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Gardening Without Water – How To Garden In A Drought

Gardening Without Water – How To Garden In A Drought


By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

California, Washington and other states have seen some of their worst droughts in recent years. Conserving water is not only a matter of keeping your utility bill down but has become a matter of urgency and necessity. Knowing how to garden in a drought will protect your existing plants and can help you grow food crops in low moisture conditions. Using tips for gardening in a drought are a socially and environmentally responsible tactic and a great learning experience as our world changes.

How to Garden in a Drought

One of the main needs of plants is water. This need can be hard to satisfy when gardening in drought conditions. When water is scarce, plants experience stress, increased pest activity and can fail to thrive. This is why planting drought resistant plants and using proven water management techniques are important to the modern landscaper. The no-nonsense approach encompasses cultural and selection factors to minimize plant stress and still create a beautiful landscape.

The first way to manage the garden in a drought is to choose appropriate plant specimens. Use native plants that are familiar with your conditions and plants that do well in low moisture soils. Planting drought resistant plants not only minimizes your water usage, but these species are generally hardy in high heat and in soils with poor fertility.

Some options might include perennials like:

  • Lewisia
  • Sedum
  • Lavender
  • Agastache
  • Penstemon
  • Coneflower

Evergreen selections for screens and hedges can encompass plants like:

  • Nandina
  • Coyote plant
  • Tecate cypress
  • Oregon grape

Your local extension office is a great resource to find native plants and a list of drought friendly options that do well in your area. They can also be a wonderful partner in designing a drought tolerant landscape. Planting drought resistant plants is just the first step in a low moisture garden, but it certainly is one of the most important.

Tips for Gardening in a Drought

Proper soil is crucial to gardening without water. Soil with plenty of organic matter incorporated will hold moisture better than gritty, porous soils or clay compositions which allow little of the water to percolate to plant roots.

The timing of planting also plays an important role. Avoid installing plants in the summer when providing adequate moisture for establishing roots can be difficult. Plant in your rainy season to take advantage of the free water and give plants a chance to adjust.

Established plants need less water because they have had a chance to develop a large root base and taproots if applicable. This allows the plant to more efficiently gather moisture.

The time of day to plant is also important. Do not plant during the heat of the day but rather wait until evening or plant in the early morning.

You can still have bountiful harvests and beautiful flowers even in drought conditions if you choose the right plants and follow some rules on water usage.

  • First, apply a thick layer of mulch around all of your plants. This will conserve moisture, help prevent competitive weeds and gradually nourish the roots.
  • When you do water, water deeply to encourage a healthy root zone. Irrigate in the early morning or in the evening when sun’s rays won’t have a chance to evaporate the water before it reaches the plant’s root area.
  • Keep competitive weeds out of the garden. One of the most efficient systems for conserving water is a drip system. These are easy to install and allow only the plant to receive water right at its root zone. Use tree rings around trees and larger plants.

Gardening without water or in minimized conditions can be challenging. With a few of these simple tips, however, you can still have the beautiful garden of your dreams without irresponsible waste and high utility bills.

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8 Tips For Gardening In A Drought

This week, I would like to talk to you about gardening in a drought.

This might seem like a surprising topic from a blog about mental health and conscious travel, but growing your own food is one of the best things that you can do for yourself and for the planet.

Why is growing your own food so important?

Well, you can be sure that your food hasn’t been sprayed with toxic chemicals which cause cancer in people and the collapse of pollinating species. You don’t have to choose food wrapped up in plastic from the supermarket, and you can’t get lower food mileage than pulling a juicy carrot from the earth and sticking in straight in your mouth. It is far cheaper than buying food in a supermarket and there is nothing as delicious as a meal cooked with ingredients that you grew yourself.

You can also protect your family from any external shocks to the food systems that empty supermarket shelves. (We all thought it was impossible until COVID panic cleared the shelves in a day.) And, if you needed any more reasons, reconnecting with the cycles of weather and the earth does extraordinary things for your mental health.

In case you think that growing is for the privileged few, I’d like you to know that everyone can grow food. You don’t have to spend hours out in the garden slaving over a small holding, just growing a few potatoes in a big pot is a good starting point! Even if you live in a studio apartment in London, there is always a way.

Seriously. Syrian refugees are currently producing an abundance of fresh vegetables from abandoned foam mattresses in the middle of the desert. But I’ll save tiny space gardening for a future article, if you’d like to find out more!

Today, I would like to offer you some tips for gardening in a drought, which I have learned from extraordinary people all over the world. From the rocky island of Lismore off the coast of Scotland, to the hills of Arkansas, the lush valleys of Germany and the sweltering south of France. From Africa to Vietnam, I have stayed with so many remarkable families on my slow travels through the world, and they have taught me so much about cultivating the Earth with respect, even in the most challenging circumstances.

