Planning My Garden for an El Niño Winter

by on October 15, 2015 · 0 comments

in Culture, Environment, Life Events, San Diego

By Jeeni Criscenzo/ San Diego Free Press

Now that my knee is healing, and the weather is cooling off a bit, my attention is turning back to my garden. Knee problems aside, the oppressive heat of the past two months pretty much silenced the siren call of my garden.

Just dragging my sweaty self out to feed the chickens was my quota of physical exertion for the day. Some evenings didn’t even cool enough to inspire my meditative stroll through the succulent labyrinth.

Resigned that my vegetable garden this summer was a total disaster, I had removed all of the fencing that kept the chickens out of my raised beds. So while I wasn’t working, the chickens were. Like feathered robots they dutifully ate the broccoli that never formed heads, and the eggplant and peppers that had reluctantly offered a few fruits before succumbing to sun scald. They polished off what was left of lettuce that had gone to seed too quickly, but ignored the tomato plants I’d banished to the compost pile a month ago, when their leaves curled up and their meager offerings played out.

Photo of one of my chickens: "Chicana"The stress of incessant heat, constant hot canyon breezes and insufficient water was just too much for my poor veggies. By August the whole garden just seemed to gasp a death rattle with curled leafy hands too weak to hold up in surrender. Or maybe that was me, resigned there would be no abundant October harvest this year.

Gardening in the throes of climate change is going to be a challenge.

I can only console myself that the succulents, natives and herbs in the labyrinth are flourishing and start planning my winter garden while waiting for the heat to abate. As you can imagine, no one is happier than I am about the El Niño weather pattern being predicted for this winter. Bring it on!

Inspired by the recent rains that filled my yawning rain barrels and awakened the purslane and other weeds in the yard, I donned my straw hat and Raggedy Anne jeans and headed out to survey the tragic remains of my vegetable garden. The chickens did an amazing job of prepping the raised beds. After polishing off the weeds they scratched away at the soil, feasting on escargot, pill bugs, grubs and cabbage worms, while depositing their rich fertilizer and even working it into the soil for me!

Chickens At WorkThe sage suggestion to make the most of El Niño rains is: Slow It, Spread It, Sink it.

Next week, I’ll spread new compost and worm castings over the beds and let the chickens pick out the bugs and work that in too. Thanks to my cheap chicken labor, my raised beds of rich, organic soil should absorb the predicted persistent rain. Fortunately my yard is on the edge of a canyon mesa, with little chance of flooding so short of a biblical flood, we should be good.

Packets of seeds strewn on a benchMeanwhile, with visions of an El Niño rejuvenation dancing in my head, I’ve pulled out my boxes of seeds and made lists of what to start in my new green house and what to seed directly in the beds over the next few weeks. It’s hard to know if we’ll get the cool temperatures needed for traditional winter crops, or will I need to shade the beds? I made a note to pick up more sheer curtains from the thrift store – stretched over PVC supports, they make perfect shade tents.

After seeding, I’ll need to replace the fencing to keep out chickens and other critters. Then we’ll just have to wait for the rain! Weather predictability has always been the basis of successful agriculture. Now we need to be more flexible – ready to deal with whatever climate change changes come our way.

My garden is my philosophy teacher and the lesson it taught this past summer was that there are no failures, there are only lessons. I’m ready for the next season and whatever lesson it brings. Oh but I sure hope it brings rain!

All photos by Jeeni Criscenzo

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