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Advice on vegetable gardening in drought conditions, including drought-tolerant fruit and vegetables to grow, how and when to water the garden effectively, and tips on reducing water loss from the soil.
Growing food during a drought can be very challenging and frustrating. With some preparation and forward-thinking, you can succeed, even through a long dry period. Once you know how to grow vegetables during a drought, you will be able to avoid a few easy pitfalls and enjoy your gardening more. You’ll also look forward to a bountiful harvest instead of a wilted one!
Vegetable gardening in drought conditions is something that humans have been dealing with since agriculture began. In this guide, we will look at the best drought-tolerant vegetables and fruits to grow, how to prepare your garden, water efficiently, and protect your garden during a drought. We will also look at taking care of your soil to make life easier for your plants.
Grow Healthy Plants that can Survive the Heat
Each vegetable patch is different and comes with its own set of challenges, especially during drought conditions. The first thing that we must always strive for is good plant husbandry. Happy seedlings planted and transplanted at the right time under the right conditions will always be more resilient. Additionally, taking care of your soil will create an environment in which your plants can thrive.
When preparing your garden for drought, another important consideration is what you should grow. Some vegetables will grow better under drought conditions than others, and choosing wisely could mean the difference between having a harvest or not.
It’s not as clear-cut as you might think, though! Tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, and peppers are all warm-weather plants and enjoy heat often associated with drought, but they have quite high watering needs. Without regular water, they can quickly become stressed or develop problems with their fruits, such as blossom-end rot. Fruit development might even fail completely.
If you know that you are likely to be facing drought conditions, you should opt for drought-tolerant plants. There are a few adaptations that plants must survive in dry conditions. For example, Tuscan kale has a waxy cuticle over its leaves, reducing water loss from the leaf pores. Sweetcorn has a very long root system, perfect for finding water deep in the soil. You can also choose to grow miniature varieties such as bush beans instead of climbing beans. Smaller plants require less water. You can also look for herb and vegetable varieties that have been bred to be slow-bolting or drought-resistant.
Other plants with drought resistance are:
Even plants that are well adapted for dry conditions will need water to become established, particularly vegetables. So, it is important to give plenty of water early in the season when the plants are still seedlings and when they are first planted out.
To avoid having to establish new plants every season, you could try some perennial crops. Taunton Deane Kale and Nine Star Broccoli are great drought-tolerant choices, and so are artichokes and, of course, perennial, woody herbs.
Drought-tolerant Fruit Crops
Many perennial or wood fruit crops will do fine through drought once they are established. If you can get them through their first growing season, this will usually be enough to build their resilience. Fruit trees have deep root systems and are rarely affected by lack of water if they are mature. Young trees will need watering in their first year, especially in drought conditions.
Fruit bushes and woody vines are also quite tolerant of conditions with little water, providing they are mature, established plants. Fruit crops that do well with little water are:
- Fruit trees; apple, pear, cherry, plum
Although not traditionally considered a fruit, chilies are also a fruit that does well under dry conditions. They will need to be well-established like other plants, but they can go on producing fruits in dry conditions and will produce more spice too. Not too bad if you like a little kick in your hot sauce!
Mulching to Retain Water in the Soil
Mulching is a great way to retain water in the soil. Although compost is my favorite mulch to use, there are other materials that you can use as well. An annually applied layer of mulch is best, as this will improve soil structure and increase its ability to retain water. If you use the no-dig method alongside mulching, then your plants will be able to access water and nutrients deep into the soil. That’s because there will not be compaction layers, and the organisms in the soil will create a perfect soil structure.
As the organisms move through the soil, they open pores and create aggregates. These are groups of tiny particles stuck together with organic matter and act like tiny sponges, holding onto water in the soil. The pores allow for air circulation and the movement of water through the layers of the soil.
Mulching also creates a barrier layer over the surface of the soil. Water will soak easily through a compost mulch and become trapped underneath, which reduces water loss through evaporation at the soil’s surface.
You can mulch with other things such as straw, arborist wood chips, bark, pine needles, or grass clippings that will help to lock moisture in. Although in damper climates such as the British Isles, straw could create a habitat for slugs. It could be problematic if the weather started getting wet again. There are some purpose-made mulches on the market that work great, too but avoid using wood-based mulches in vegetable gardens.
