Drought Gardening - How to Grow Food in a Drought

Parts of the U.S. are experiencing droughts this year. This likely means grocery store food prices will increase - which makes this year a great year to grow your own food. (Actually, every year is a great year to grow your own food!) But what if you're living in a dry area? How can you grow food during a drought? What are the tricks to drought gardening? And, even if you aren't experiencing a drought, how can you conserve water in the garden?

* Don't intensive garden (space plants closer together than the seed packet recommends) or grow food in raised beds or containers. All these methods require more watering.

* Place plants far apart; generally at least 1 1/2 times more than seed packet guidelines. This allows plant roots to spread far underground, searching for water and nutrients. Naturally, this works best if you have plenty of room for a garden. (For more information on this method, read Steve Solomon's free Gardening Without Irrigation; also, "Steve Solomon's Garden Innovations.")

* Use cisterns (or buckets or other containers) now to capture all possible rainwater. You can use rain barrels, too, but rooflines tend to harbor animal feces, chemicals, molds, and fungi, which all run directly into rain barrels. (NOTE: It may be tempting to use gray water - such as from your clothes washer - for watering, but this water may contain human feces, and therefore isn't recommended for edibles.)

A soaker hose in action.
* Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses. This brings water directly to the base of plants, where it is needed.

* Learn how to tell if the garden actually needs water. With a trowel, remove the top three or four inches of soil; stick your finger into the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels dry, it's time to water. Also, there are critical times in a plant's life when it needs more water. See Old Farmer's Almanac for more information.

* Water in the morning, before the heat of the day. If you water later, much of the water will evaporate. (You might be tempted to water in the evenings, but this can leave plants damp - especially if you use a method other than drip irrigation - and this leads to disease.)

< /P> * Water deeply. This allows you to water less frequently and encourages a deeper root system in plants. To this end, try inserting a bit of PVC pipe with holes drilled throughout or a soda bottle with holes punched in it, near the base of plants. This is an especially good strategy for plants that require more than average water, such as tomatoes. Or bury clay pots in the soil near plants. (Regular terracotta pots will do, as long as you cover the tops with saucers to help prevent water evaporation; in addition, you can purchase clay pots made just for irrigating.) Fill the pots with water and the liquid will gradually seep from the pots, watering the plants.

* Add organic matter to your garden. This includes compost, mulches, and aged manure. Science has proven that healthy soil retains water much more effectively than soil that's depleted of organic material. To that end, you might try clear fallowing: Don't grow anything in the garden area for one year, but leave behind the remains of previous crops. (Alternatively, leave behind the remains of a cover crop.) This acts as a mulch, helping to retain moisture in the soil. This obviously works best if you have room for more than one garden area.

* Mulch heavily. Use about six inches of straw, hay, shredded leaves, wood chips*, or other organic materials over your irrigation hoses. However, make sure the soil is warmed up before you lay mulch down in the spring. Also, don't let mulch touch the stems of plants. (*Not sawdust or bark mulch; and don't even use wood chips if you till your garden, since it will rob the soil of nitrogen if tilled in)

Weeding conserves water for desirable plants.
* Weed, weed, weed. If there are weeds in your garden, they are using up precious moisture; remove them ASAP.

* Choose plants that come to harvest quickly. The less time plants spend in the soil, the less water the crop will need. All seed packets should indicate how many days it takes for the plant to become harvestable; if you have a choice between a plant that is ready in 75 days and one that is ready in 30 days, choose the 30 day plant.

* Focus on a spring and fall garden. More than likely the weather will be more moist and less hot during these seasons. This means growing mostly cool season crops - but there are lots of great cool season crops to choose from.

* Select drought resistant plants, such as mature rhubarb, okra, and peppers. For more ideas, visit Native Seeds, which specializes in plants that grow in arid locations; see also Burpee's list of heat tolerant vegetables.

* Use windbreaks to prevent wind from sweeping across your garden and taking water with it.

* Shade cloth placed over the garden in the heat of the day helps prevent plants from expiring so much water. You can use hoops to hold the shade cloth in space, or simply tie a shade cloth to posts or fences in the garden area.

* Try the dry gardening method of "dust mulching." This means cultivating the first two or three inches of soil to slow the wicking of water; this keeps more liquid in the soil just below the cultivated area. Dust mulching should be done after the garden is irrigated, or after a rain. (This method, while traditional, is controversial. Read more here.)

Dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes. Via CUESA.
* Dry farm your tomatoes. This only works if you have soil that's high in organic matter. Water the tomato only when the leaves start to yellow and completely stop watering the plant once it fruits. The plant yield will be less, and the plant will look ugly, but the tomatoes are said to taste superior.

* Don't fret about wilting. It's normal for plants to wilt in the afternoon heat. They will recover as the day cools. If, however, plants are wilted before the heat of the day, they require water.

* Look at the desert tribe gardening techniques of Native Americans. They sometimes built gardens that were not level; the planting area was low-lying, and small trenches were dug to funnel water toward the plants. Sometimes one end of the garden was higher and a ramp was formed out of the earth to funnel water down to plants. Creative thinking about funneling what water is available to your plants makes your job a lot easier.

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

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