred to grow through dry spells without loss, and traditional American vegetable gardens were designed to help them do so. I began gardening in the early 1970s, just as the raised-bed method was being popularized. The latest books and magazine articles all agreed that raising vegetables in widely separated single rows was a foolish imitation of commercial farming, that commercial vegetables were arranged that way for ease of mechanical cultivation. Closely planted raised beds requiring hand cultivation were alleged to be far more productive and far more efficient users of irrigation because water wasn't evaporating from bare soil. I think this is more likely to be the truth: Old-fashioned gardens used low plant densities to survive inevitable spells of rainlessness. Looked at this way, widely separated vegetables in widely separated rows may be considered the more efficient users of water because they consume soil moisture that nature freely puts there. Only after, and if, these reserves are significantly depleted does the gardener have to irrigate. The end result is surprisingly more abundant than a modern gardener educated on intensive, raised-bed propaganda would think. Finding varieties still adapted to water-wise gardening is becoming difficult. Most American vegetables are now bred for irrigation-dependent California. Like raised-bed gardeners, vegetable farmers have discovered that they can make a bigger profit by growing smaller, quick-maturing plants in high-density spacings. Most modern vegetables have been bred to suit this method. Many new varieties can't forage and have become smaller, more determinate, and faster to mature. Actually, the larger, more sprawling heirloom varieties of the past were not a great deal less productive overall, but only a little later to begin yielding. Fortunately, enough of the old sorts still exist that a selective and varietally aware home gardener can make do. Since I've become water-wiser, I'm interested in finding and conserving heirlooms that once supported large numbers of healthy Americans in relative self-sufficiency. My earlier book, being a guide to what passes for ordinary vegetable gardening these days, assumed the availability of plenty of water. The varieties I recommended in [i]Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades[i] were largely modern ones, and the seed companies I praised most highly focused on top-quality commercial varieties. But, looking at gardening through the filter of limited irrigation, other, less modern varieties are often far better adapted and other seed companies sometimes more likely sources.

Previous: Vegetables that must be heavily irrigated
Next: Seed Company Directory

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