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8 Tips for Growing Food in a Drought

How to Grow Food in Drought Conditions - LivingHomegrown.com

So you know that big drought out here in California?

Yep, it sucks.

Especially when you want to grow your own food.

I live in Los Angeles, so I am definitely feeling the drought.

And my family has taken several steps over the last year to cut way, way back on our everyday water usage.

But the biggest change has been in the garden.

The drought has forced me to rethink my gardening style.

And this is what I can say for sure…

Although growing food during a drought is difficult, it is NOT impossible.

It just means that you have to be:

  • Strategic in what you grow
  • Smart with your current water supply
  • Creative in finding other sources of garden water

See how I am making it work below.

And when you are done, I would love to hear your tips as well.

Let’s start a conversation in the comments. All ideas welcome!

8 Ways to Reduce Your Water Usage:

Growing Food in Drought Conditions - LivingHomegrown.com

1) Be Very strategic in Plant Choices:

My first step was to get very strategic with what I planted.

No more growing everything under the sun! I put in more planning time so that I did not waste space (and water) on something that was unnecessary.

What would I consider unnecessary?

Well for me, it meant only growing things that fit into some specific criteria.

To be in my garden, the plant must fall into ONE of these categories:

  • Is difficult to find locally
  • Is drought tolerant
  • Provides a lot of bang for the space/water it uses
  • Brings me joy

So this meant that instead of growing heirlooms tomatoes I might find at the farmer’s market, I grew just a few hard-to-find favorites like Black Cherry, Snow White Cherry and Amish Paste.

It also meant that I did not grow things like standard celery (because I can get that anywhere) but opted instead for purple bell peppers and Rosa Bianca eggplant (which I never find in grocery stores).

Also smaller vegetables like Rosa Bianca eggplant use less water.

I kept my herbs because they are incredibly useful and very drought tolerant.

And lastly, I confess that I kept my Gertrude Jekyll rose because…well, it brings me incredible joy.

Note on Lawns:

We don’t have much lawn. I had ripped most of that out over 20 years ago when I first started homesteading here. But what lawn we had left was reduced even further this year.

By reducing your lawn, you eliminate a big water source.

So if you have a big, green lawn it is probably time to reduce it…drastically.

2) Evaluate Current Watering System

This means that if you have sprinklers, you:

  • Watch where the sprinklers are hitting
  • Adjust them so they are not watering the sidewalk, etc.
  • Reduce water days/times
  • Verify that there is no run off down the street
  • Search for drips and leaks
  • Be mindful not to water when windy or extremely hot (evaporation, etc.)
  • Eliminate as much overhead watering as possible (see #3 below)

3) Switch to a Dripper System

How to Grow Food in Drought Conditions - LivingHomegrown.com

If you eliminate most of the lawn, then you really only have individual plants to water.

And that means you can probably switch to a dripper system.

I have not made a complete transition to dripper system yet. But I started watering with a dripper system in the back portion of my food garden a few years ago.

Every year, I expand it.

The advantages are:

  • Less water is wasted (due to evaporation or over-watering)
  • Less weeds (because less soil area gets wet)
  • Less powdery mildew on cucumbers & squash (leaves don’t get wet)
  • Really easy to install

The disadvantage is:

  • In my garden, the entire system must be redone every year

Why do I have to redo the system? Well, I rotate my crops. And each crop needs a different set up to be watered.

So, I rip it all out every year and start over when I plant in the spring.

Yes, it’s a pain. But so far it is worth it.

4) Change Out Containers

How to Grow Food in Drought - LivingHomegrown.com

Previously, I used containers to grow food on my patio and porch and to fill the blank spots throughout my garden.

But containers can dry out easily – especially if they are small or made of clay.

So, I greatly reduced my container usage.

And I switched out the remaining pots for glazed ceramic, plastic or reclaimed metal containers.

They retain the moisture better.

5) Plant Smarter

Edible Landscaping - LivingHomegrown.com

I have said before that I don’t grow in rows. I grow in drifts and layers.

It turns out that this is very helpful in a drought!

