Gardening During a Drought

Gardening During a Drought

Garden plants need water to grow and be productive but we shouldn’t count on enough rainfall to keep our garden plants well hydrated. Drought conditions are impacting much of the world at the present time and obviously gardening during a drought can be challenging.

We still need to eat though, and farmers, homesteaders, and backyard gardeners can still be successful growing food during a drought with a few easy tips. Here are some pointers on gardening during a drought to help optimize your garden water usage as best as possible.

Start With the Soil

Amend the garden soil with plenty of organic material, like compost or well-aged animal manure before planting seeds or seedlings. The organic material will help the soil retain moisture, so you can water less often.

It may sound like a paradox, but fertilizing during plant growth should be avoided during drought conditions. Although the fertilizer helps the plants to grow, but a faster growth rate would also increase their need for water. 

Plant Choices

Choose drought-tolerant vegetable varieties. These have been bred to be able to withstand the heat and dry conditions and still be productive. However, keep in mind vegetables that are producing flowers or fruit will demand for more water.

Sorghum is a food crop that can tolerate dry conditions better than others

Among the vegetables that are more drought-tolerant are modern varieties of:

  • Okra
  • Zucchini
  • Tomatoes (e.g. Cherokee Purple, Red, and Sun Gold)
  • Cowpeas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cassava
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Sorghum
  • Lima beans
  • Squash
cassava for drought gardening
Cassava is another food crop that tolerates drought better than others.

Some ornamental garden plants that can better tolerate drought include:

  • Lavender
  • Salvia
  • Any succulent
  • Penstemon
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Bougainvillea
  • Coneflower
  • Desert Rose
  • Sedum
black eyed susans
Black-eyed Susans are cheerful and pretty flower candidates for gardening during a drought.

Look for young plants instead of seeds if you are planting during a drought. The time saved will also reduce the watering needed. Also plant in different groups according to the plant’s water requirements (some need more water, others need less), not forgetting their “compatibility” with each other.

Harvest Rainwater

Harvest rainwater by installing a rain barrel under your gutters. The rainwater that runs off a roof can add up to hundreds of gallons of water that can be used in your garden. Use barrels, buckets, or some type of catchment system to collect every drop of rainwater you can during a drought.

water barrel
Water barrels are excellent for collecting any available rainwater during a drought.

Some gardeners also collect and use ‘gray water’ to water their plants. Gray water is recycled water from the shower, bathtub, and rinse water from dishes and hand washing. It may seem unsafe, but gray water is apparently well tolerated by many garden plants according to this study, and actually helps some to grow even better!

Water Deeply

Water plants deeply to encourage them to develop deep roots. The deeper the roots, the better able they will be to withstand a drought. The deep roots will seek out moisture that shallow-rooted plants can’t reach.

NB: What is “watering deeply”? There is no exact meaning to it, but it’s generally taken as the water soaking the soil to at least 8 inches below the surface.

Watering deeply just once a week is also better than watering often but with lesser amounts of water, because the moisture is better retained by the soil when it is deeper down in the soil. Time of watering is important too; water in the early morning or late evening to minimize evaporation.

Consider setting up a drip irrigation or soaker hose system for your garden. These slow methods of water delivery help minimize unnecessary water runoff and evaporation, thus conserving your water.   

Mulching Is Necessary

A 2-4 inch layer of organic mulch (like straw or wood chips) is necessary to help the soil retain moisture. The mulch will also help keep the soil cooler and prevent weed growth. The mulch will slowly decompose and add nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure, which in turn helps it retain moisture better.

wood chip mulch
Wood chip mulch decompose slowly, and make for good soil mulch.

Get Rid Of Weeds

Weeds will compete with garden plants for soil moisture, sunlight, and nutrients. Pull them up by the roots and discard them away from the garden to reduce the competition. Without the competition from weeds, your plants will grow better and be happier too.

Avoid using Weed Killers and Pesticides

This may seem contradictory to the above point, which is to destroy weeds, but you are supposed to remove them manually by pulling them out (weeding).

But why should we avoid herbicides and pesticides? During a drought, the chemicals are not taken up so well, and their residue remains for longer periods on the plants, and in the soil. The lingering chemical residue can then harm your plants and vegetables.

Deadhead Often

Remove the faded blooms often so the plants won’t expand energy forming seeds, and then requiring more water. If you need seeds, only allow the needed amount of blooms to remain on the plant to conserve water.

It’s all about Minimizing

In summary, gardening during a drought can be quite challenging, but the key is to maximize your water usage, and put everything on low intensity mode. Be it planting, feeding, or watering, gardening during a drought is akin to fall gardening but in reverse (instead of cool weather, it’s hot and dry), where in both instances you are preparing your plants for “semi-hibernation”.

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