Vibrant garden crops during a drought? It's possible. Here are some successful planning and coping strategies, most from the water-stressed West/Southwest. We'll start with water harvesting, continue with plant selection, and finish with soil health practices.
It was 1994 and Tucson residents Brad and Rodd Lancaster wanted to save their sour orange tree. They dug and mulched a basin and graded the soil around it to catch runoff. Brad writes in his first book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, “...we've since kept our supplemental waterings to three per year. Yet we live within the Sonoran Desert...[Tucson] annual rainfall averages just 12 inches...and most folks water their citrus trees at least once a week.” He continues: “...we decided to make rainwater the primary water source for all our outdoor needs...we created and planted...water-harvesting earthworks throughout our once-barren yard. The rain then gently soaked into the soil, soil erosion ceased, and verdant life began sprouting everywhere... We then [started using] greywater...Our daily municipal water use dropped from the Tucson residential average of 114 gallons per person per day to less than 20 gallons per person...This earned us five visits from workers at both the water and electric utilities because they were sure our meters were broken.”
Brad went on to learn from indigenous dryland water harvesters and both traditional and modern water-harvesting systems. His books, website, and blog feature multiple diverse strategies. Those my husband and I have implemented have made the difference for our gardens and land in both drought and wildfire. Unwatered for a dry, hot, rainless month after the wildfire, the gardens and surviving fruit trees still produced a decent harvest.
To Maximize Success
Favor native plants; they have a long history of adapting to your area. See native plant lists and native plant nurseries for your state. Nowadays, as many of our U.S. regions are one USDA Planting Zone warmer, people are also incorporating native plants from neighboring warmer, more arid areas.
Save your own seeds for drought adaptation. Take cuttings from your successful drought-adapted shrubs.
Check out local seed swaps, plant sales, seed libraries, small businesses that sell locally-sourced, drought-adapted seed.
Favor drought-adapted perennials—forbs, bushes, trees--with deep roots that can seek and find their own underground water sources.
Start seeds indoors if it's unseasonably cold, as well as dry.
Use a drip system to reduce water use.
Garden soil can be its own seed bank: plant a diversity of seeds. Not everything will survive, do well, or come up in a given year. Plant for a range of conditions.
Healthy humus in soil is the basis of drought mitigation. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says: “One percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil would hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre!” Humus is that dark, rich, wonderful-smelling part of the soil; it both retains water and allows it to percolate through to deeper layers and underground storage. It's made only by soil organisms-- bacteria, fungi and friends.
To Keep Them Happy
Invite as many types of compatible plants as possible to your garden and home, from ground covers to short, medium, tall forbs, shrubs, trees, to vines, all with a diversity of root types. The more plant diversity, the more diverse their microbial associates. The more diverse the system, the more resilient it can be.
Mulch as much as possible to protect bare soil from drying wind, skyrocketing temperatures, wind and water erosion, from crusting over, from drying out, and to provide organic matter to convert to precious humus. Straw and anything considered garden “waste--” weeds or highly reproductive plants straight from the garden bed shorn of all reproductive parts, grass or hedge clippings, leaves, and best of all, cover crops.
Integrate fully composted animal manure and good compost.
When land has dried out from a protracted drought—the soil is crusted, only the hardiest of weeds can grow—then animals themselves may be necessary. Hoof action breaks the crusting. It plants new seeds right in the hoof print, a tiny water-harvesting basin—and encased in manure, the ideal fertilizer. Over a year or two, the change in the water-carrying capacity of the land can be dramatic. Moving the animals between paddocks to allow vegetation to regrow--aka rotational grazing, managed grazing, cell grazing, and holistic management--is crucial.
These and similar drought-busting practices can give us the resources to flourish in tough, dry conditions.
Photos courtesy of Upsplash.
Pam Sherman gardens with her husband at 8300' on part of an old pioneer farm on the Colorado Rockies' Front Range. She writes about it while he keeps working.
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