When you plant closely and with short plants next to tall or vertically growing plants, they help each other. The lower plants shade the roots of the taller plants and that shade reduces water usage.

And it looks pretty too! It’s a win-win.

6) Build Up That Soil

After more than two decades of homemade compost and organic gardening methods, my soil is in pretty good shape.

And that is key.

So be sure that your soil has plenty of organic matter and mulch like crazy. It helps hold in the moisture.

7) Be Smarter with Outside Water

It is important to be smart with the water you already have.

So this means that you should do things like: rinse out the dog bowl or chicken waterer outside – over the flower bed.

In fact, anytime you need to rinse anything outside, consider doing a quick rinse over the flower bed where you need water anyway.

8) Find More Water From Indoors

I think if there is one thing that has made the biggest impact on my water usage in the garden it is this…

I save every spare drop of water from inside the house and use it to water my garden.

This step has made a HUGE difference.

When I make pasta or steam veggies, I save the water.

When I am waiting for the sink water to get hot, I fill a stockpot.

After I am done canning, I save the water bath water.

I even have a stockpot for the bathtub.

This means that I always have a few pots sitting out on the countertop cooling. And when that water is room temp, I haul it out to the garden.

I water pots, flowerbeds, window boxes…everything!

When I started doing this a few months ago, I was amazed how much water I saved.

Seriously – gallons and gallons per day.

So what about you?

Are you trying to conserve water this year?

Any tips you care to share?

I need more ideas! Tell me in the comments.

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy® and is the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two teenage boys and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.

33 Comments:

  • Rebecca Boitnott says:

    When we had a drought I washed the dishes in pans in the sink and took that water out. In the garden I ran drip lines under the mulch, I also used a gardening tip out of a book about the depression area by planting your seeds around the outside of a depression in the soil to collect the morning and evening dew. As far as container gardening you could put larger pots in the ground and place smaller pots in them , then you could rotate them. The soil and mulch would help keep the need to water down . I also collect rain water off the roof . Yes I know it’s still illegal in some states. Rebecca

    • theresa says:

      Oh! Such good tips, Rebecca.

      Thank you!

      I love, love the idea of putting pots in the ground. I never thought of that one. And isn’t it silly to not be able to collect rain water? I know your are correct about it being illegal in some areas, but I don’t get that at all.

      • Ginny says:

        Will you explain a little more on planting the big and little planters together in the ground. I’ve never heard of this. I’m a beginner gardener. Thank you.

        • theresa says:

          Sure Ginny –
          So you are referring to the comment above by Rebecca, right? I think was she was saying is that if I have a blank spot in my garden, I should bury a larger pot in the ground and set a smaller (planted) pot inside of it. By doing that you get the following benefits:

          1) You can easily change out the planted pot. (It is easier than digging up a plant in the ground)

          2) The smaller pot will not dry out as easily because the surrounding soil and mulch will keep it moist and there is not wind to dry it out.

          The problem with containers is just that they dry out. The wind and sun makes the soil inside evaporate moisture. But by being below ground, they stay moist, cool and there is no wind.

          Hope that makes sense. I haven’t tried it yet myself. But it sounds like a good plan.

  • Hi Theresa, I live in Northern CA, and we are deep in water conservation here. A drip system has really saved us; we also collect rain off the roof (though those barrels are dry now) and reuse water from the house. I’m canning this year for the first time, and I’m amazed how much water it takes, so that all has to be re-used.
    Believe it or not, there are still folks in my neighborhood watering huge lawns with overhead sprinklers. When I see this, I have a visceral physical reaction. I just can’t understand why anyone would have grass in the West. Maybe a small patch for the kids to play on, but other than that – I am just incredulous that anyone here has big lawns.

    • theresa says:

      I hear ya Elisabeth! Most in my neighbor hood are ripping it out or don’t have much to begin with.

