Growing without Irrigation Vegetable Gardening in Drought Conditions (Part 1)

Sunflower drought crop

When the Well Runs Dry

Drought. The very mention of the dreaded “D” word can make the blood of even the stoutest gardener run as cold as ice.

Drought has always been an issue for human beings. Farmers and gardeners, even 10,000 years ago when our ancient ancestors traded in their hunter gatherer lifestyles and chose instead to settle in to small family communities based on agriculture, have always considered drought to be among the most serious of concerns.

Of course we all know what a drought is, but how is it defined?

What is Drought?

“A drought is when a region receives below-average precipitation, resulting in prolonged shortages in its water supply, whether atmospheric, surface or ground water. A drought can last for months or years, or may be declared after as few as just 15 days. It can have a substantial impact on the ecosystem and agriculture of the affected region.”

Although droughts can persist for years and years causing no telling how much death and devastation, even a short, intense drought can cause significant damage and harm to the local economy. Annual dry seasons in the tropics significantly increase the chances of a drought developing and along with it the chances of frequent drought-related bush fires. Periods of heat can significantly worsen drought conditions by hastening evaporation of water vapor.

Read more: 12 ‘Olde Tyme’ Garden Myths: Fact or Fiction

The Times Are Changing

Drought happens. Global climate change is real. Whether you believe it is just a normal cycle that the Earth goes through from time to time, or if you believe it is solely the fault of mankind, or even if what you personally believe falls somewhere in between these two extremes, you must admit that global climate change is a reality.

To deny the obvious truth that our climate is changing is just as insane as continuing to believe that the world is flat. The question all gardeners, farmers, and preppers need to ask themselves is not whether drought due to global climate change is a reality, but rather how can we continue to grow food for ourselves and our families during drought conditions.

Gardening in Drought

We cannot know when a drought will occur, and by the time drought is upon us it is too late to plant drought-resistant edible plants. But we can consider several things that we can do in our gardens to help our current plants better tolerate adverse conditions when they do occur.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the garden is that our gardens are made up not only of the plants that we grow, but also of the soil we grow in. The soil is the foundation of everything we grow. So get it in your head that you start building a garden from the ground up, and you will help make your garden more drought-tolerant the same way – from the ground up. So here are three quick improvements that will greatly help your garden soil during a drought:

No Bare Soil – Use Cover Crops

Cover crops help improve soil health by reducing erosion, increasing organic matter content, improving air and water movement through the soil, reducing soil compaction, capturing and recycling nutrients in the soil profile, and managing soil moisture to promote biological nitrogen fixation. Many farmers and ranchers have recorded increases in yields during extreme drought when using cover crops.

One local farmer I spoke with in San Marcos, Texas, used radishes as a cover crop to successfully increase water infiltration in areas where water had previously flowed across his field without soaking in. The radish roots aerated the area enough to allow water further down into the soil profile instead of letting it simply run off the surface and get wasted.

Read more: 15 Homemade Fertilizers

Do Not Till – That’s Right, No Tilling!

When soil is tilled, it temporarily gains a lot of pore space in the top layer. But tilling involves running over the soil with heavy equipment, and that leads to the structural breakdown of the soil and compaction. The end result is a layer with high bulk density and bad pores, topped by loose soil with no structure. When soil has poor structure, it can’t hold water within its pore spaces, and when the water hits the densely compacted layer below, it can’t infiltrate. This leads to runoff, and therefore, erosion, flooding, pollution, and less water held in the soil for dry times.

New research has shown that tilling your fields and garden area will also lead to an often significant loss of soil nitrogen. Tilling disturbs the microorganisms that are working to convert organic matter into composted fertilizer, and tilling releases nitrogen into the air where it evaporates away without being of any benefit to our plants and crops.

Add Organic Matter – Compost to the Rescue (Again!)

Composted organic matter is absolutely magic. Poor soil can benefit greatly from even a small increase in organic matter. Even healthy soils benefit from composting – just a small increase in organic matter can improve the soil’s structure. Soils with a lower bulk density (lighter more fluffy soils) and with greater porosity (more air pockets in between the soil particles) route water more efficiently during floods and retain more moisture for plants, and so perform significantly better during droughts.

Research has also proven that organic matter often holds 10 times its own weight in moisture, trapping the water in the soil for the plants to use at a later time. Organic matter particles have a charged surface that attracts water so that it adheres to the surface, like static cling, but they can also have pores and charges that repel water. A 1994 study by Hudson University showed that a silt loam soil with as little as 4% organic matter can hold more than twice the water of a silt loam with just 1% organic matter. And silt loam soil with 10% organic matter held three times the amount of water as the same loam with just 4% organic matter.

