Estimated reading time: 19 minutes
Droughts seem to be occurring more frequently. Some are long-term lasting years, but more and more parts of the world are seeing a new and startling lack of rain for weeks and even months.
The overall effect is that some regions of the country will see increased storm activity, while others will see a lack of rain and intense heat. In the meantime, anyone trying to grow a garden may be faced with the possibility of dead or dying plants due to drought.
The obvious solution is to water the garden, but as we’ll discuss even that approach has its challenges and limitations. Fortunately, there are some clever ideas and determinations that people have discovered to deal with the challenges of drought.
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Many of these ideas come from places where dry conditions and drought is common like Australia, the Middle-East and Africa. Some are the result of simple science and a basic response to the unchanging laws of physics and thermodynamics.
Regardless of their origin, here are 14 ways to keep your garden growing strong and healthy when the weather seems to go out of whack. You don’t have to use all of them, but the more you can combine solutions the less of a problem you might have with a growing lack of water. Our primary focus will be on vegetables but we’ll cover some herbs and flowers as well.
1. Compost, Compost, Compost
The quality of the soil in any garden is typically its most critical success factor. A proper soil composition not only encourages healthy and deep root growth, but provides a balance of nutrients and just as important, excellent water retention properties.
The loamy soil that is the result of composting has all of these characteristics and will not only encourage healthy and robust plant growth, but hold and distribute moisture to plants evenly and over a period of time.
You can buy compost but most avid gardeners have their own compost heap(s) and regularly add new compost to their gardens. Soil makes all the difference to overall plant health so compost, compost, compost.
2. Plant Wisely
Some of us like to plant in neat rows with a disciplined line of vegetables growing straight and narrow. That might not be the best idea in times of drought. A large group of plants or blocks will offer a large clump of shade to the surrounding soil. This will hold in the moisture and protect the shallow roots from any heat generated at the surface of the soil.
When you plant flowers and vegetables in concentrated clumps or groups the shade from their leaves also protect the neighboring plants much like a shade cloth or overhanging tree branch.
This ability of plants to protect each other was one of the reasons the “3-sisters” idea about planting emerged. The 3-sisters is an ancient native-American approach to gardening that involved planting corn, beans and squash in close proximity. The corn roots run deep, the beans run wide and shallow, and the squash run in between.
Each one of the 3-sisters also offer shade to each other and the beans actually return nitrogen to the soil feeding the corn and the squash.
3. Grow Drought Tolerant Plants
Another step towards planting wisely is to select plants that will tolerate drought conditions. If drought is on your mind, choose the plants that will endure times of sparse rain or a total dependence on your ability to water the garden.
What’s important is to make informed decisions about what you plant. If you are in an area subject to drought or are concerned that it will become a future pattern, start thinking about those plants that can tolerate some level of drought. Most of these plants have deep root systems and are naturally tolerant of short periods without water.
Drought Tolerant Vegetables:
- Peppers (The smaller the peppers the better)
- Cucumbers (Although usually prefer more water when fruiting)
- Roma tomatoes (Although most tomatoes are drought tolerant to some degree)
- Mustard greens (One of the few leafy greens that are drought tolerant)
- Swiss chard (Also drought tolerant)
- Asparagus (After plant is established and into their second year and beyond)
- Bush beans (pole beans struggle without regular water)
- And all potato varieties (highly drought tolerant once plant is established)
- Herbs like rosemary, thyme, and lavender
That’s the good news. But there are also some plants you might want to avoid planting at times of drought. Then again, if you take some of these other steps you can manage with plants that are less drought tolerant but you can’t be complacent.
Drought Intolerant Vegetables
There’s always a catch and some vegetables are highly susceptible to drought. Many have thick leaves and are shade loving vegetables like cabbage and broccoli. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plant them but keep an eye on them. They’ll be your canary in the coal mine when they start to wilt in the sun.
- Peas (The leaves are quick to die and turn yellow)
- Cabbage (The leaves will wilt and the cabbage head will be stunted)
- Broccoli (the leaves will also wilt and the broccoli will be quick to bolt and flower)
- Cauliflower (The leaves will also wilt and the cauliflower heads will be loose and not compact)
- Turnips (One of the few root vegetables that are drought intolerant)
- Lentils (Similar to peas with delicate leaves subject to dying-off quickly)
- Watercress (When a plant has the word water in its name it’s a good clue that it won’t like a drought)
- Brussels sprouts (More wilting leaves and the stalk never becomes fully developed. Also quick to bolt)
- Corn (Stunted growth, wilting and dying leaves and immature ears that never fully mature)
Don’t let a drought stop you from planting these vegetables but remember to keep a close eye on them and do some of the tricks we’re about to cover.
4. Smart Watering
The obvious solution to any garden threatened by drought is to water it. That can be easier said than done depending on your water situation. In some parts of the country (and the world), water is becoming a scarce and valuable commodity.