      When I was flying into LAX last week and the plane was coming in for a landing, I could see entire neighborhoods with brown lawns. Then suddenly I noticed one bright green lawn within a whole neighborhood of brown. They totally stood out! They may think their green lawn makes their home look nice. But instead it shouts a whole different message. 🙁

      • Holly says:

        I live in Eastern Washington and NO it doesn’t rain here all the time; that is West of the Cascades. We’re probably more like Northern California weather wise, hot and dry in the summer. I haven’t watered my lawn in years. I started dong this for several reasons. One because it is a large area and I just couldn’t keep up with all the watering in the summer to keep it green. Two I didn’t want and couldn’t afford to use all thoughs chemicals to keep it green and three I just didn’t have the time to mow it as often as it needed with regular watering. Yes there are a lot of weeds but frankly they stay greener than lawn grass and mow just fine.

  • SpiderJohn says:

    I have the opposite problem here in West Virginia. We have had so much rain that I am starting to get root rot in my pepper plants. Looks like it might be affecting my tomatoes as well. I collect rainwater ( 700 gal. capacity ) and the only time I have used it was early in the season when I hand watered just planted seeds and seedlings. Wish I could send some of this rain your way.

    • theresa says:

      Oh man. I wish you could send it my way too. Sorry about the root rot. Not sure what you can do about that. That is one problem I have not yet had to deal with in gardening.

  • Bobby Deems says:

    GREAT “Common Sense” Ideas EVERYBODY “SHOULD USE”. When it COMES-TO “LAWN”; A small “Lawn” IS a “Common” thing. It is ALSO “a HUGE “Water-SINK”! IF you “Have-One”, remember that a FEW “TIPS” WILL HELP! ALWAYS; Make SURE you keep-it “Mowed HIGH-ENOUGH”! MOST People think “Mowing low” SAVES water, but with a “Healthy Turf” the BEST THING” to do is “Keep-that-MOWER; “HIGHER”! Remember, “Short grass” WILL BE “DEAD GRASS” soon. The “TYPE” of grass you SHOULD grow depends-on your area, local climate, etc. If you “Need INFO” on the BEST “LAWN GRASS” Types for your location, check with your “LOCAL” Ag. Ext. Service Office. A good idea, especially, is to check-with the “Maintenance Staff” at a “LOCAL Golf Course”! Those “Folks” are ALWAYS aware-of the “Best” grasses for the various “Conditions” in YOUR AREA. It IS “Their JOB” to keep that “Clubs” GRASS in the BEST-LOOKING Condition they “CAN”! TRUST ME; “WATER” IS a “Very IMPORTANT” consideration in ANY DECISION those “Great Pro’s” HAVE-TO MAKE. “WATER” IS a “Cost-of-Business” to ANY Golf Course and the “LOOKS-OF” those “Courses” IS “THEIR JOB”! Remember, they DON’T-WANT to “Water” while the “Golfers are OUT” and the grass DOES need-to “Look-the-BEST-it-CAN”!
    Just a “Thought” for your readers. MY “Dad” used-to work for a large American Corporation that “Dealt-with” FARMERS primarily, but “Used” Golf Courses for a LOT-OF It’s “Product-DEVELOPMENT” Ideas. HE Used-to “Golf” some-of the Largest Golf Clubs in the country. He “SAW” the Masters more than once. Anyway, GRASS; Is a “Huge” Water-User” and a lot-of the “Best-Ways” to “Save-WATER” WERE “DEVELOPED” on major courses. IF “You” are a Member-OF ANY local “Course”, just “Check-with” that courses “GROUND CREW” or the Company that Club USES. You “WILL”, at least GET some “Great Tips” from those people.

  • Barbara Riesenhuber says:

    I originally used the same style dripper you showed in one of your photos. I stopped using it, because (1) I found another style with a single, larger hole that sprays a larger amount of water in a larger pattern, and (2) it does not plug up with bugs or dirt! The two styles are both made by Rainbird brand for drip irrigation systems. As for the larger amount of water being emitted: we now run our dripper system for shorter time periods.
    We live in northern California (near San Jose) and have reduced what we grow in our garden significantly: this year we are growing 3 Early Girl (each with 1 dripper)and 1 cherry tomato; Acorn squash (1 “hill” with 1 dripper) and the same with pumpkins for our grandkids and neighbors; as well as several peppers (Serrano, Fresno, Anaheim, and Bell). We water all plants one time each week for 10 minutes! We started the growing season with 10 minutes three times each week for one month to get the plants started. We have the biggest, healthiest plants that we have ever had and I am looking forward to making/canning lots of salsa made from the huge crop the plants are producing!
    As a side note: we have some “volunteer” tomato plants that sprouted in a completely dry and unplanted area of our garden. These plants have thrived WITHOUT ANY WATER! I am looking forward to comparing these renegades with the ones we selected at the nursery and have “babied!”

