3 Lessons Learned from a Hot Dry Summer – The 2021 Drought
In this episode, we’re going to explore 3 lessons learned from the impacts of the 2021 drought here in the Pacific Northwest. Due to climate change, this drought has been bad but future years are likely to have even worse heatwaves and droughts as the world warms. But there are lessons you can take from the 2021 drought to better prepare for future droughts. Let’s dive into them.
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In June of 2021, the Pacific Northwest was hit by an extreme heatwave. One so extreme that without climate change it would have been virtually impossible.
It wouldn’t have happened.
But even with climate change, this heatwave was so extreme that it was off the charts and should only happen once every 1,000 years. In some ways that sounds like good news since we shouldn’t have to deal with it again.
Unfortunately, climate change is getting worse and if the world warms to 2.0 °C the heatwave we lived through could happen once or twice per decade.
That is just insane.
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But even without that heatwave this summer has been hot and dry. And while the drought is bad here in western Washington the impacts in Oregon and California and other parts of the western United States are even worse.
I’ve found that as an adult I’ve started to hate the end of summer. The months of August and even September just seem to drag on to me.
It’s not the idea of the chill of fall that makes me hate this time of year. I hate how dry the land becomes.
You can see it in the leaves of the trees and the brown fields of grass.
You can see it in the soil that crumbles to dust or becomes as hard as concrete.
The living world is struggling.
Every day I hope the rains will return but unfortunately if past years are any indication the rains won’t come back in any significant amount until mid to late October.
Western Washington may be known for being wet but summers here these days are bone dry. Historically we could expect around an inch of rain in August but in more recent years we’re lucky to get even a tenth of an inch.
Dry hot summers and extreme heatwaves are the new normal.
But there are lessons you can learn from these observations. And you can make the living world around you more abundant even in the face of a warming world.
The 2021 drought has been tough but let’s look at 3 lessons you can learn from it.
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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- 7 Strategies to Deal with Drought Today and in the Future
- 19 Ways to Deal with Drought on your Property
- How to Add Nitrogen to Your Garden Soil (9 Ways)
- What are Perennial Vegetables and How to Get Started
Books and Other Resources
- Preliminary analysis concludes Pacific Northwest heat wave was a 1,000-year event…hopefully
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
The Importance of Shade in the 2021 Drought
I was excited at the start of summer. One of our raspberry patches that had always struggled was finally looking great.
The canes were covered in ripening berries and I had enjoyed snacking on a few of that had ripened early.
But then the heatwave came.
And the berries literally cooked on the canes. The same thing happened to our strawberries.
Berries that were looking great just a day before turning to mush in the heat.
Despite the ground still being moist under the mulch the heat was so intense that the harvests were lost.
Our plants survived the extreme heat because we had mulched the soil and kept it cool. But that didn’t protect the berries and fruit from the intense sun beating down on them.
We lost whole harvests in just a couple of days.
But then I noticed something. Some of our other patches of strawberries and raspberries did fine and ended up producing large abundant harvests despite the heatwave and the 2021 drought.
Why did some do fine when others were cooked on the vine?
It turned out that the berries that weathered the impacts fine were growing in what you might view as less-than-ideal conditions.
They were all in partial shade.
Growing around and under shrubs or along the edges of our hedgerows.
The berries that cooked, by contrast, were out in the open in full sun with no shade. Normally those would be the ones that you would expect to produce better harvests.
And in a cooler more historically “normal” year they would have.
But in our warming world with extreme heatwaves and droughts getting more sunlight isn’t always a good thing.
The 2021 drought and past droughts have taught me the importance of shade even for food crops. Especially, the importance of late afternoon shade.
Once your vegetables, fruits, and other crops get 6 to 8 hours of sunlight, they’ve gotten all they need to produce abundant harvests.
You can greatly reduce the impact of extreme heat by planting larger trees and shrubs so they shade your food plants in the late afternoon.
The strawberries and raspberries that I had planted in semi-shade were spared the worse of the heat. They weren’t cooked and we got abundant harvests from them.
Now I’m planting more trees and shrubs on the western side of more of my food plants to provide that late afternoon shade.
It turns out that shade might just be one of your best tools to grow food in a warming world.
And if you’re wondering what plants to plant to do this I would recommend planting drought-tolerant native trees and shrubs.
The raspberries that weren’t cooked were protected by a hedgerow filled with native trees and shrubs. And the strawberries that survived were shaded by some of our large native lupines.
The strawberries were also partially shaded by several log piles.
I know this isn’t normal advice for growing food. Most of the time we’re told more sun equals better harvests. But in a warming world where extreme heatwaves are the norm, it might just be time to focus on more shade, not less.
Time to Double Down on Building Soil
While the heatwave cooked our exposed berries and fruits the long 2021 drought has pushed the water-holding ability of our soils to its limit.
Our soils are mostly silt and clay with very little organic material. The soils turn a light grey when they dry out—the same color as concrete.
I’ve done a lot to improve the soil by focusing on mulch and supporting soil life. And every year our plants do better and our land becomes more abundant.
But the 2021 drought and heatwave have shown me that I need to speed up this process.
The more organic material in your soil the more water it can hold. Every 1% increase in organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available water per acre.
What this means is that for every 1% increase in organic matter you get an extra 0.6 gallons of water per square foot in your garden. Which is roughly the same amount of water that your plants need each week.
If you can increase your organic matter percent to say 8%, you have 2 months of water stored in the soil of your garden. That high content of organic matter could be a challenge to reach, but even 4% would store 1 month of water.
