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8 Tips for Growing Food in a Drought

How to Grow Food in Drought Conditions -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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®. For 9 years, Theresa was 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 sons and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.