11 Tips For Growing Vegetables In A Drought

It is terrible to watch torrential rains pulverize your vegetable garden. It is just as bad to watch it wither and die under the blistering sun in a drought. Here are 10 ways you can help your thirsty garden and how to grow vegetables in a dry season successfully.

The most important way to help your garden through a drought is to build up your soil naturally by adding compost. Mulching holds moisture in the soil, and weeding will make more moisture available for your vegetables. Avoid tilling as much as possible as it releases moisture into the atmosphere. It also helps to eliminate bare soil and create shade. Grow drought-resistant plants and carefully time when you plant them. Do not use fertilizer on your plants. Collect as much rain as your possible can, and water from the tap as a last resort.

Growing vegetables in a dry season can be tough, and our natural reaction is to pull out the hose and start watering. If you follow the points outlined in this article, you can help your garden naturally retain moisture and you might not have to water your plants at all. Let’s look at how to naturally prepare your garden to hold as much moisture as possible and successfully grow through the dry spell.

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Vegetable Gardening In A Dry Season

I don’t like to water my garden. I have always been intrigued by intricate watering systems with drip irrigation hoses controlled by simple timers, but I prefer to watch nature work and not interfere if I don’t have to. Seed packets and vegetable growing guides (including ones I have written) all list the ideal quantity of water seeds and plants should have to grow. We occasionally water newly planted seeds in an exceptionally dry spring, but other than that we generally leave the vegetables to grow with the rain that falls, and I find nature does perfectly well on its own. But what to do during a drought, when there is no rain falling at all?

Plants need water to live. Most of the moisture a plant absorbs comes from the soil. The roots draw up nutrient-rich water which is dispersed throughout the stem and leaves. The water is broken down through photosynthesis and the nutrients feed the hungry plant. Not only does the water help feed the plant, but a plant can be composed of as much as 95% water. It is imperative that your vegetables have access to lots of water, but does this mean we have to irrigate during a long, dry season?

There are many ways you can get moisture to your plants without irrigation. Designing your garden to grow without irrigation is called xeriscaping. Following this practice, here are 10 ways to prepare your garden for a drought and retain as much moisture as possible to eliminate the need to water.

  1. Add compost
  2. Mulch
  3. Weed
  4. Avoid tilling
  5. Eliminate bare soil
  6. Create shade
  7. Grow drought-resistant plants
  8. Timing is important
  9. Do not fertilize
  10. Collect any rain you can
  11. Water ONLY as a last resort

1. Add Compost

The best thing you can do for your garden is to add compost and other decaying organic matter. Humus, the rich, sweet smelling final product of decomposition not only adds nutrients for the plants but significantly improves water retention in the soil. The organic matter holds water so it is readily available to the plants. When there is no rain, your soil that has been enriched with compost will hold water for longer and your plants have a much better chance of survival. This is your best bet to sustain your garden through a dry spell.

READ NEXT: 8 Common questions about growing vegetables indoors over winter.

2. Mulch

Applying a thick layer of organic mulch is another natural way to retain moisture in your soil. Applying mulch helps regulate the temperature of the soil and protect it from the sun, which slows evaporation and keeps the moisture in the ground for the plants. Straw, leaves, newspaper, or cardboard are all excellent options that are easy to come by, but any other organic matter will do.

You can also mulch your garden with black plastic. Plastic mulch is best put down at planting time as it is difficult to put down around already established plants. Of course, this isn’t a very environmentally-friendly option, but it might be a good idea if you want to cover large areas. While it will help keep the soil moist like organic mulches, plastic mulch has the disadvantage that it will not allow any rain to reach the soil should you be lucky enough to have any.

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3. Weed

During dry weather, it is particularly important to keep your garden thoroughly weeded. Any weeds that grow will use moisture that should be going towards your vegetables.

4. Avoid Tilling

Try to avoid tilling during a drought. Every time the soil is tilled, it turns up damp soil from below the surface and exposes it to the sun. The moisture is evaporated and lost into the atmosphere.