So without further ado, I would like to offer you 8 helpful tips for gardening in a drought.


Drought gardening: tips for growing food

1 of 3 This June harvest of magenta spreen, cabbage, runner beans, carrots and beets grew mostly with spring rainfall. Pam Peirce Show More Show Less

2 of 3 This June harvest of magenta spreen, cabbage, runner beans, carrots and beets grew mostly with spring rainfall. peirce23 Show More Show Less

As we head into what could become an epochal drought, despite recent welcome rains, vegetable gardeners are feeling the uncertainty. Will water restrictions snuff out the salad garden, bash beans and thwart tomato dreams?

We do know that it is typical for Central California to have great variations in annual rainfall. Our location between a wetter north and a desert south puts us at the mercy of small shifts in weather. Those of us who were living in California during the mid-'70s drought, which is about half the number of people living here now, remember the anxiety and water restrictions then. That drought did end, as did some smaller droughts later. But if climate change is under way, who knows how this one will turn out? While we can't know what is in store, we can plan this year's garden with care.

By all accounts, we've been, overall, very good at saving water in recent decades. Now it's time to rededicate ourselves to conservation.

There are good reasons to grow your own vegetables and herbs. You can do so using much less water than the average large-scale farm you save the Earth part of the carbon cost of transporting your food, and it will probably inspire you to eat more vegetables.

Here are some tips to help you plan a food garden in a drought:

-- Start by conserving water indoors. Fix leaks, avoid running water wastefully and take advantage of whatever water-saving appliances you can obtain.

-- Look to your soil. Add several inches of organic matter, compost or other amendment once or twice a year. This will greatly increase the soil's water-holding capacity. But don't add too much. More than 5 percent organic matter can create conditions that are not healthy for plant roots.

-- Think about what and how much you will actually eat. If you gardened last year, think back to whether you wasted food that you grew, and use that as a guide to plan this year's garden to better match your needs.

-- Plant some crops in February or March to take advantage of any rain we get this season, as well as of the slower evaporation rate of cooler weather. Planting in August through November (depending on crop and location) can take advantage of cooler fall and winter temperatures and possible rainfall in the same way.

-- Plant closely enough together that mature neighboring plants touch leaves.

-- Apply an organic mulch, using a fine-textured material that can decay as time passes, rather than large bark chunks. Keep mulch back from plant stems to prevent their decay.

-- If you choose not to plant some of your food gardening area, water it well, cover it with an organic mulch and, if allotments allow, water it well one or two more times in the summer to keep your soil alive.

-- Water early or late in the day, when evaporation is at its slowest, and water at or near the ground rather than with a high, evaporation-prone spray.

-- If you water by hand, once your crops are past the seedling stage, water crops deeply, then don't water again until the top inch of soil is dry. Use a moisture meter to check soil moisture. Put a simple timer on your hose at the faucet so you can set it to turn off the hose automatically.

-- If you choose drip irrigation, use a separate program for vegetables, which require more water than your drought-tolerant ornamentals. Pin drip lines to the ground to avoid water running unevenly along the lines. Provide manual shutoff valves for separate beds, so you can turn off the drip as you change crops - or to let onions or garlic dry out.

-- Get a programmable irrigation timer with a rain sensor, and be sure it's on, so you won't waste water during a storm. Get friendly with the manual that comes with your timer, so you can reset it during the year to account for changing temperatures and day length, and know when and how to replace its battery. If you lose the manual, use the make and model to print out a replacement from the website of the manufacturer.

-- Gray water, reused household water, can irrigate ornamental plantings and fruit trees, freeing clean water for your food garden vegetables, but is not recommended for use where it may contact edible parts of food. If you do consider installing a gray water system, be sure you find professional plans for doing so, as poorly planned systems can clog the plumbing almost immediately.


10 Tips for looking after your vegetable garden in drought conditions

This is a blog post I never thought I’d be writing in Ireland! With talks of draught and heatwaves and temperatures reaching in excess of 27ºC which puts the country in a Status Yellow situation, our poor gardens are looking brown and withered. Last year the farmers were supplementing their livestock with feed due to constant rain, this year they’re starting to feed them nuts and grain to protect the grass. Climate change is playing havoc and we have to learn to adapt.

Many people on our island draw their water from wells and are already wondering how best to protect this precious resource as talk circulates of wells running dry. If you’re using a mains supply it pays to be cautious too as reservoir levels begin to dip. Under these conditions you might be asking yourself when is the best time to water plants? Should you mow your grass or be watering it? What else can you do to protect your garden from drought?

Here’s my top 10 tips for helping you manage your garden during a heat wave.

1. Water in the evenings or mornings. The water will go straight to the roots of the plants and won’t evaporate. However, if a plant looks severely dehydrated, don’t wait, water it immediately.

