Drought Gardening Methods

How to Garden During a Drought

This year’s drought has started a conversation about water that is long overdue. As a small-scale farmer, I’ve been asked a slew of questions: What and how to plant, how to best conserve water while maintaining a home garden, and even if we should be gardening at all this year. First off: YOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY PLANT A HOME GARDEN. We’ve all got to eat, and let’s face it, all food requires water. Standing in the aisles of the grocery store, there’s no way to know how much water was required to grow each head of lettuce or bunch of kale. Grow it yourself, and all your inputs are right there in front of you. That’s why I’m here to help you grow a thriving garden while using minimal water resources. A few easy and informed choices will make all the difference, and there’s no time like the present to learn drought gardening methods.

Build Your Soil

Your soil health has absolutely everything to do with the health, vigor and abundance of the crops you produce, as well as your contribution to sustainability. It’s vital that you take some time to prep your soil before you plant. Soil with more clay and organic matter in its composition will do wonders for retaining water and keeping your plants satiated. It’s all about the pore spaces between the particles that make up your soil.

Pore Space in Between Particles
Image Source

If you’re growing directly in the ground, add a good amount of compost and work it into your soil. Buy it, trade for it, make your own—or all of the above! When in doubt? More compost! Your goal is to add organic material to your “horizon” of topsoil and, ideally, deepen the horizon slowly over time. You want to encourage deep roots, and one way to do this is to have nutrients and water available at a good depth below the soil surface. For container gardening, you should make sure your soil mix drains well by adding perlite throughout, or rocks to line to bottom of the containers. And don’t slack off on adding compost to the top layer, preferably before each new planting.

Beyond the Hose

The options for small-scale garden irrigation are endless. Depending on the size of your garden, a simple garden hose and a watering can may be enough. Just remember– you’re trying to get water to the plants’ roots and the surrounding soil that is a bit deeper than the depth of roots. I opt for early morning watering, as some plants don’t like to be wet in the chilly evening hours. You can immediately reduce loss to run-off and evaporation by doing away with nonspecific sprinklers and other overhead systems. As your garden gets bigger and the days hotter, it’s probably smart to upgrade your irrigation system to something you can brag about at your local supply or garden store: Soaker hoses, t-tape, drip with in-line emitters, micro-sprinklers or other irrigation techniques can decrease maintenance time and increase water efficiency. Whatever you choose, plan your garden so that plants with similar water needs are close to one another.

Know When Your Plants Need a Drink

All crops have different water needs, and those needs vary greatly depending on stage of growth. In general, lettuce, leaf crops, and onions need frequent, light watering due to shallow, inefficient root systems. Crops like squash, cucumbers and broccoli need deeper, less frequent watering, and solanums (tomatoes, eggplants, and my favorites, peppers) need even deeper and more infrequent watering. Note: almost every home gardener I meet over-waters their tomatoes. Don’t do it! Resist! Step away! It’s fair to say that crops need heavy drinks during major life events. (I’m sure none of you out there can relate.) So: Lettuce when it’s heading, onions when they’re bulbing, broccoli when it’s floret-ing (I just coined that, thanks), tomatoes when they’re flowering and again when they’re fruiting—these are all highly critical times where it’s worth watering a little extra. The rest of the time? Watch your plants, learn to anticipate their needs, and test the boundaries of how little you can water. If your plants display the classic droopy leaves that are telltale of wilt – then you’ve pushed it too far! Even though they may bounce back, it’s not worth the damage you’ve already put them through, bless their little plant hearts. Aim for that Goldilocks sweet spot where the soil has begun to dry out but isn’t yet bone dry before you return to water, and try to never wait for signs of stress from your plants. I learned a lot of this the hard way. I cringe to think back on my ‘watering regime’ for my first garden back east – me, heat of day, with a hose on full-blast pointed right at the fruit of my 4′ tall tomato plants. Yikes!

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!

Add a 3-4″deep layer of mulch – I choose either leaf litter or weed-free straw – to surround your plants and cover the soil. This will do wonders to hold moisture in your soil, not to mention it will help with weed control in your garden.

Use Native Plants for Drought Gardening

Local species have tolerated more droughts than you ever will, so for a quick spruce-up that’s still edible a good bet is to plant some natives such as elderberry, yerba Buena, thimbleberry, and native strawberries. Your local master gardener chapter is likely a great resource for cultivating plants indigenous to your neighborhood.

Tear up Your Lawn

I’ll let Mark Bittman rail on green lawns so that I don’t have to. But I will encourage you to replace even part of your grassy, water-loving lawn with a vegetable garden if you don’t have one already. All the cool kids are doing it.

Plant A Garden. Save Yourself Some Water.

I hope you’ll see that the home garden is a place you can conserve water in your life. No more excuses about water shortages – you can absolutely grow a lot of your own food and still conserve water in the process. So get gardening! In my next post I’ll run through an overview of tasty plants to get in the ground in June and July. You still have time for a great season of backyard crops – fear not!