Okay, that should take care of your soil. But what’s next? Let’s look at how it is possible to grow a vegetable garden during a drought when water resources are scarce, or when water rationing has been imposed. The key thing here is to water smart. Water responsibly, plant carefully, and select fruit and vegetable varieties that are drought-tolerant. All of these sustainable gardening practices require less water at any time, and can help ensure that your family has access to a variety of nutrient-rich foods, even during drought.

Techniques for Growing Food in Drought Conditions

Always keep these simple techniques in mind when planning your garden and you will find it doing much better during hot, dry and windy conditions. Whether you want to call them drought tips, water responsibility practices, or just plain old good garden management, these next 16 simple suggestions will help reduce water use in your backyard garden during any weather conditions including the dreaded “D” word.

#1 – Mulch, mulch, mulch!

I know that we have all heard it before but you need to mulch your garden! A 3 inch to 4 inch layer of mulch can reduce watering needs by as much as 50 percent. Mulch reduces water evaporation and keeps soil temperatures down during hot summer months and drought conditions. Grass clippings, dried leaves, pine needles, straw, and shredded bark are all examples of natural mulches which can be used to cover the soil. Hay is sometimes not recommended because it contains seeds, which yields weeds and can become problematic. But regardless of what you choose to use as a mulching medium, just mulch, mulch, mulch!

#2 – Planting Time – Timing is Everything!

Plant earlier in spring and later in fall. Planting earlier in the spring season takes advantage of the warm weather that a drought brings and it reduces exposure to the high mid-summer temperatures that often wither a garden even when not dealing with a drought. Planting later in the fall minimizes the use of supplemental water and takes advantage of seasonal rains to establish plants. For example, tomatoes and other nightshade crops such as peppers and eggplants should not be planted until soil temperatures reach 55 degrees. With a warm spring this could be as early as late March or early April for some of us. If you aren’t using a soil thermometer for accurate soil temperature readings, you really should consider getting one.

#3 – Enclosed Spaces – Smaller and Easier to Manage

Gardens planted in enclosed spaces retain water better than gardens planted in open soil. This is most often due to two key factors, the first being that in an enclosed space you usually find a raised bed garden and in a raised bed we can better control the soil our garden begins with, and secondly that gardens in a raised bed are usually planted in ways that maximize production instead of garden size.

#4 – Avoid the Traditional “Row” Garden

It does not matter if you are planting in a raised bed or in the ground, a hexagonal arrangement of plants beats traditional rows for smarter gardening hands down. A “hex” garden groups plants closer together, which provides shade from leaves, keeping soil cool and preventing water from evaporating.

#5 – Companion Planting – Everyone Needs a Friend

Companion planting is the practice of grouping crops together for mutual benefit. The Native American “three sisters” approach of planting corn, beans and squash together are a great example of companion planting. Tall cornstalks provided a structural support for the climbing beans, the beans returned nitrogen back into the soil, and the squash would spread across the soil acting as a mulch and keeping the soil cool.

#6 – Watering Times – Again, Timing is Everything!

The best time to water your garden is in the late evening and in the early morning hours, typically between 10pm and 6am. The cooler temperature and limited wind reduce water evaporation rates.

#7 – Water Efficiently – Water Wise Tips are Available from Local Extension Offices and Online

Overhead watering with a sprinkler system is not as efficient as drip irrigation. Compared to overhead sprinklers, drip systems can reduce water usage by up to half or even more. One Texas A&M study showed that in a raised bed garden, a drip system used more than a staggering 70% less water! Install a drip irrigation system, grouping plants with similar water needs together on one drip irrigation line. Drip irrigation systems are relatively easy to install for most do-it-yourself homeowners and have become very affordable in recent years.

#8 – Control Weeds – Water the Plants You Want

This one seems like a no-brainer! Pesky weeds compete for valuable water, sunshine and soil nutrients in your garden. Remove weeds before they have an opportunity to flower or spread. Pulling them when they are young is easy on you and I, and stops them from stealing as much water and nutrients from our crops. You might also spend some time learning about the “weeds” in your garden. Some of them are likely edible, medicinal, or useful in some other way.

#9 – Be Selective – Grow Only What You Need

Consider the water available to support crops through harvest, and grow only the amount and types of vegetables your family will consume. For example, plant two beds of vegetables instead of six; plant four tomatoes instead of ten. To get the most out of the water you apply, grow high yielding vegetables like beans, chard, mustard, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, squash, quinoa, and amaranth.