And if you keep the soil mulched and provide late afternoon shade you can make the water last even longer by reducing how much water your plants need to thrive. The less stressed your plants are from heat the less water they will pull from the soil.
But building soil and increasing the amount of organic material in it takes time. Generally, I like to be patient but this recent heatwave and drought have made me decide it’s time to double down on soil building.
This will be done by using 2 main methods.
The 1st is to plant more perennials and the 2nd is to temporarily use blood meal to speed up the breakdown of mulch.
Perennial plants help build soil by helping to feed and support soil life. By having living roots in the ground all year these plants build soil faster than annuals.
I’m currently looking at planting a bunch of hardy native perennial flowers around my other plants. These native flowers will not only support soil life they will also shade the ground and support beneficial insects and other wildlife which will also help with pest issues.
But I also need all that mulch I’ve put down around my plants to break down faster. As the wood chips break down they add organic material to the soil.
This process is a great way to build soil and increase how much water your soil can hold. But it takes time for wood chips to break down.
But you can speed up the process and that can be achieved by adding nitrogen to the soil.
Nitrogen-fixing plants like lupines can do this but you can also add nitrogen to the soil using blood meal.
Normally I don’t like to do this. I don’t like relying on outside inputs such as fertilizer. I would much rather focus on building the conditions that support soil life and rely on that life to build abundance.
But I also have to recognize that I’m starting with very poor soil. The soil here was degraded by past owners to the point that there is almost no topsoil left. Our soil maybe had 1% organic material when we moved here.
I’ve improved a lot of it but starting with such poor conditions means that it isn’t as resilient to droughts as I would like.
So I’m planning on using blood meal to add nitrogen to the system to speed up the breakdown of wood chips.
This could quickly increase the organic material in the soil by a couple of percents. If the soil went from 1% organic material up to 3% that would greatly increase how much water the soil can hold.
And it would provide a much better foundation for future soil building without the need for blood meal.
The climate extremes are here now and one lesson I’ve learned is that with the right investments now you can jumpstart the processes that will build resilience in the future.
And building healthy soil is one of the best investments for future resilience you can make.
Shifting Gardens to Cool and Wet Areas
Building soil and creating late afternoon shade will all help you deal with drought. But I’ve also learned that sometimes you just need to move the garden.
Or at least part of it.
Our property has a gully that runs through the middle of it. In the fall, winter, and spring this gully has a seasonal stream that flows through.
And this gully also collects cold moist air. In the evening if you walk down into this low area you can feel the cool air even in the middle of summer.
Frosts often come a good 2 weeks early in the gully.
Given how much cooler and wet this area is I wasn’t planning on growing traditional vegetables in it. Instead, I was focusing on creating wetlands, planting native plants, and growing perennial vegetables like cattails that thrive in wet areas.
But given the impacts of the 2021 drought and heatwave, I’m now thinking about creating some garden beds for climbing beans and other traditional vegetables alongside the native wetland plants.
My current thought is to create some mounded beds that would stay above the water level in the winter where I could plant traditional vegetables.
These beds would stay cooler and the soil would stay moist much longer. Even now at the end of summer, the soil is still moist below the surface.
All of our garden beds are currently up on the uplands where our house is. This area is also much hotter and dryer than the lowlands around the gully.
While this works great for tomatoes, peppers, corn, and other warm-loving plants it doesn’t work well for plants like lettuce.
Having a cool, wetter garden may work better for many of our vegetables.
So a lesson I’ve learned from the 2021 drought and heatwave is to rethink where I should be growing food. If you’ve got a cool, wet area where you live you might want to look at it again too. In a warming world, those areas might be great spots for growing food.
Moving Forward from the 2021 Drought
Climate change is impacting all of us. From floods to droughts and heatwaves we can’t ignore the impacts anymore.
And while solving the climate crisis will take national and global action there are things you can do locally. Because even in the best case our world will be warmer than it is today.
Only reducing and eventually eliminating the use of fossil fuels will solve the climate crisis. But you also need to adapt to the impacts that are here today and locked into the future.
That’s what this episode is all about. How to adapt to a future of heatwaves and droughts.
Creating more shade, building soil, and taking advantage of cool, moist micro-climates are all great ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
But there is more you can do.
Another observation I made during the 2021 drought was how much better our perennial vegetables did compared to our annual vegetables.
Our perennial vegetables weathered the drought just fine. Their root systems are large enough that they could more easily find water than our annuals could.
I haven’t needed to give any of our perennial vegetables water despite the heatwave and drought. I have had to water our annual vegetables.
The more you can switch to perennial foods like perennial vegetables the more resilient your food systems will be. I know I’m going to continue switching more of my food growing to perennials.
And beyond growing more perennials another great way to adapt to a hotter, dryer future is to hold more water on your property.
Building soil is a great way to do this but if you’ve got areas that flood or at least get swampy during the winter consider what you can do to keep that water around even longer.
Often people try to drain water off their land. But in a warming world water is becoming scarcer. If you can see what you can do to retain that water instead of draining it off your land.
Currently, I’m expanding one of my ponds to hold more water. This pond fills up in the winter and when we moved here it was just a flashy, eroding channel. Today it’s a wetland filled with abundance and the work I’m doing now will double or triple how much water it can hold.
The result will be even more abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
Climate change is impacting us all and we’re all going to have to adapt to the new normal of extremes.
It won’t be easy, but we can do it together.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at fall leaves and how to use them to cultivate abundance. With fall around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about fall leaves and their role in supporting the living world.
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