Growing without irrigation

Why do we grow without irrigation?

We have been growing without irrigation since the very beginning. This seems surprising, but all field crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.) are not irrigated. Friends in the Eastern Townships produce a wide variety of organic vegetables on 90 acres, and nothing is irrigated either. After all, in Quebec, we are lucky to have a continental climate, we are not in a desert.

First of all, it is important to understand that we grow in the open ground. For a culture in raised containers or in pots on the balcony, it is completely different. Also, some lands do not allow cultivation without irrigation. With that said, here’s why and how we do it.

Catherine started gardening in 2004 with very little money and installing an irrigation system was not a priority. From the beginning, trying several varieties of the same vegetable was important. Her philosophy as a beginning seed grower was simple: let the plants take care of themselves and harvest the seeds from the strongest plants. Leaving the plants alone like that, she soon saw a difference between the hybrid and open-pollinated varieties produced locally. This is because open-pollinated varieties have a capacity of adaptation that hybrids do not have, and the reason is quite simple: to produce a hybrid variety, the original cross must be made each time, thus eliminating any notion of evolution, whereas to produce an open-pollinated seed, the seeds are recovered from one generation to the next, allowing the experience of the plant to be transmitted.

A plant grown in ideal conditions, with controlled irrigation and perfect soil, never or only minimally experiences stress and therefore does not develop resistance.

We sometimes water a little bit…

Rain does not fall on command. Growing without irrigation sometimes complicates the germination of our direct seedlings. Only peas, green manures and anything that cannot be transplanted, such as root vegetables (parsnips, carrots and certain varieties of radishes and turnips), are sown directly. Everything else is sown in multicells and transplanted. Germination conditions are much easier to control in the house, greenhouse or cold frame than at the other end of the field. This allows us to get a head start on many varieties that would otherwise not be able to produce their seeds before the frost. And for the past few years, the seed maggot has been wreaking havoc with direct seeding of beans, so yes, even dwarf beans are being transplanted.

Our soil is sandy. There’s no way we can make raised beds. When the time comes to transplant, we make basins around the plants with the soil to retain water. If we can transplant immediately after a rain, everything is fine. Otherwise, we have to bring water in storage boxes and water right after transplanting, which is quite rare because rain is normally frequent and abundant in May and June. When we need to water, we only need to water once. Once the transplants have had a good shower, they are fine for the rest of the season.

What do we do during droughts and heat waves?

We take vacations and eat popsicles… We do not sell vegetables, we do not need to harvest every week to satisfy such a clientele. When the rain stops completely for several weeks, with the addition of scorching temperatures, the plants seem to stop growing. In reality they develop their root system to draw water by themselves. When the rain returns, the plants grow explosively. They always catch up and have time to produce their seeds.


You would think that mulching our plants, especially since our soil is sandy and we don’t water, would help… We do not mulch. We have observed that a constantly wet mulch contributes to an increased risk of fungal diseases and problems with striped cucumber beetles, slugs, earwigs, etc.

But does growing without irrigation result in less productive plants and smaller vegetables?

Yes and no. When the varieties are well adapted to our way of growing, there is no difference in production or size. On the other hand, for the varieties that we cultivate for the first time, it is another story…

In order to produce a new product, it is not uncommon to have to cultivate it for 2, 3 or even 4 years to adapt. Many of the varieties we test, both flowers and vegetables, do not tolerate our growing conditions. It often happens that new varieties (plants from seeds bought elsewhere) produce plants with little vigor, suffering all season, and producing little or nothing. And right next to it, the plants from our own seeds are in great shape. Sometimes we can’t believe our eyes because the difference is so huge!

We often find that it rains too much!

In Quebec, there is a lot of rain. There is also a lot of humidity in the air and when it is not raining, a good layer of dew covers everything from evening to morning. This is a major problem because most of the seed must dry on the plants. Starting in August, we have to install tunnels to protect some crops from rain and dew. Too much rain, especially at the end of the season, is harmful to the seeds, even more harmful than a drought in July.

After 15 years of experience in seed production, installing tunnels throughout our gardens to protect crops from rain is on the agenda. The irrigation system is still not envisaged…

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