How to Build Gardening Resilience

Sun chokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, in bloom

Gardening resilience is important. Many people start the gardening season in high hopes of maintaining the garden in a orderly and productive manner, right through until a hard freeze kills the tender plants growing in it. In our part of the country that’s a hard thing to do. Here, summer heat sets in, other farm affairs vie for my attention, weeds shift into hyper drive and, before I know it, the garden is a mess! 

grasshopper plague, grasshopper defoliates beans
In our neck of the woods, there are times that grasshoppers will strip our garden crops of their leaves.

Other than in the morning and evening when it cools down, the heat greatly limits what a gardener can do outside. The drought makes the soil exceedingly hard. Weeding becomes very difficult. Certain crops fail due to various factors: the climate, diseases and pests. It’s all too easy to follow the custom of many old timers in our region and simply to shut the garden down by the end of June.

Shop vac used for grasshopper control
When grasshoppers strike, we have to use some ingenuity for how to control them. This shop vac works well if used well before day break.
poultry eating grasshoppers
I froze the grasshoppers, in the shop vac, and then fed them to the poultry, turning this garden catastrophe into some good.

Everyone has their challenges; some of which may appear nearly insurmountable for the would be gardener. Some people have to deal with floods, some have late frosts. Many deal with deer and other varmints. Sometimes there is personal illness or family emergencies. There’s no telling what may disrupt the gardening season.

Depending on the challenge, it may be necessary to drop the garden, for the time being. But I would suggest that there are times that we can readjust our expectations and persevere. It’s possible, that in spite of challenges, we may still harvest something worthwhile from the garden. There may still be some satisfaction to be had in it. There is almost always a way, with minimal investment in time and effort to improve next year’s garden at the very least. Let’s learn to build some resilience into our gardening.

A Story of Hail and our Mexico Garden

Around 1994, while living in Hidalgo Mexico, we had a garden on the grounds of the Bible Institute, where I taught. One afternoon, after a full day’s work, I packed up and headed home, which was 12 miles away. That evening, right at dusk, we looked in the direction where the Bible Institute lay. There were very dark, very large storm clouds right about where the school was located. We could see large bursts of lightening, flashing from the clouds. The storm missed our home. But when I went to work the next morning I discovered that the storm squarely hit the school. As I drove onto the grounds, I observed 8-10” piles of hail which had accumulated under the eaves of the buildings. Trees were defoliated. I walked out to the garden and found no damage….

After such a tremendous hail storm I found “no damage” in the garden…

What?! You say, no damage? There was “no damage,” because there appeared to be nothing there. There appeared to be nothing where our garden had been the day before. All I saw was bare soil. I didn’t see a trace of damaged plants or disturbed mulch. The whole plot looked as if it had been freshly cleared and tilled! This occurred in late June or early July. We lost our beans and almost all of our other crops. But interestingly, though defoliated and buried under a thin layer of mud, the entire sweet potato patch had survived. Within days, the plants sprouted new leaves. Our sweet potatoes went on to produce a normal crop in October!

Sweet potatoes exemplify resilience, thriving after getting mowed down, even repeatedly!

That summer I did replant some squash and beans, and we did have a harvest that year. Yet it would have been easy to take one look and write off the entire gardening year. Resilience is a learned thing. That year I learned a lot about it.

This account illustrates two principles for gardening when life throws you a curve ball:

  • Often, there is much more in a garden than what meets the eye. You may think there’s nothing there, but there is. Many years, here in Oklahoma, the mid summer garden has gotten so very out of control, with weeds, that I have been embarrassed to have folk look at it. It looked like nothing more than a weed patch. Yet we have always been able to eat from the garden, right up until the coming Spring. One year I actually “lost” the potato patch, so bad was the drought and so virulent the weeds. Yet we we able to dig and eat potatoes all winter.

I once “lost” our potato patch, but they were available to dig during the winter…

  • There may still be time to replant. In Hidalgo, I could replant a good many crops and still harvest. Here in Oklahoma, I have even planted bush beans after the worst of summer’s heat has passed. By covering them during cold snaps, it has been possible to eat fresh green beans up until Thanksgiving. Turnips, beets and kale grow well, in the fall. Though it may “take a break” during the heat of the summer, “resilience” doesn’t usually quit.

Here are some principles for gardening resilience.