2. Water deeply and infrequently using a watering can or hose pipe rather than little and often. When water is scarce young roots will search deep down into the soil, looking for reserves of moisture. If they’re only watered lightly and often they will send out shallow, surface roots that suffer in drought times.

3. Mulch the soil. Water the soil deeply and then cover with straw or compost which will help seal in the water and prevent evaporation.

Weeds are competing for moisture the beans need

4. Weed. Weeds will compete for moisture so it’s important to keep your beds weed free and allow every last drop of water to reach the roots of your plants and not their competitors. Tip: wet the soil first before weeding, they’ll pull out much easier.

5. Glasshouses and polytunnels. If you have a greenhouse drape shading material over the roof and leave polytunnel doors open day and night.

6. Lawn Care. If your vegetable garden is surrounded by grass, stop cutting it and don’t water it. Lawns stop growing during drought conditions but it’s unlikely it will die. When it rains they’ll magically change colour to the emerald greens we’re more familiar with and bounce back to life. Longer lawns will shade the grass roots helping to retail moisture. If you can’t bear to look at a longer lawn, raise the blades on the mower and don’t scalp the grass.

7. Use Grey Water. If your garden is surrounded by established trees and shrubs, they shouldn’t need watering at all. However, if their leaves start to look droopy you could use your bath, sink or washing machine water, known as grey water. Don’t use grey water on fruit or vegetable plants or any water that’s been sitting around in your bath for longer than 24 hours as bacteria can build up are any water that contains bleach or strong detergents. There are grey water irrigation kits available to help you syphon it out of showers etc into buckets. In Ireland Purchase.ie stock them online. Water recycling would be a good practice to get into given how precious this resource is and with water metering being introduced in Ireland in the future, now’s your chance to try it!

9. Group containers together which can create humid microclimates and place them in shadier places to keep them cooler.

10. Prepare for next year, who knows what weather we’ll experience. Dig in lots of compost in the autumn which will help with soil structure and install water butts. Here’s an old blog post that contains more tips for helping you to preserve your water supply.


Gardening In Drought Conditions: Tips For Gardening In A Drought - garden

Is it possible to grow a vegetable garden when water resources are scarce and water rationing could be imposed? Water responsibly, plant carefully, and select fruit and vegetable varieties that are drought tolerant. All of these sustainable gardening practices require less water – and help ensure your family has access to a variety of nutrient rich foods.

Ten simple drought tips to reduce water use in your backyard garden

  1. Planting time
    Plant earlier in spring and later in fall. Planting earlier in the spring season takes advantage of the warm weather and reduces exposure to high mid-summer temperatures. 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 mid-April. Remember to always use a soil thermometer for accurate soil temperature readings.
  2. Mulch, mulch, mulch!
    A 3- 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. 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 not recommended because it contains seeds, which yields weeds and can become a problematic option.

Enclosed spaces
Gardens planted in enclosed spaces, for example a raised garden bed, retain water better than gardens planted in open soil. Plant seeds and transplants in a hexagonal "off-set" pattern rather than in straight rows. A hexagonal arrangement groups plants closer together, which provides shade from leaves, keeping soil cool and water from evaporating.

Companion planting
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 the perfect example of companion planting. Tall cornstalks provide a structural support for the climbing beans, the beans return nitrogen back into the soil, and the squash spreads across the soil acting as a mulch and keeping the soil cool.

Watering times
The best time to water your garden is in the late evening and early morning hours, typically between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The cooler morning temperature and limited wind reduced water evaporation rates.

Control Weeds!
Pesky weeds compete for valuable water, sunshine and soil nutrients in your garden. Remove weeds before they have an opportunity to flower or spread. Visit the UC Integrated Pest Management website for tips on controlling weeds to identify recommendations for specific weed species.

Drought Resistant Crops
Purchase varieties of fruits and vegetable that do well in hot and dry climates. Many heirloom varieties from Mediterranean regions are prized for being drought tolerant. Smaller varieties bred for containers often produce a more bountiful yield per plant than standard varieties. Avoid water hogs! Some favorite water-efficient edibles from UCCE Master Gardeners include: asparagus, chard, eggplant, mustard greens, peppers, roma tomatoes, and California native strawberries. Check with a local UCCE Master Gardener Program about which varieties are recommended for your zone.

Peak water times
Fruit and vegetables have critical periods for increased water demands. For most plants once they become established watering times and amounts 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 (think, dry-farmed tomatoes)!

  • Garden size
    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!
  • The University of California Master Gardener Program extends to the public free UC research-based information about home horticulture and pest management. In exchange for the training and materials received from the University of California, Master Gardeners perform volunteer services in a myriad of venues. If you are interested in becoming a certified UC Master Gardener contact your local UC Cooperative Extension office.


