Drought and Dry Season Strategies

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Thu, May 5, 2016 - 10:55am

When growing food at home, things change when water is scarce. Whether you are dealing with drought, a mid-summer dry spell (we have one every August), a dry climate, expensive city water, or watering restrictions - here are some helpful ideas.

Veggies need water; they cannot go dormant like some grasses in a drought. So you have to keep the moisture in the soil. You do this by restricting evaporation, being more precise in your watering, and channeling rain water into the correct areas.

(There is a partial list of what to consider planting , here.)

Urban gardeners:

  • Make sure you use a little well-rotted (4 months, minimum, or you risk e-coli) manure in your compost. It helps maintain soil moisture but too much and you can get a high salt content.
  • Your rooftop or balcony garden tubs/buckets will need a 3" layer of mulch to keep soil water from evaporating . It also controls weeds competing with your plants for water. Windbreaks help, too: try to use walls to good effect.
  • Water the soil, not the leaves, by pouring directly at the base of the plants.
  • Check soil moisture daily,  and pay special attention to watering during transplanting, initial growth, or fruit and flower production;  other than those times only water when things start to droop.
  • Perennials like strawberries can handle drought better than annuals, but pots mean they are particularly vulnerable in really hot weather. Go for white pots rather than black ones or you can cook your crops.
  • Have nothing more than a balcony garden? Use gentle cleaners and water things with greywater from doing your dishes, or the old water when you freshen a pet's water dish. 

Suburban gardeners:

  • Use berms and earth channels to send rain to the plants you want to water. (Despite only being suburban gardeners, we have channels going to our bermed apple trees, grape vines, blackberries and Chinese chestnut. )
  • Make sure you use a little well-rotted (4 months, minimum, or you risk e-coli) manure in your compost. It helps maintain soil moisture . Mix it into your compost pile but check your soil at a local agricultural cooperative; don’t overdo manure or it can raise your soil salt levels.
  • Plant drought-resistant varieties of everything. (Example: We planted Arapaho drought resistant thornless blackberries and are having excellent results. Roma tomatoes do better in a drought than Big Boy, leaf lettuces like black-seeded Simpson and leafy kales like dragon’s tongue do better than head lettuces or head cabbages.)
  • Raised beds will need a 3" to 6" (8 cm to 14 cm) layer of mulch to keep down weeds competing for water, and it keeps soil moist; row crops will benefit, too.  Black plastic mulch really stops weeds but might make the soil too hot so if you use it in heat cover it with straw or some other light-colored mulch. Cardboard works to hold in moisture and kill weeds, too, and is cheaper, lighter and much more sustainable.
  • Water the soil, not the leaves, preferably with drip irrigation. A hose (with a bubbler, if you have one) at the base of fruit trees every few days will help in severe drought. 
  • Check daily, and pay special attention to watering during transplanting, initial growth, or fruit and flower production. (Example:  we have doubled the size of our figs and strawberries watering every other day during fruit production. )  Other than those times only water when things start to droop. Squeeze soil in your hand; if it sticks together it is moist and irrigation should be delayed. Suburbanites are especially apt to over-water, and this is actually BAD for certain crops, like tomatoes.

Small Farms:

  • With more land you can make more extensive use of rain-channeling features like berms, swales, ponds, and such. (Example: My extended family has a farm with two ponds, one higher that the other; during drought the movement of water from one pond to another underground keeps the crop in between--in this case, forested hardwood pines--watered. Some of their pecan grove have swales, and they're the most productive parts of the farm.)
  • Perennials, as a rule, usually take less water. If you have a bare minimum of rain, an entire field of Bermuda hay just grows via rainwater and gets cut and grows again.
  • Pasturing animals increases the soil's manure content and makes it hold water better. It's an old practice to rotate fields from crops to grazing and back again.
  • Green manure (cover) crops like alfalfa or clover can be turned into the soil before they flower, and retain the moisture when they rot and add organics to the soil. In my area they also grow winter wheat work the stalks back into the soil after harvesting.
  • "Stubble mulching" is something I see a lot where I live: You grow something like corn, cut the stalks but leave the base and root, and plant something in between the stubble. Most often that something, here in SC, is soybeans and since we triple-crop that winter wheat I mentioned, above. They also stubble soybeans or blackeyed peas and plant winter wheat or alfalfa in between: this works especially well since the nitrogen-fixing legumes' roots are the part that rots and nourishes the next crop. 
  • Clear Fallowing means leaving a field alone, dormant for a year. The roots of the previous annual crop will rot in the ground and retain a surprising amount of moisture. 
  • Windbreaks are of course, essential. Without that row of trees between fields you will lose the topsoil that holds water to the wind. 
  • Your kitchen garden will be near the house, It might be a good idea to put the thirstiest plants closest to the house so you can give them extra water from graywater, or roof runnoff channeled to them. I've seen an apple tree near a house with the water from a roof downspout channeled to it, where it settles into a depression backed by a berm. The tree thrived, and they got bonus points for shade, ease of picking the apples, and spring flowers near the house . 




nigel's picture
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 15 2009
Posts: 148
Good article

The other option I've taken for pasture animals is stocking below the carrying capacity, if I stock below what the land can hold then I have a buffer for drought. The key is to stock below in good times so the land is never over grazed and always has grass cover on it, keeps moisture and feed for much longer.

Kind of obvious, but in these times everyone is chasing a dollar so most land ends up overstocked based on good times.

Also, good fences, because if you have grass and the neighbors cows don't then they will push through to eat. Someone should tell the cows not to covet their neighbors grass.

robshepler's picture
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 16 2010
Posts: 117
Organic mater

For every 1% increase of organic mater the soil can hold an additional 16,000 gallons of water per acre according to Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm.

Cover that soil!

ScottT's picture
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Joined: Nov 2 2009
Posts: 48
Constructing hugelkultur beds

If one has the space and means where a slope exists on your property trying digging a swale on contour, filling it with logs, wood chips and cover back with soil.  The woody biomass buried beneath will hold the moisture, decompose and add to the soil's fertility over time.  I did this last year with a tractor and a rear angle blade configured to spade a trench.  Of course this can be done by hand with a shovel for those inclined but a bit of tractor power makes short work of a project like this.  smiley

Waterdog14's picture
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Joined: Jan 18 2014
Posts: 140

@ScottT - What did you plant in/on your hugelkultur beds?  The south 1/4 of our 4-acre farm is low and wet due to nearby flood irrigation of mountain pastures.  We're considering hugelkultur mounds/beds to raise the plants above the water table.  Did you plant perennials or annual crops in your hugelkutur? 

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