#10 – Drought Resistant Crops – More and More are Available All the Time!

Purchase varieties of fruits and vegetables that do well in hot and dry climates. Many heirloom varieties from Mediterranean regions are prized for being drought tolerant. And smaller varieties bred for containers often produce a more bountiful yield per plant than standard varieties.

#11 – Peak Water Times – Help Conserve by Watering Smart

Fruit and vegetables have critical periods for increased water demands. For most plants, once they become established, watering frequency and volume can be reduced until the flowering or fruit setting process begins. An increased amount of water should be reintroduced during this time. After this initial period of fruit set, water can slowly be reduced again. In some cases, reducing water can improve the flavors of your harvest!

#12 – Garden Size – In this Case, Size Does Matter!

Determine the amount of fruits and vegetables needed to feed your family. Does your family have two, four, or eight members? If you overproduced and wasted crops last year – decrease the amount of plants this year. Set up a garden exchange in your neighborhood so everyone grows less but still has a great variety!

#13 – Consider Days to Maturity – Quicker is Usually Better

A crop needing fewer days to mature requires less watering before harvest (62-day ‘Stupice’ tomatoes vs. 85-day ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes). Look for early-maturing or short-season varieties. Days to maturity will vary from one part of the country to another as well as from one microclimate to another.

#14 – Use Light-Weight Row Covers – Tuck Your Garden in at Night

Cover plants as a means to collect dew. Dew collects in the soil and helps to keep it moist. While using row covers can help prevent insect damage in some cases, be sure to look under the cover from time to time to monitor plant growth and check for unwanted insects trapped inside.

#15 – Use Shade and Wind Breaks – Give Your Garden a Break

Heat-sensitive vegetables can benefit from being planted where they receive some afternoon shade. Plant them underneath or behind taller plants or consider using a shade cloth. The moisture on leaf surfaces is dried by moving air, causing the plant to need more water – so a wind break really helps. In coastal and other windy areas, windbreaks will help roots keep up with leaf demands.

#16 – Plant Something New – Keep Looking for Your Next Superstar

There are many “Garden Greats” that you may not have tried. Have you ever grown Jerusalem artichokes, Malabar spinach, okra or loquats? There are many great garden plants out there that naturally require less water and tolerate higher temperatures. Find some of them and try them in your area. Who knows, you might discover a new favorite!

Obviously the topic of what is drought-tolerant is regionally specific to a great extent. After all, a drought in Maine will be very different from a drought in Arizona, and the plants that are considered to be drought-tolerant in America’s Pacific northwest may not be in my neck of the woods, Central Texas. So it is very important to keep that in mind when planning just what to add to the garden you plant on your little piece of planet Earth.

Eggplant for vegetable gardening in drought conditions

Choosing Vegetables for Drought Conditions

When thinking of common garden veggies for drought-tolerance think about the varieties that perform well in hot, dry, desert conditions. Desert-like areas present special challenges for the gardener. Living in Arizona for many years I found that I could still get wonderful vegetables to grow in my desert garden if I chose the correct varieties and kept in mind those special techniques listed above.

Some crops and varieties just naturally require less water than others once they are established. Those on the following list were selected from seed catalogs and seed catalog websites that specifically mention the terms “drought-resistant” or “drought-tolerant” in the variety description. The list is not exhaustive, but represents an opportunity for the home food gardener to consider new (or new to you) and unusual crops or varieties that allow you to be water-wise. For additional possibilities, consult seed companies or nurseries that specialize in plants suitable for desert or dry climate areas. If I have forgotten one of your favorite drought-tolerant crops or varieties, be sure to tell me about it in the comments section below.

A List of Drought-Tolerant Vegetable Varieties

Bush Beans – White Half Runner, Snap
Butter Beans – Jackson Wonder
Lima Beans – Alabama Black-Eyed Butter, Carolina Sieva, Christmas, and Fordhook 242 Bush
Pole Beans – Asparagus, Blue Coco, Garden of Eden, Romano, Louisiana Purple Pod
Broccoli – Waltham 29 (when fall planted)
Corn – Anasazi Sweet, Hopi Blue Flour, Hopi Pink, Painted Mountain Flour, Pinky Popcorn
Cucumber – Armenian, Lemon
Eggplant – Listada de Gandia
Melons – Iroquois, Navajo Yellow
Mustard – Southern Giant Curled
Okra – Gold Coast, Hill Country Heirloom Red , Jing Orange
Pepper – Jupiter Red Bell, just about any chili pepper, Ordoño
Quinoa – all varieties
Squash – Cocozelle Zucchini, Costata Romanesco, Cushaw Green-Striped Dark Star, Iran Jumbo Pink Banana, Lebanese Light Green, Tatsume
Sunflower – Skyscraper
Tomato – Caro Rich, Pearson, Red Currant, Phoenix, Solar Fire, Pineapple Stone, Yellow Pear Cherry, Juliet Hybrid
Watermelon – Black Diamond

In the next installment of this article on vegetable gardening during drought conditions, we will look at some rather atypical edibles you can grow in your own drought-resistant garden, including things like cactus, herbs, wild items, and more.

