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Dryland Farming: Minimum Water, Maximum Yield

By Patty G. Leander
Contributing Editor

Five acres of black clay. Multiple piles of woodchips. Dozens of fruit and pecan trees. An array of vegetables and herbs. A CSA (community-supported agriculture) providing healthy produce to Central Texas families. All of this and more from one focused, fit and frugal farmer at his certified organic farm. And the one thing that you won’t find at Millberg Farm is an irrigation system. For more than a quarter century, Tim Miller has been dedicated to dryland farming — his plants survive solely on rain that is collected in a 3,500-gallon tank, moisture that is captured and stored in the spongy woodchips that line garden beds and pathways, as well as a three-second drink of water doled out from one-gallon beverage jugs; and even then, crops receive water only at critical periods needed for growth.

Despite the often-challenging weather conditions in Texas, Tim has used insightful knowledge of the microclimate and geography of his land, strategic planning and a variety of creative water-conservation practices to harness every drop of rain that falls on his property. The driving force behind his system stems from an altruistic desire to make growing food doable for families and individuals with limited resources. He farms in an ultra-thrifty and sustainable way — using salvaged, reused and what he calls re-recycled items. He incorporates free and low-cost resources, including reclaimed wood, cardboard, woodchips and even weeds. Free and bountiful, weeds are intentionally allowed to grow on parts of his farm. Johnson grass may be cut down and used as mulch for vegetables; switchgrass may be trimmed and used as a nitrogen source for a compost pile or layered at the bottom of a propagation bed to generate heat for new seedlings. Tall, native sunflowers are allowed to reseed along the edge of a field, where they serve as a windbreak and their spiny stalks act as an irritant to deter deer.

A transplant from Wisconsin, Tim came to Texas in 1984 with a farming background, a geography degree and a midwestern accent. For a decade he worked in Austin, where he developed several community gardens, senior gardens and school gardens. He ultimately headed south to develop his own farm on five acres of land in the neighboring community of Kyle. Many of his well-honed gardening skills were acquired while working with the life-long gardeners he served in Austin, and in turn he is passing those skills along to his daughter and son, who have grown up with the farm as their backyard.

For 30 years, Tim has worked with nature to create a thriving, productive organic farm with minimal inputs and maximum yields, Miller-style. The work of farming keeps him active and physically fit, while daily, weekly and long-term goals for planting, harvesting and soil building keep him focused and on track throughout the gardening year. Two books in particular have influenced his gardening habits — Ed Hume’s annual Garden Almanac (https://www.humeseeds.com/mb96.htm) and Raising with the Moon by Jack Pyle and Taylor Reese. At the heart of his production system is a desire to make the most of his land, utilizing reclaimed and recycled resources as much as possible, sharing his knowledge with gardeners and farmers, and sharing his healthy harvest through a low-cost CSA targeted at families with young children.

Some of the techniques developed at Millberg Farm may seem contrary to the conventional guidelines and recommendations that most of us are accustomed to, but Tim marches to a different beat. Aware of the ever-present threat of droughts, floods, record heat and inconsistent rainfall, I’ve asked Tim to share some of the techniques that are most vital to his success as a dryland vegetable farmer. Perhaps we all need to be looking at our own gardens with an eye toward novel and unusual methods of conservation and sustainability that may prove beneficial in the long run.

TIM’S FIVE FAVORITE INPUTS
1. Woodchips: For years Tim has accepted truckloads of woodchips from local tree-trimming companies. He allows the piles to sit for months and sometimes years. They are added to trenches and pathways, and they are used as a layer in his propagation beds. Tim also sifts the decomposing woodchips and uses the finer material as a compost addition to potting soil.

2. Weeds: Tim knows he is never going to completely get rid of weeds; so instead of expending energy battling them, he incorporates them into his production system. While many gardeners fret over sticky weed or thistle, Tim allows them to grow and then cuts them down with a hedge trimmer to use as mulch to protect the soil or as an addition to the compost pile. He purposefully weed-whacks the tops of hedge parsley (Torilis arvensis, sometimes referred to as beggar’s lice) so that it grows back bushier, providing even more mass when he pulls it up and stuffs it into the top of a tomato cage for hail protection. Weeds are also used to generate heat for early-spring transplants. Six inches of freshly cut weeds are spread on the bottom of his grow-beds (long, rectangular frames made from discarded greenhouse tables enclosed with recycled corrugated panels), then topped with a layer of woodchips. Flats of tender transplants fit on top of the woodchips inside the frames. When covered, the heat released from the weeds protects tomatoes, eggplants and peppers through chilly nights.

