Home & Garden

Summer of 2014: Drought didn’t stop their harvests

Back in April, the summer of 2014 looked like a bust. We worried drought would turn our dreams of tomatoes to dust.

But we’re Sacramentans. Water restrictions weren’t going to keep our vines bare. We were going to find some way to have our tomatoes (and peppers and squash) and save water, too.

We asked readers to share their observations of this dry summer from a gardening perspective. What we reaped was a bountiful harvest of perseverance. Here are some examples that can inspire us all:

Steve and Mary Kay Williams of Folsom refused to let their summer vegetables go down the drain. Instead, they used sewer pipe to create an unusual raised-bed garden where there used to be lawn.

“In January, we replaced the lawn turf in our side yard with decomposed granite,” Steve Williams said. “Where a lawn once soaked up water, we now have a storage shed, a potting shed, a greenhouse and six concrete rounds where we grow vegetables.

“Normally used in sewer construction, each round weighs 1,700 pounds, stands 2 feet high and spans a 5-foot diameter,” he added. “Each round uses Netafim (drip system) for drip irrigation. The irrigation controller provides water before dawn two days a week for two 20-minute cycles. The exterior of each round was stained with a Sedona tone.”

There are other bonuses besides saving water, he said.

“My wife appreciates not having to bend over to tend her garden,” Williams said. “She grows corn, chard, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupes, carrots, beans, bell peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes in the rounds – some with more success than others. And the tomatoes plants are now 7 feet high! Next to the house is her herb garden, with nine different herbs growing contentedly in their micro-climate.

“Our backyard garden also includes Alpine strawberries, a Concord grape vine and an assortment of dwarf fruit trees, including apricot, peach, nectarine and three varieties of cherries. When mature, other fruit trees in the garden will provide us with lemons, Mexican limes, blood oranges and seedless kumquats. The other night, we were probably the only family in Folsom who had fresh figs from their garden for dessert.”

Lena Leis took out lawn to plant more food.

“Our Fair Oaks backyard has very little grass left,” she said. “Over the 22 years we have lived here, my husband has put in a pool, koi pond, my potting shed and, this year, our garden.”

Leis gets a lot of enjoyment out of her garden and potting shed. “It’s really more like my playhouse,” she said. “My husband built it himself.

“I went overboard on the plantings, some from seeds and some plants,” Leis added. “Frankly, I didn’t think they would all survive, but they did. We have pumpkins, watermelon, lettuce, green beans, zucchini, yellow and green bell peppers, lemon and burpless cucumbers, hot peppers and many varieties of tomatoes. Basil, sage, rosemary and oregano are a yearly crop as well.

“Next year, we obviously need to add onto our garden – less lawn (and) more produce is the best!” she said.

Ray and Karen Helzerman of Citrus Heights created their home on the site of a neighborhood grocery store. Now, they “shop” their vegetable garden. The site of the store’s former parking lot is filled with squash and cucumbers plus lots of flowers. In their backyard they grow tomatoes, peppers, beans, kohlrabi, zucchini, okra, tomatillos, onions and garlic.

The Helzermans mulched their peach and pomegranate trees and put them on drip lines with 90 minutes of irrigation, three times a week. “We harvested a lot of peaches this year,” Ray said.

Ray also noted that the drought has one positive side effect. “Last year, I mowed the grass every week,” he said. “This year, I have only mowed once in three weeks.”

Jim Langford of Rio Linda has been harvesting squash since mid-May.

“On May 3, the first zucchini flower appeared,” Langford noted. “May 16th, I got my first real flat of squash.”

With the dry and warm winter, Langford got his summer garden off to an extra early start.

“On March 17th, I started Ambassador zucchini and Zephyr yellow squash seeds in pots in a cold frame,” he said. “I transplanted the seedlings into the garden rows the first week of April. Now, I am getting a flat each of zucchini and yellow squash per day.”

By Memorial Day, Langford already had 20 quarts of summer squash cubes in the freezer, he added, “so I have a winter’s supply put away.”

There are benefits to growing squash besides a full freezer.

“Honeybees absolutely love the squash blossoms,” Langford said. “It is not uncommon to see four or five bees at once inside a squash flower. Summer squash are the champions of production in the garden. I find it amazing that a squash will grow to harvest size so rapidly. The flavor of these squashes – delicious!”

Other gardeners also reported big harvests, often with less water.

“(This was a) great tomato harvest, even with reduced watering,” said Madelyn Kalstein of Tahoe Park. “I also got a huge amount of fruit from plum, peach and apricot trees.”

“In this year of the drought, my garden has thrived,” said Jan Moulds of Sacramento. “I planted Early Girl, Better Boy and Lemon Boy tomatoes, zucchini and Armenian cucumbers. I also grow thyme, chives, oregano and mint, which carry over from year to year. Basil, I plant yearly.”

Moulds saw a good harvest with less water.

“I deep-water every five days as compared to every two to three days in previous years,” she said.

Inspired by drought, readers also tried varieties of vegetables that they may not have considered in wetter “normal” years.

“Motivated by the limited water this year, I selected nine drought-tolerant heirloom beans to experiment with,” said Bonnie Blue of Sacramento. “Most came up and are doing well. I plan on weighing the harvest to see which beans did the best in our valley.”

Blue has been impressed with Tongues of Fire beans, “which make a very tasty stew,” she said. “Next year, I hope to plant (some) varieties of cowpeas.”

Some newbie gardeners found resounding success – then had to deal with it.

“My friend and I rented one of the raised beds in the Lincoln Community Garden,” said Judith Leimer of Lincoln. “We planted tomatoes, chard, onions, zucchini and squash. The gardens flourished! I brought home mountains of tomatoes. Some I roasted with garlic, thyme and rosemary. I whizzed them into sauce in my blender.

“Then, I took on the big job – canning,” Leimer added.

It was a lot of effort, Leimer noted. And it gave her a new appreciation for how many tomatoes can fit into a quart jar.

“I have a canner with the rack, I had the jars and, boy, did I have the tomatoes,” she said. “I put the canner full of water on to boil. I had a medium-sized pot full of boiling water for the blanching of the tomatoes. I had a bowl of ice water to plunge them in. I had a small pot of boiling water for the lids. The jars were sterilized. I was ready.

“I peeled and cored and stuffed those tomatoes into those jars. I added some salt and lemon juice. I carefully wiped off the tops of those quart jars and put the lids and rings on them and popped them into the canner. What? Only two jars and all that work!”

So Leimer put away her canner and switched to freezing.

“The next batch of tomatoes, I cooked with peppers in an open kettle and froze them in my canning jars, she said. “Much easier! I still am enjoying them fresh in my salads and my BLTs.”

Even gardeners with next to no space and little water saw impressive results.

“Mine is just a small little garden in the yard of my house in River Park,” said Tara Hammonds of Sacramento. “I threw down an inch of topsoil, scattered some seeds, barely water it, and I’m amazed by the jungle that’s emerged: Sunflowers as tall as my house and zucchini the size of my arm.”

That’s what happens when you watch what you grow as well as the water you use.