Thursday, August 11, 2016

Getting Dry

Getting Dry

Our little house is cantilevered over the foundation of an early nineteenth century home on Pumpkin Hill, several hundred feet above Cayuga Lake.  The original farm extended from the lake over the hill to Payne Gulf, but the flat top of the hill at the center of it all has never had enough available water for a family with thirsty crops and livestock. During the early twentieth century, the hand-dug house-well was drilled down a hundred feet, but it  recharges slowly. The  fieldstone cistern in the old basement has tumbled and we now use it as a compost bin.

The single piece of slate that had covered the barn well was broken and tipped when we moved to the property, so we pulled it aside. I cleaned the well out and chipped a foot  deeper into the shale with a digging bar.

We built a deck over the well and installed a fountainhead over a six foot diameter basin excavated in the shale below it, and over a spillway below it, a somewhat larger and longer dug pond with a meandering outlet channel leading to a larger pond, then to larger one, long like a fingerlake.

I installed pumps in each pond, with hoses to circulate  water through the system. I figured that this would raise the moisture level of the surrounding soil for the Blueberries planted along the  banks.

I stocked the larger pond with native aquatic weeds that thrived, then with Crayfish that ate all the pond weed, then with Largemouth Bass which  ate all the Crayfish. I introduced Fathead minnows, which also thrived and  on which  the Bass grew large, spawning and spreading through the flowing brook to the lower pond..

Except for the high cost of pumping the system, this worked well enough during the normally wet years, Unfortunately, erratic is the new normal, and here on this glacier scraped hill, we don’t have the thick layer of clay needed to line a pond and hold water.  Ponds dug into shale loose water the same way they gain it: by trickle down.

A few years ago we had a very  dry summer  during which we lost most of the water and all the fish from our ponds. And this year we just enough water in the main pond for a few frogs. We frequently run the well dry watering our Tomato and Squash plots.

So this year I haven’t run the pumps at all. We do not take a lot of showers, or have a lawn.  I mulch heavily with straw. And this summer we installed  a five hundred fifty five gallon plastic water tank on the old front porch pad, where it is high enough so we can use it to water our upper level crop mounds by gravity feed. I am lining the  basin below the fountainhead with sheet plastic to prevent trickle down, and will eventually also line the next larger basin below that, giving us another thousand gallons that I can pump to the gravity feed tank.

Other than by increasing our water gathering and storage capacity, our most important adaptation to the dry conditions has been to concentrate on cultivating drought tolerant crops, especially volunteer Pears. Pears  are not native here, but they are tolerant of weather extremes, and of our thin, poorly drained, clay-laden soil, and after the Cayuga orchards were cut down by General Sullivan’s men, the Pears sprouted from the stumps, and invaded the landscape, coming up now through the Buckthorn which at first dominates abandoned farmland here. We have hundreds of naturalized Pear trees on our four acres, and I have grafted a dozen different varieties of cultivated Pears onto a hundred or more of them. I never water these trees.

Garlic is our favorite, our largest, and our most drought-resistant vegetable crop. We grow it (and Sunchokes and Asparagus) in mounds on orchard wet spots. Without mounding, there isn’t much soil at all, and the mounding both holds moisture and drains off the excess. Garlic does most of its growing in Spring and Fall when it needs no supplemental watering. This year, despite the dry summer and the fact that we didn’t irrigate the Garlic, we  have our best crop ever. We plant more and eat more Garlic every year. Maybe the Garlic diet protects us from dehydration, if not also from vampires. 

Despite their hardiness, his been a very bad one for our dear Pears, `not because of the drought, but because  of the violent hot and cold flashes this Spring. But given next year’s bumper Pear crop,  I plan to make a lot of Pear cider and drink it when I’m dry, even if it has gotten a bit hard. These are hard times.