Increase Plant Density to Reduce Water Loss
Water is constantly being lost from plant leaves and from the soil surface by the process of evaporation. The warmer it gets, the more water will be lost. Plants are adapted to reduce evaporation from their leaves in dry conditions, and they can shadow the ground beneath themselves, which will reduce water loss from the soil.
As gardeners, we can use plants to reduce evaporation. Planting crops close together can help to shade the ground. That means that the water in the soil is available for plants instead of evaporated by the sun. Even allowing some weeds to fill in the gaps between garden plants can help reduce stress on the soil and water loss.
We can also use companion planting to create ground cover. Low-growing plants such as sweet alyssum will reduce evaporation from the soil and help to attract beneficial insects into your garden. Squash and zucchini can also fill this role by planting below taller plants.
When to Water the Garden During Drought
Watering time is crucial when it comes to saving water. If we water during the heat of the day, much of the water will be lost through evaporation before it reaches our plants. The best time to water during a drought is first thing in the morning. Water before the sun reaches your vegetable patch. This can be a tricky thing in the summer in higher latitudes when it gets light so early. But watering early will deliver water to your plants, just as they begin to draw water up through their roots.
If you are unable to water first thing in the morning, the evening is the next-best time. This works better in heavy-clay soils or soils rich in organic matter that can hold onto moisture well. If you are working with sandy soils, either water first thing or consider one of the irrigation methods described below.
How to Water the Garden Efficiently
One of the most important things about how to grow vegetables during a drought is using the water that you have efficiently. If you have a rainwater collection system, you should have some water saved if there are water restrictions in place. You will, however, want to use the water that you have wisely. That means avoiding sprinklers since water sprayed into the air or onto foliage will evaporate off quickly.
It is better to water deeply and less often than little and often. This is because this kind of watering will encourage deep-root growth. So, if you are watering by hand, try to water directly at the root of the plant and give each plant a good soak. This should last them longer than a quick watering and will set your plants up to last longer between watering too.
Another good option for watering during a drought is using a soaker hose. These permeable hosepipes will seep water onto the ground slowly, creating a humid environment at the root level and keeping the soil consistently moist with very little water input. They effectively water your crops while using less of your water resources.
A drip system will produce similar results but is slightly more labor-intensive to set up. Water is delivered directly to the roots in a drip irrigation system, so it uses even less water than a soaker hose.
Using Ollas to Reduce Water Usage
An olla is a terracotta vessel that you bury beneath the soil near where you plan on planting crops and fill it with water. When vegetable gardening in drought conditions, they can be a lifesaver! The way it works is that terracotta is permeable, so water will gradually seep through the walls of the olla. Plant roots grow up to the olla and drink directly from the pot and the moist soil around it. It’s an ancient gardening technique that is still used in arid places around the world.
Using ollas reduces water loss by surface evaporation and delivers water to the roots at a slow and steady pace, perfect for your plants. You will need to top up your ollas every few days, depending on conditions and the size of your olla.
One olla can service several plants in the vicinity. Best of all, they don’t need to be plumbed in and don’t require any power! That makes them a great choice for raised beds and allotments. Simply bury an olla in the ground and then plant around it. Think of how large a plant’s root system is, though — smaller plants will not be able to tap into the olla if you plant them too far away.
Use Shade Cloth to Protect Crops from Drought
Shade cloth is a useful tool, particularly for plants growing in greenhouses. During drought conditions, leaves lose water faster when they have direct sunlight on them. So, by shading your plants just a little using shade cloth, you can reduce the amount of water lost and, therefore, the amount of water needed to keep your plant happy.
You can use Shade cloth outside too, but rig it up in some way rather than just draped over the plant. With greenhouses and polytunnels, it is common to rig your shade cloth from the roof inside or simply drape it over the top of the structure.
Vegetable Gardening in Drought Conditions
Vegetable gardening in drought conditions is possible with a little advanced planning. Also, keep in mind that a well-established garden will also be easier to maintain through a dry spell than a new garden. Consider using companion plants, growing drought-resistant crops, including perennial vegetables and fruit, and using water-saving techniques in the garden. Mulches, soaker hoses, and water storage can all make the difference in having a bountiful garden. For even more gardening inspiration, check out these ideas:
- 10 Water Saving Tips for the Vegetable Garden
- 70+ Perennial Vegetables for a Drought-Resistant Garden
- How to Grow an Indoor Vegetable Garden
- 6 Ways to Make Your Garden Sustainable and Low-Maintenance