    Planting for water conservation gardening in drought conditions

    Gardeners in many parts of the world have to deal with periods of drought. Yes, irrigation is a possibility, but many are faced with water shortages and there is increasing interest in planting for water conservation. Even in the UK we have to deal with periods of drought. Despite the fact it seemed to rain throughout spring the past few weeks have been hot and dry and gardens have certainly been feeling the heat.

    The Dry Garden: Here are a few of my tips for a good-looking garden that needs less watering.

    1. Plant shrubs and perennials that enjoy dry conditions. Sun roses, cistus are compact evergreens that need little care and delight with a spectacular display of shimmering pink or white blooms in summer. Helianthemums are also a good choice. The Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia is an underestimated plant. This one just loves hot, dry conditions and produces its bright blue flowers on branched stems in late summer. The foliage is silvery on the reverse of the leaves and the stems are silver-white. Convolvulus cneorum is a favourite dwarf shrub with silky silver leaves and white trumpet shaped flowers throughout the summer. It is for a patio pot and needs much less watering than many bedding plants, it flowers for longer too.

    2. Think Mediterranean and aromatic: lavender, sage, thyme and rosemary all like hot dry conditions and produce aromatic foliage, great for summer barbecues. They produce their most aromatic foliage when grown on dry, poor soil and their flowers are attractive to bees, butterflies and pollinating insects. Also plants with felty or silver foliage are invariably drought resistant Ballotta pseudodictamnus is a good example.

    3. Palms and yuccas may look exotic and tender but some are tough customers that stand up to winter cold as well as summer drought. Chamaerops are the best palms for smaller gardens and are ideal in pots and striking when planted in gravel. Yuccas are surprisingly hardy and they make striking architectural garden plants.

    4. Do not waste water on the lawn, save it for flowers and vegetables. Grass does not die it just goes dormant in dry weather. The lawn may look parched and brown but it quickly recovers when rain comes. Set your mower higher: longer grass retains its green colour for longer. Consider clover as an alternative to, or addition to grass. It stays green even in hot dry weather.

    5. In a small space consider gravel or stone chippings as an alternative to grass. Gravel looks attractive and is maintenance free: no mowing to do! Add interest with creeping thymes, sedums and sempervivums and dwarf bulbs for early spring colour.

    6. Mulch flowerbeds and borders with a good depth of chipped bark or shredded prunings. This retains moisture and suppresses weeds at the same time. Apply it when the soil is moist and weed free, and use enough. A depth of 5 cm, 2 inches over the soil surface is needed for it to be effective. You can use grass clippings as mulch under large shrubs and hedges. This helps to improve the humus content of the soil and conserves water

    7. Use loam-based compost in pots and containers. It holds water and nutrients more efficiently and plants are less liable to wilt. Cover the surface of the compost with gravel or decorative stone chippings. This looks good and helps to keep the compost cool and retains moisture. When choosing pots and containers choose large ones. These are more efficient at holding water and do not dry out as quickly. They are also more stable and less likely to blow over. Group pots together on the patio, this helps to shade the walls of the containers, keep them cool and prevent drying out.

    8. Soil conditioning reaps rewards. Add plenty of organic matter: garden compost and well-rotted farmyard manure. This increases the humus content of the soil enabling it to hold water and nutrients more effectively. This is the basis of good planting and a healthy, thriving garden.

    9. Plan ahead. Planting in the autumn rather than spring and summer enables the roots of plants to become established deep in the soil when water is more available. This means they will be more resistant to drought the following season.

    10. When you water do it in the early morning or evening and get the water to the roots. If you only soak the soil surface every time you water the roots will stay there. Ideally you want to get the roots to go deep so it pays to put a piece of pipe into the ground when planting new trees and large shrubs. Water into the pipe and you’ll get the water below the roots rather than just wetting the soil surface.

    I have a bit of an ulterior motive in writing this post. My garden is parched at the moment and desperately needs rain. Every time I write about drought it pours with rain let’s see if it works. In the meantime I’d love your comments and suggestions on water conservation in the garden.

    Andy McIndoe

    . Read more Andy McIndoe is our Chief Blogger, and teaches five courses on the site. Andy has over thirty years experience as a practical horticulturist and consultant. He has designed and advised on gardens of all sizes and was responsible for the Hillier Gold Medal winning exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower for 25 years. A regular contributor to magazines, newspapers and BBC Radio, Andy lectures widely at home and abroad. Special interests include hardy shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, flower bulbs, wildlife and garden design he has authored books on all of these subjects. A keen gardener Andy and his wife Ros have a two acre garden in Hampshire, U.K. that is open to groups by appointment. Started from scratch fifteen years ago, the garden is naturalistic in style, with an extensive wildflower meadow and informal planting. The emphasis is on foliage to provide colour and texture. W W . Read more


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