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Joe Urbach


Contributor

Joe Urbach is the creator/publisher of www.GardeningAustin.com and the popular Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived and worked in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Joe is a certified Texas Master Gardener and is currently serving as the Director of Training for the Hays County Chapter of the Texas Master Gardener Association. He teaches and lectures on gardening regularly and can often be found speaking at local nurseries, libraries, garden clubs and extension offices. Joe has become a phytonutrient gardener and wants us all to come along for the journey to a better, healthier, longer and much more active and productive life!


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  • Thank you for an excellent article. We live on a smallholding (about 18 acres) in South Africa, and this year is proving to be a very dry one. The list of drought resistant varieties you provided is most interesting. It inspires me to search locally for heritage varieties that are drought resistant.

    • Hi Heath – If you find any unique things to grow I’d love it if you would share that information with us here! Best of luck in your search for local and heritage varieties!

  • Jacob

    Excellent, comprehensive advice!

  • Dan

    Dew comes from the atmosphere, so if you cover your plants, the dew will form on the fabric, not the plants.

    • Phebe

      You are only partially right. For actual dew or fog it will collect on the row cover.
      I have observed that well watered plants often form ‘dew’ on the edges of the leaves even when covered… I have not seen any one mention this but my own explanation is that when the temperatures lower the water that would leave the plants in normal expiration during the day in wind and heat collects on the leaves when the air is still and cool… This is particularly true when the plants have been well watered in a greenhouse. Two plants that I have seen actually drip during the night when there was no dew are tomatoes and elephant ears; And have seen this type of ‘dew’ [because I don’t know what else to call it] form in my garden and greenhouse on other plants as well.

  • Julia Pace

    A very important article. I read it like sacred text. Thank you, thank you.

  • Anon

    The Scriptures reveal that drought is a curse from Yehovah: ‘But if you do not obey Me, and do not do all these commands, and if you reject My laws, or if your being loathes My right-rulings, so that you do not do all My commands, but break My covenant, I also do this to you: … I shall break the pride of your power, and shall make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain and your land not yield its crops, nor the trees of the land yield their fruit…’ Lev. 26:14-16, 19-20

  • Joy Noack

    Do you advocate no tilling even when prepping a new bed? If so, what is the best course of action to prep a new bed?

    Also, there’s this product called expanded shale I’ve been using. It looks kinda like kitty litter and absorbs a ton of water for its size, slowly releasing it for plants use later. it also helps the soil stay looser, which is important with my grey clay yard! Unfortunately, it is a tad pricey but it lasts a long, long time. Your thoughts on expanded shale?

  • Bonnie

    Excellent common sense article. All things that we can do with very little budget stress. I have been using soaker hoses for years. I also plant things that are more shade tolerant where they get afternoon respite from the heat.
    Thank you.

  • Samnjoeysgrama

    I’m 67 and I learned to garden from my mother, grand mother and in 4-H. I had 4 brothers, and with our acre garden, we never bought vegetables, fresh in summer or canned and frozen ln winter. Some of the best information of all came from my mother’s copy of Ruth Stout No Work Gardening, 1971 from Rodale Press. You can still find copies on Amazon. What a fun lady. And some of the best gardening info you will ever find. She would have loved this article, as do I. “Mulch, mulch, mulch!” was her mantra!

  • Great gardening tips but please leave out the global warming bull. Some of us realize this is a mechanism to add taxes and take away personal freedoms. You should also educate yourself as to the HAARP and chemtrails and what is causing the great drought out west. If you want to be a sheeple that is your right. I choose not to be. Yes there is drought but leave out the bone headed cause. Just as you fall into poor practices learning from the wrong instructor in any field of endeavor you will go down the wrong road listening to the likes of Al Gore. The last place I would go for understanding is from government shills, you know the ones that say round up is safe and there’s no mercury or lead in vaccines or flu shots. Remember Mark Twains words, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that have been fooled.” Sorry for the negative reaction but it hurts to see people with wisdom in one area fall prey to ignorance in another.

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