Another fact is that some of us pay for municipal water. If you want to see your water bill go through the roof, try watering large gardens every day. On the other hand, some of us have well water and while this gives us a relatively cheaper supply of water, we still have the electric bill for running a high-wattage water pump. Worse, some wells run dry especially in times of drought.
The best overall approach is to water intelligently. That means watering in ways that don’t waste water and ensure the plant gets the most benefit. Some of the most effective ways to water smart is to use watering cans that can specifically direct the water to the plant; soaker hoses that keep the water underground to reduce evaporation from exposure to the air, and even improvised drip irrigation systems to constantly deliver water to a garden.
Timing is another factor. Try to avoid watering in the mid-day heat of the sun unless a plant is wilting badly. Morning is the best time for watering and make sure you water deep to encourage deep root growth. Evening is another good time for watering, but try to avoid getting water on the leaves in the evening. That can lead to the development of fungus overnight. That’s another good argument for soaker hoses.
Finally, try to avoid spraying your water. This is hard for some of us because that’s the way we’ve always watered everything. The problem is that much of the spray is lost as vapor to the air. This is especially true on very hot and dry days.
Spraying also tends to cover the leaves of plants when we really want to water at the base of the plants so as much water gets into the soil as possible. As we mentioned, spraying the leaves also increase the chance of fungus forming on the plants, especially at night. Use a watering wand and water the base of the plant, and at least avoid using a lawn sprinkler which casts a significant amount of water into the air and on the leaves.
5. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Next to composting, mulching can make a big difference in a drought tolerant garden. Think of it as the armor protecting your soil and plant roots from the onslaught of a merciless sun. Mulching not only keeps the weeds down but is critical to water retention in garden soil. Just as important, it protects the shallower roots from the intense heat of the topsoil exposed to heat.
The standard recommendation is for a 2 to 6-inch layer of mulch but that’s determined a lot by the nature of the mulch. Fine mulch like grass clippings, shredded leaves, pine needles, compost, sawdust and wood shavings can be applied in thinner layers in the 2+ inch range.
Coarser mulches like twigs, bark, straw and wood chips should be applied in a thicker topping up to 6-inches deep.
All organic mulches will eventually decompose adding nutrients to the soil but will need to be topped off as decomposition occurs.
There are also non-organic mulches like stone, chopped bits of rubber tire, and plastic films that can serve to retain moisture and keep down weeds. Be careful of the color though. Darker colors will absorb the sun’s rays and raise temperatures, and even though the mass or composition of the mulch may retain moisture a dark color can raise the temperature.
Look for lighter or neutral colors when mulching. That pretty much rules out chopped up rubber tires which doesn’t sound like a great idea anyway.
It seems counterintuitive to put your garden in the shade but when the sky is constantly hot and dry it helps to give your plants a break. The morning and early evening sun is the gentlest so shade during the hot midday sun is ideal. That may seem hard to do if your garden is out in full sun and you’re waiting for a tree to grow, but there are other solutions.
One solution is a shading screen using shade cloth that you can erect between your garden and the sun. It will still allow some of the sun’s rays through to keep photosynthesis at its peak. but will diminish the withering direct sunlight hitting your plants.
You can buy shade cloth or improvise it from rough burlap or any other cloth or material that has a large, loose weave. You want to block some of the harsh rays of the sun but not all of the sunlight.
6. Create a Wicking Bed
This is a roll-up your sleeves approach to drought proofing a garden but it is a highly effective way to create a self-watering environment for plants. It was first developed in Australia where the sun bakes the central part of the country year-round.
Here’s a link to an article and a YouTube video that covers the construction. It’s essentially a raised bed garden with various systems of tubes or tubs placed in the bottom of the bed as reservoirs to hold water to a certain degree.
The soil is a blend of peat moss, compost and soil that has unique wicking properties and literally wicks the water up from the water reservoirs installed in the base of the raised bed. It’s a bit of work but really works.
7. Direct drainage to your garden (in other words, “irrigate”)
This is easier than it sounds. Many of us have gutters and downspouts that drain rainwater into the grass. Will a little effort you can direct that “occasional” rain towards and into your garden.
There are gutter spout extenders that can redirect rainwater from your gutters to your garden. You could also collect the rain-water in barrels and store it for when periods of drought reappear. Connecting a hose to the base of a rain barrel that is connected to water soaking hoses embedded in your garden is another tool to add to your drought arsenal.
In fact, soaker hoses are a good idea in any garden. They’re buried in the soil and snake throughout your garden. You hook up your hose to the soaker hose, and you can water directly into the soil without exposing your watering efforts to the hot air and the thermodynamics of evaporation.