5. Eliminate Bare Soil

Eliminating bare soil will slow water evaporation from your garden. We already talked about mulching, but there are many other ways to cover your soil to slow evaporation. If you know you are in for a drought, consider growing a smaller garden, without reducing your harvest. This can be achieved by planting your vegetables closer together to eliminate any “dead” space between them. Also, try including large leaf plants, such as zucchini beside smaller vegetables to shield the ground from the sun.

Read Next: The 5-Gallon Garden: Growing Vegetables In Buckets.

Clover by Carmen Edenhofer
Image by Carmen Edenhofer

Try planting a cover crop as a green manure between your rows of vegetables. While weeds in your garden steal precious water, cover crops can be turned back into the soil and add valuable decomposing matter as we discussed above. Good crops for green manures include clover, buckwheat, vetch, and grains. Try planting winter wheat in the fall, so it can be turned into the soil early in the spring, and add humus to your soil before the dry season even starts.

6. Create Shade

Try keeping your garden shaded. Ground that is in the shade does not bear the full bore of the sun’s assault, and shaded soil will be cooler and moisture will not evaporate as fast. In nature, a tree canopy protects the ground from excessive heat and evaporation. In our gardens, however, we often try to create a small field that is cleared and leveled for vegetable production. When planning your garden, it is worthwhile to include bushes and trees, not only for aesthetic purposes but to protect the soil during a dry spell. Any unwanted or unusable space is a great place to plant a shrub or tree that will help keep your garden cool in a hot, dry summer.

Another point about trees

Tree roots protect your soil from erosion by keeping water from washing away. In the same way, a few trees, bushes, or other perennials will hold trap more moisture in the soil than the roots of annual vegetables will.

You can also create artificial shade, by putting up shade cloths, umbrellas, or canopies. While this is not very practical on a large scale, it can provide extra shade in vital areas where your particularly thirsty plants are struggling.

Creating shade might be difficult for plants that require full sun to grow, but most of these plants won’t do well without any water either. It is a balance between getting enough sun and staying cool and damp.

7. Grow Drought-Resistant Plants

There are many plants that are drought-resistant. On the whole, cool-season crops are not drought resistant, so don’t expect your spinach to thrive in a dry spell. Try to grow plants that have a deep root system, such as tomatoes, melons, or squash so they can access water other plants can’t.

8. Timing Is Important

When you sow is an important tool to battle the drought. A tomato is a perfect example. During germination and early development, a tomato seedling needs lots of water. Once it is mature, however, it can actually thrive in semi-dessert conditions. In this case, make sure you plant your tomato seeds early so they are established before the dry season hits.

9. Do Not Fertilize

Plants become stressed when there is not enough water, and their natural reaction is to decrease yield for self-preservation. As the yield decreases, a natural reaction is to fertilize to compensate but this can be even more damaging to your vegetables. Plants photosynthesize less in hot, dry weather so applying fertilizing will actually stress the plant more.

Watering can by Carmen Edenhofer
Image by Carmen Edenhofer

10. Collect Any Rain You Can

While you might not get very much rainfall in a drought, and the little bit you get can be the matter of life and death in your garden…especially if you collect all that you can. The easiest and best way to collect rainwater is to put a barrel under your eavestroughs, but there are a lot of ingenious ideas out there, such as this stand-alone rainwater collector.

11. Water ONLY As A Last Resort

During a drought, watering your garden can be a very irresponsible and environmentally damaging act, especially if you are on a city or communal water source. Of course, it is always a good idea to water with collected rainwater as we talked about! Watering your garden from your tap, however, should only be done as a last resort. If you do decide to water, avoid using overhead sprinklers. Most of this water lands on the leaves where is quickly evaporates or burns the plant. Drip irrigation is a much preferred method as it slowly seeps water into the soil and directly feeds the plant’s roots.