3. Cardboard: Use cardboard to protect soil, suppress unwanted weeds, or use as a windbreak — it’s free, it’s durable, it breaks down gradually and there seems to be an unending supply. In the home garden it can be discreetly hidden with a layer of woodchips or mulch.

4. Spineless Cactus: Not only is it edible and drought tolerant, spineless cactus pads are an excellent nitrogen source for compost piles. Tim also propagates spineless cactus for nursery sales.

5. Saving Seed: Growing seed through a complete cycle is a rewarding and sustainable endeavor. Over time, seed saved from one’s own plants adapts to the regional growing conditions, providing a diverse — and free — source of edibles. For Tim, the sale of his saved seeds is also a source of income.

TIM’S FIVE TIPS FOR WATER CONSERVATION
1. Hold on to rainwater: Help direct the flow of water through your property with trenches and dams. Dams will slow the flow, and shallow trenches filled with woodchips collect and hold the water, allowing for more gradual penetration into the soil. Install tanks, cisterns or rain barrels (recycled 55-gallon, food-grade drums are often available from Craigslist or recycling centers) and use water conservatively.

2. Mulch with native grasses: Switchgrass, sideoats grama and other grasses are intentionally allowed to grow and reseed in specific areas of the farm. They are cut green and used as hay mulch around plants, and sometimes they are allowed to grow tall and thick to serve as a windbreak or to deter deer from accessing valuable crops.

3. Irrigate at critical times for growth: Most vegetables can get by on less water as long as they receive an adequate amount during critical periods of growth. As a general rule of thumb, irrigate immediately after transplanting, at flowering and at fruit set. Tim makes sure to give his beans an extra drink of water when they are flowering to ensure well-developed pods.

4. Cultivate the soil to prevent crust or cracking: A crust on the surface of the soil can lead to water run-off. Tim uses a four-tine cultivator or a stirrup hoe to loosen the soil and dislodge small weeds. This task is most effective on a hot, sunny day when upturned weeds fizzle away in the heat.

5. Extra water for tomatoes: Give tomatoes extra water when fruits reach the size of a half-dollar. For large-fruited varieties, such as beefsteaks and slicers, Tim also recommends a fertilizer boost (he uses liquid fish emulsion) when the fruits start to enlarge.

TIM’S FIVE FAVORITE HEIRLOOM VEGETABLES
A dedicated seed-saver, Tim prefers heirloom vegetables for their hardiness and adaptability as well as their invaluable and irreplaceable genetic heritage.

1. “Dr. Pound” garlic: A big fan of alliums, Tim has been cultivating and selling unique varieties of garlic, leeks and multiplying onions to Austin-area restaurants for years. One of his pet projects and long-term goals is to increase reserves of the multiplying garlic he discovered on his property. A wild garlic grown for the garlicky leaves rather than the bulbs, it came (Tim’s research indicates) to Texas from Mississippi in the 1850s with the family of physician Joseph Pound. Tim christened the garlic “Dr. Pound” in honor of the Central Texas pioneer and Civil War surgeon whose restored farmstead stands as a Texas State Historical Landmark in Dripping Springs. Every year, Tim divides the garlic clumps, using some for restaurant sales and some for replanting. This year he planted 1,000 single stalks, expecting each one to multiply into four or more new stalks. Eventually he hopes to make “Dr. Pound” garlic available to gardeners and farmers, where it could serve as a valuable source of green garlic. A portion of his current stand of garlic will be available through the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog in 2020.

2. ‘Tatume’ squash: Round and green with firm, flavorful flesh, ‘Tatume’ is a hardy summer squash that is native to Mexico. Prized for its large yellow blossoms, it grows on long, sturdy vines that are fairly resistant to squash-vine borer. Tim has also observed that ‘Tatume’ retards nutgrass.

3. ‘Silvery Fir Tree’ tomato: A compact determinate variety with unusual ferny foliage, this plant produces tasty 2–3” red tomatoes. Tim likes this one for its earliness — it’s a good variety for school gardens because it will generally produce before students leave school for summer.

4. ‘Star of David’ okra: These prolific plants produce short plump pods with an intense okra flavor and lots of colorful blooms. Prune them down in the summer to keep them from getting too tall and they will regrow and produce until frost.

5. ‘Worcester Indian Red’ lima bean: This vigorous maroon pole bean produces off and on all summer. Tim’s “flipping” method for replanting saved seed from this plant is unique: He plants the seed on a wire fence secured with five-foot metal t-posts and harvests the pods throughout the late summer and into fall. At the end of the season, he will leave a few dried pods at the top of the plants, undo the t-posts and lower the fence down onto the edge of the adjacent bed. Then he walks over the pods, embedding the seeds into the soil, and “flips” the fence upright so it is ready to support a new row of freshly planted lima beans, efficiently rotated into a new bed.

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