8. Drought Proofing Containers
To put it bluntly, container gardening can be a bad idea in times of extreme drought. It’s a very confined, mini-biome that is subject to great stress from hot, dry conditions However, there are some steps you can take to maintain plants (particularly vegetables) in a container. This is important to know especially for apartment dwellers or people with very small yards who depend on container gardening for a lot of their plantings.
The most obvious step is to water them regularly. The good news is containers typically don’t require a lot of water and can easily be moved into the shade. The bad news is that you’ll have to both water and move your containers on a regular basis.
However, there are some interesting cheats that can give you some container gardening insurance.
- Create a mini wicking bed. Drop a cup cut from the bottom of a plastic water bottle into the bottom or your empty flower pot or container. Fill with a good loam and plant. Every time you water, some of the water will collect in the cup as a reservoir. You could also insert a funnel right into the cup to make sure it’s filled. The very bottom or your pot or container should have a hole so excess water drains.
- Make sure you have a drip tray under the container. This will trap any excess water. It will also act as a mini wicking bed.
- Use the best soil you can buy or improvise. This is especially important if you’rehoping the water will wick up from the drip tray or your wicking reservoir.
- Insert a hygrometer in the soil. This will literally tell you when to water. You can buy them in bulk so you can spread them around in your containers.
- Move them into the shade if the sun and the heat gets intense. The benefit of a container is it’s usually portable.
Container garden is a great solution for anyone. Even if you have room for an outdoor garden a container garden can let you grow dedicated herbs, or dwarf varieties of many vegetables. Better yet, you can move them indoors in winter for year-round gardening. Just make sure you give them the same attention as a pet in times of drought.
9. Water Sharing Pots
This gets back to container gardening and it’s a great way to conserve water in potted plants. It’s an ideal setup for a patio garden if you live in an apartment or townhouse.
The idea is that the pots are stacked one on top of another in balanced tiers and any water that drains from the top pots will drip into the pots underneath. Shallow water dishes are under the bottom pots to hold any extra water.
If you add a good wicking soil that we described in wicking beds you can even create some upward migration of moisture from the water in the bottom trays.
This setup will require some degree of regular watering but it’s a smart way to conserve water and grow plants in a limited space.
10. Use a Water Bottle to Give them an Extra Sip
Even after we water deep, many plants can’t get enough water in a time of drought. Some of the complex solutions like irrigation and wicking beds can help, but if you don’t have the time or inclination for those ambitious approaches there’s a simpler solution.
Just cut the bottom off a plastic bottle and invert it into the ground. After you’ve watered the area around the plant sufficiently, fill the bottle. The water will eventually percolate into the ground giving the roots an extra sip before gravity pulls the water deeper into the soil and away from the roots.
This can help with newly planted fruit trees or fruiting vines that look like they need some extra help. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s a step in the right direction.
11. Strip the Leaves Before Harvest
This is hard for some people to do, but certain vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and even squash varieties should have some of their leaves stripped after the green vegetables begin to grow. This will direct more water to the fruits rather than to the leaves. Don’t strip all of them but about half.
If in doubt, experiment on a few of the early fruiting plants and see how they do. Chances are you’ll get larger fruits if the plant can direct more water to ripening fruit rather than growing leaves. The thing to remember is that when you see big, green tomatoes –start stripping some leaves.
12. Grow Indigenous Plants
Many of the flowers and plants that we grow are not native to the area where we live. This makes them susceptible to all manner of challenges from disease to pests and especially drought. One way to beat the system is to plant flowers and vegetables that are indigenous to the western hemisphere historically.
And no, they’re not all weeds. Even wheat is an indigenous wild grass. In fact all flowers and vegetables came from somewhere. Here’s a link to a guide to indigenous plants developed by native Americans that have survived the test of time.
Avoid New Plantings
A period of drought is a lousy time to plant something new. Young plants are fragile and usually require a lot of water and prefer ideal conditions. A drought is far from ideal. The best thing is to simply wait for the drought to pass. The only alternative is to use many of the techniques we’ve discussed and hope for the best.
Finally, there’s weeding. Most of us regularly weed our gardens. That’s a good idea because weeds compete with your vegetables and flowers not only for nutrients but water. However, some weeds that grow high can actually provide some shade to your vegetables and flowers so maybe wait until cooler, wetter days to pull those tall weeds.
Another reason to wait is the way that weeding disturbs the soil surrounding the plants you want to keep. When that happens, your old plantings are now as vulnerable as a newly planted flower or vegetable. Always weed your garden but in a time of drought, timing is once again very important. Leave those big, shady weeds until the drought passes.
Don’t Get Discouraged
Droughts happen and are a part of history going back thousands of years. Unfortunately, some of those droughts actually caused the collapse of civilizations. Hopefully we’re nowhere close to that, but all indications are that we are headed for a tough couple of years.
Take the time to implement some of these steps and keep your garden growing strong. Even if all it means is that you’ll stop using that lawn sprinkler.
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