  • Don’t treat the garden as an all or nothing affair. Some people feel the whole garden has to be “presentable”, or else nothing at all can be done. This is not true. If you can clear a few square feet, you can plant something useful. We often plant a patch of turnips, amidst the weeds of our late summer garden. Then, from sometime in November until the New Year, we enjoy fresh turnips and turnip greens.

larger garlic seedlings, hardneck garlic plants at 5 months
Hardneck garlic is a “survivor” and multiplies like a weed. Garlic is a very resilient crop.

Plant garlic for a nearly surefire crop.

  • Try to plant some kind of extra resilient crop,” in case of a garden catastrophe.

For example, we always have Jerusalem artichokes (a.k.a. sunchokes) in our garden. If nothing else made it, we’d have their huge crop of edible roots to encourage and feed us in the winter.

I also plant a super hardy kind of pumpkin. It grows rampantly, smothers weeds and PRODUCES delicious pumpkins almost without fail.

Cowpeas are another “die hard” crop for hot weather regions. “Reliable” is their middle name.

Cowpeas are super hardy and fast producers
Cowpeas produce rapidly and are super hardy.
  • Look at gardening as a cycle. When one part of the cycle fails, get ready for the next.

It’s almost never too late to plant a cover crop. A cover crop is something one plants, to fill the space, smother weeds and improve soil. Depending on the temperature, some possible cover crops are: cowpeas, bush beans, winter peas, wheat, rye, oats, buckwheat, hairy vetch, soy beans, turnips.

If I could do nothing else, I’d start piling organic material where I intend to grow. When the leaves begin to fall, be on the lookout for bags of leaves to mulch the garden.

Barksdale Wax Pole Bean, Barksdale Bean, Barksdale Pole Bean, climbing yellow bean
Here We catch a Barksdale Wax Pole Bean plant as it “mugs” a neighboring tomato plant.

Note about feature photo of Jerusalem artichokes in bloom: Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes) are super hardy and make a HUGE crop of edible roots. Native Americans, in the eastern part of North America, used to carry them and plant them where they habitually made winter camp, leaving them to grow wild, while they were elsewhere. When they settled down in their winter camp, they could dig plenty of roots to fix with meals. Insect, heat and drought resistant, this is a “feel good crop.” Even in a bad gardening year, we can count on this harvest! Now that’s resilience!

Thread on Jerusalem Artichokes/Green Country Seed Savers

Carol Deppe wrote an excellent book on gardening resiliency. She lived in a completely different climate than do we.

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8 thoughts on “How to Build Gardening Resilience”

  1. Thanks for writing openly about this. I’m so busy and, sometimes, just want to give up my gardening time. It’s covered in weeds, but in reality it is highly productive right now.

  2. George McLaughlin

    Bon, I think this is common to most people who both work and garden. Throw in family matters, and things truly do get complicated at times!

  3. Very good article, George. It sounds like you have experienced the sinking feeling of a garden being overtaken by weeds. (so have I.) I have had many very weedy and very productive gardens. Like kids it is very important to give the plants a good start. Once the plants have that start they can often compete and still yield with weeds that are overtaking the garden. My late summer plantings are often managed with a weed whacker between the rows instead of a hoe. It is much quicker and easier than hoeing. Fine seeded crops like carrots and beets are a lot of work no matter when you plant, but even they can be managed with a weed whacker once they have some size to them. Go between the rows and over the tops of them. It is ok to even shear them back a little. They will re-grow and it will give them a chance to get some more size. A 6 foot pigweed plant casts a lot of shade! If I can I try to keep them from getting that big. Sometimes I just snap them over while picking the crop. Every little bit helps!

    1. George McLaughlin

      All great input John! One of my favorite weeding tools for mid to late summer is an Asian grass sickle. I use it like you use the weed whacker. It also makes me feel a little better when I cut armloads of weeds and use them to feed our meat rabbits and other livestock.

      As you said, “Every little bit helps!” Even getting the weeds cut goes a long way to making the garden more manageable.

      Thanks!

  4. Sometimes having some weeds in the garden also helps to deter theft by camofluaging your crop. This is helpful especially if your garden is in a community garden where others may be tempted to steal.

  5. George do you have a picture of the asian grass sickle? I would love to see what it looks like. I may need one of them. LOL

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