If you’re growing vegetables, you’ll have to deliver a steady and adequate supply of water during the growing season if you want to have good results. Certain plants can go dormant during the dry season or periods of drought but vegetables won’t go dormant – they’ll die. So you’ll need to follow a few simple guidelines to assure your vegetables survive and thrive during the dry season (each of these items is covered in more detail in other sections of this website.) Also, check out Colorado State University’s excellent and very detailed series of web pages on gardening in a dry climate.
As I mentioned in the in the section on the importance of soil quality you will want to make sure your garden soil is full of organic matter as that material will help your soil hold water much more efficiently. Healthy soil has the ability to store and process an amazing amount of water. Poor quality, depleted soil, on the other hand, will simply not hold water and will, in turn, leave your plants high and dry and ultimately dead.
The key to healthy, high-quality soil is lots of organic matter, things formed by living organisms. These can be kitchen scraps, garden waste or animal manure. By adding organic matter to your soil you will dramatically improve its ability to hold and regulate water. You might also consider planting your fall garden with so-called “green manure” such as winter rye or a winter pea. These crops will add organic matter to your soil, hold the soil in place, protect against evaporation and improve the soils ability to retain water.
Also, be sure to check out the importance of mulch section of this website. ‘Mulch’ is a protective layer of material that is spread 3-6 inches deep on top of exposed soil between plants.
Mulch is by far the best way to preserve the water in your soil and can be a very effective way of feeding your soil and regulating growing temperatures. Mulch can be almost anything: straw, grass clippings, corn cobs, river stones, pea gravel, chipped bricks, bark chips, leaves, peat moss, seaweed, wood ashes, sawdust and so on. Mulch helps preserve water and regulate the temperature in your soil and, if organic, feeds your soil. All that organic matter keeps your soil loose so that it can retain moisture and promote root growth.
The section on the various types of irrigations systems lays out the benefits and detriments of different types of systems. But during times of drought you’ll want to focus on the most efficient forms of irrigating your plants. Drip or tickle irrigation is probably the most efficient way to get water to your plants. A soaker hose will be your least expensive way to go. This is a black hose made of a porous material that allows water to seep out rather evenly along the length of the hose.
Once in place, cover your soaker hose with a thick layer of mulch. A drip system allows you to get just the right amount of water to the plants and to do it at the right time. It cuts down on water use and, like the soaker hose, will keep the leaves of your plants dry, thus cutting down on disease. Most importantly, once you have it in place and on a timer you will not need to worry about watering your garden. You won’t have to worry about missing a day or if your neighbor is doing a decent job caring for your garden while you are on vacation. The downside to a drip system is that drip can be a little pricey and difficult to set up (factor in a full day for a moderate sized garden).
If drought and dry seasons are part of your natural climate, consider planting your garden with low water use, or xeric, plants. The Unthirsty 100 has a detailed list of plants that do well with little or no water. Colorado State University and Plant Select each have a good list of plants to consider for your drought-tolerant garden.
Other thing you will want to do to protect your garden in times of drought is to provide a windbreak for your plants, control weeds that compete with your vegetables or flowers for water, plant in tight groups and not in rows (this helps reduce evaporation).
Also, know the critical watering periods for vegetables. Click the link for a detailed list, and keep an eye out for drought and your vegetables during these times of development:
Jim O’Donnell gardens in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A certified permaculture designer and ecological restoration specialist, Jim’s first book Notes for the Aurora Society was published in 2009.