  • Harriette says:

    I put in a couple of hugelkultur beds in my backyard garden this year and planted Oaxacan Green Dent corn on it. I have always had trouble growing corn, but this year the plants are 6 feet tall and very green even though I live in CA. The corn is doing much better than in my other beds, even though I have been enriching the soil there for 6 years, mulched heavily and used ollas for the plants that needed the most water (I water only once a week). Definitely going with hugelkultur in all of the beds next year.

    • theresa says:

      Wow Harriette – this is so interesting that you can see such an immediate difference. I have not yet tried hugelkultur beds (though I have read about them). You just inspired me to want to try it next year. I’m adding it to my list!

  • Cynthia says:

    Deep mulch! Ruth Stout’s No Work Garden Book gives details. Stout gardened through many droughts and she did not water. At all, to hear her tell it! Paul Gautschi is another proponent of deep mulching who has videos on YouTube. He discovered deep mulching because he had a low-producing well. He too does not water. I am starting a new garden (just moved) this year and have just about covered all my beds to the depth necessary. But I will still have to water a bit this summer because I started with dry ground.

  • Linda says:

    Theresa, if you can find the time, look at http://www.theprudenthomemaker.com.
    The woman that writes the blog lives in Las Vegas and she makes use of every once of water she gets. You may find some very helpful ideas from her.

  • Craig Halle says:

    Our spouses will always think we are crazy at one time or another. Luckily that does not stop the love.

    You pretty much have things covered. Capturing rainwater was the only one I could think of that might help even in a drought. It is legal where I am and the only thing slowing me down is a desire to have plants cover the rain collectors in some way and the cost of the containers. Is there such a thing as a hydroponic rain collector that supports plants and gathers rainwater? Also a container that would be notched to fit the corner of the house would be nice or instead of round, flat on one side?

    I enjoy reading your information and I hope we will see you on Growing a Greener World next season.

    Craig.

    • theresa says:

      Hi Craig,

      I don’t know of a hydroponic rain collector – but it sounds brilliant to me! As for collecting rain, I guess the reason I never consider it is because it honestly never rains here. Seriously…like a couple of times all year. But a way to capture rain water is a great idea for other locations.

      As for Growing A Greener World – Yes, I will be there next year. We have a whole new look coming for Season 7 (2016) and I’m a part of it. Should be fun and I will keep all you posted when we start filming that.

  • Carol says:

    Like Holly, I live in Washington State, only on the west side. Usually, we do have rain, but this year we haven’t had any significant rainfall since April. I think it has only rained once in the last two months. Here on the Olympic Peninsula, we are officially considered a drought area this year. I really appreciated your ideas. We have installed a drip system in our raised beds and have mulched most things heavily with straw or wood chips, depending on the plants. This has really helped. I rarely have to water the raised beds, and in the past, they dried out so quickly. I’m going to begin to reuse cooking/canning water, as well as collecting water from the shower, as you have suggested. I have experimented with putting a clean bucket in the kitchen sink and collecting water from rinsing and filling. It’s amazing how much water goes down the drain in the kitchen!

    • theresa says:

      I know, isn’t is shocking Carol? The first time I captured water while waiting for hot water, I felt such guilt over all the years I did that and never gave it a thought. We have an old house (1940s) so it takes a long time for the water to heat up and get through those old pipes.

      • Nicole van Harreveld says:

        So if you’re collecting water leftover from washing dishes or something else that has detergent in it, do you not need to be concerned that the soap will hurt your plants?

  • Sara says:

    Thank you Theresa for another really interesting insight. I feel it is so hard to get it right sometimes, when we try to cope with these problems such as drought that come up. I have been reading ‘Building Soils Naturally’ by Phil Nauta, and found his chapter on water had a few interesting points to share. Basically, water management is critical to soil management, soil needs water as much as plants so that microorganisms, earthworms and insects in the soil are able to give the plants nutrients, water, and a healthy organic soil environment. One risk of drip irrigation without management is promotion of shallow roots. He naturally encourages mulch – and plants, to improve water infiltration and decreased evaporation and attract more water in the form of dew.
    There is a lot more discussion in the book. There doesn’t seem to be a magic answer but it is always interesting to share ideas. I am still trying to construct a productive garden – and I have water.
    I find it amazing that collecting rainwater from roof tops can possibly be illegal! What is the basis for this this?

    • theresa says:

      Thank you Sara for the book info. I am going to check out his book. I don’t have that one in my library.

      As for rain water collection being illegal, I have not investigated the reasoning behind it. It sounds illogical, doesn’t it?

  • Great tips!

    A few of mine from our years in drought: Leftover coffee perfect on plants. Ditto that warm beer, soda or last swigs of wine! Mop water (if not using icky soap that would hurt the soil).

  • Nate Davey says:

    Living in New Mexico, water shortages are a common event. Harvesting water from our roof is essential. When it rains, we put any containers we have (rubber maid totes, buckets….) under the canalis that don’t have rain barrels. Once the rain stops, we fill old milk jugs so as not to lose too much water to evaporation. When watering, we pour what we need into watering cans so we can precisely water each plant.

  • Drop everything and read Brad Lancaster’s book Rainwater harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. The concept of storing water in the soil is a little more difficult for veggies unless you’re using hugelkultur and orienting the beds perpendicular to the flow. My website has more details. Hang in there…you’re on the forefront of a paradigm shift.

  • I saw your post on the American Horticulture Society FB page and felt prompted to share something here and on their page. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my experience about gardening in a drought. I know something about this since I live in Oklahoma and we’ve been in a drought for the past five years…until May when we had massive rain and floods for almost the whole month and came out of our drought…lol.

    My husband and I garden in containers. We started with Earth box a few years ago and then my husband started making some boxes. After a few years, we had about 20 boxes that I was watering by hand every day and my husband was working out of town. I called him and asked if he could figure out an easier way to water the garden besides me dragging the hose around to all of the boxes every day. He set out to figure out an easier way to water and invented a watering system.

    This was so cool that we decided to start a company to share this invention with others. We never planned on starting a business, but we loved this easier way of gardening and wanted to share it with others. We call ourselves Garden Anywhere Box. We are a family-owned company. We make our product literally in our home because our shop blew away in a tornado.

    Not many people know about us. We travel around to farmers markets and fairs in OK sharing our easier way to garden. Like Earthbox, there is no weeding, but GAB is also truly self-watering. It uses up to 70% less water than a traditional garden.

    All of our boxes are connected by tubing, like box cars. The watering system hooks up to a water source like a rain barrel or outdoor faucet. The watering system senses when the water level is low, comes on, waters all of the boxes at once and shuts off. No electricity. Gravity fed. No wasted water. My husband even retrofitted our Earthboxes to work with our watering system.

    The picture below is of our pool deck last summer. All of our boxes are connected to one watering system and a rain barrel. We planted our garden on June 1. This picture is taken three weeks later. Notice the plant growth…and all with no weeding and truly self-watering. You can go on vacation and your garden will be watered while you are gone.

    We would love to be able to share our way of gardening in the west where people are suffering from severe drought.

    If you would like to know more about Garden Anywhere Box, please visit our website at http://www.gardenanywherebox.com

    Again, forgive me if you find this inappropriate. I just love GAB so much and want to share it with everyone. It truly is an easier and successful way to garden and saves water in the process.

  • Theresa, Some great tips here. I wrote a blog post a few months ago with some similar tips. Since I am not in California it is not quite as bad here (yet). Conserving water is always a smart thing to do and better to get in the habit before it is required.
    Another thing that I mentioned was noticing what is growing there naturally that is edible – “weeds” and native plants – that survive fairly well without additional water.

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