How to Garden in a Drought

In case you’ve been living under a rock (which, if said rock was in California, it probably was very dry….), California is in a drought. Practically every other post in my facebook feed is an article shared with the latest statistics, praises for Governor Brown finally imposing restrictions, or rants about Governor Brown not doing enough. Daily conversations, regardless with friends, patients at work, neighbors, or strangers at the store always have some mention of it. And rightly so, California is pretty much up shit creek, except there is no creek.

One topic that often comes up is if its worth planting a garden. And if you are growing food that you will eat, then I say YES! Everyone has to eat, and regardless of where your food is coming from, it needs water. Chances are, food grown in your backyard had less of a water impact than that grown on a large farm. If you make good choices, it’s still possible to have a flourishing garden and be sensitive to the current water crisis. I’ve consulted about a gazillion articles and pulled together a comprehensive list of drought gardening tips. If I’ve forgotten something, make sure to let me know in the comments!

even after yesterday's rain, my soil is cracked and parched
even after yesterday’s rain, my soil is cracked and parched

How to Garden in the Drought:

Consider how much water your planned planting area will need, and calculate how much water you have. An average summer vegetable garden needs about an 1 inch of water per week, or 0.623 gallons per sq ft of surface area. For example, my raised beds give me 480 sq feet of planting space, which means I need about 300 gallons of water a week. If you’re on water rationing, can you spare that much? Can some of that water come from a reclaimed source or rain barrels? Check out this handout from the Sonoma County Master Gardeners for great info on how to read your water meter, calculate your current water use, and how to determine how large of garden you can plant based on how much water you have.

I checked with the city this morning, and Santa Rosa has no individual household rations planned, but thats not a reason to be mindless with water use. Even if there is nothing mandated, give yourself a limit and figure out how to grow within that. What would you be able to do if you had 100 gallons a day? What about 50? In Winter, when my outside watering level is low, my household of 2 people uses about 2,000 gallons a month (about 70 gal. a day), but last year, in the middle of summer watering, my usage jumped up to about 5,000 gallons (about 170 gal. a day). With diligent conservation inside, and smart watering outside, my goal for this summer is to be at about 110 gallons a day.

Water the correct amount. As mentioned above, it is recommended to water an inch a week, or 0.623 gallons per sq ft. In the middle of summer, when vegetable plants are full sized, its recommended to water every day. One of my 15×4 foot beds would require about 37 gallons a week, or about 5 gallons a day. Of course, this number can change depending on weather and soil type. Ideally, use drip. If you have to use a hose, like I do, make sure to have a shut-off on the sprayer, and water at the base of the plants. Can you get by with watering a little bit less, or make sure that inch a week is best used?

Water at the right time. The best time to water is early in the morning, the cool hours in the evening. Avoid watering in the middle of the day. Sonoma County has mandatory restrictions that prohibit irrigation outside of 8pm-6am, but that doesn’t apply to drip or otherwise supervised watering (like using a watering can or a hose with a sprayer).

Only grow varieties and amounts of what you know you’ll eat. One of the funs of gardening is being able to try out new things, but think about what you know you’ll eat and love, and grow just those. I’ve really wanted to grow gourds, a luffa in particular, but I don’t actually need a luffa, nor would I eat it. Instead, I’ll grow a watermelon that I know I’ll enjoy. I might have space for 6 jalapeno plants, but I will only need a few chilis for salsa over the summer, so I’ll only be planting one plant.

I have grown eggplant for years, but don't actually like it that much. So this year, we're skipping it.
I have grown eggplant for years, but don’t actually like it that much. So this year, we’re skipping it and dedicating water to things we will eat.

Grow plants best suited for the season. While it is possible to grow some crops year round, like broccoli, lettuce and spinach, its best to keep those types of veggies limited to fall and winter growing. Growing during the summer requires lots of extra water just to help them stay cool.

Spinach is a great fall and early spring crop, but water intensive if grown in summer.
Spinach is a great fall and early spring crop, but water intensive if grown in summer.

Plant drought-tolerant varieties.  Choose varieties that are known to be more drought-tolerant or drought-resistant. Sonoma County Master Gardeners have a great list here, and Bountiful Gardens from Willits also has a section dedicated to drought-tolerant seeds. Note that “heat-tolerant” is not the same thing as drought-tolerant.

Understand your plants’ water needs. Water is most critical during the first few weeks of seeding, immediately after transplanting, and during flowering and fruit production stages. According to the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, “beans need water most when they are blooming and setting fruit. Corn needs water most during tasseling, silking and ear development. Peas need water most during pod filling. Other vegetables, such as cucumbers and squash, and fruits, such as melons, need water most during flowering and fruiting.  Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant need water most during flowering and fruiting. After tomatoes set, they can do very well with reduced water.” For other crops, check out the information on critical watering stages here. During these critical times, give them the recommended amount of watering, but see if you can get by with a little less other times.

Mulch. Mulching reduces surface evaporation up to 50%.  Apply 3-4 inches of material over your soil. I like to use alfalfa because it adds nutrients to my soil as it breaks down, but growing alfalfa is super water intensive, so I’m reconsidering my mulch choice. Straw, leaves, shredded bark and newspaper are all good options as well. I’m going to experiment using sheets and burlap. Avoid plastics, which make the soil to hot in our climates. Keep a few inches away from the base of the plant. Run drip lines under the mulch, so your watering the soil and not your mulch. If you hand watering, pull back the mulch so you’re not just watering your straw.

A well mulched pepper plant
A well mulched pepper plant

Check if you need to water. Before watering, dig with a trowel or stick your finger in the soil. Irrigate if the top 2 inches of the soil feel dry. Some plants, like squash, will wilt if its hot, so don’t assume you need to water more.

Squash leaves will droop when hot, and its not necessarily a sign they need water. Don't be a fool like I was last year and water them in the middle of the day because you saw droopy leaves.
Squash leaves will droop when hot, and its not necessarily a sign they need water. Don’t be a fool like I was last year and water them in the middle of the day because you saw droopy leaves.

Group together water needs, plant closer together, and plant in blocks, rather than rows. Group plants that have similar water needs, like cucumbers and squash together. Plants should be spaced so that leaves will touch, and plant in a block pattern as opposed to rows so roots and the soil are shaded.

Planting in blocks, rather than rows, help keep the soil and roots shaded.
Planting in blocks, rather than rows, help keep the soil and roots shaded.

Remove weeds. Weeds compete for water and nutrients, so make sure to stay on top of weeding. If you only have so much energy and time, forgo keeping your paths clear and focus on your beds and among your edible crops.

Re-pot terra-cotta. If you have herbs or other plants in terra-cotta pots, considering repotting into a glazed terra-cotta or plastic pot. Unglazed terra-cotta is porous, so it dries out much faster. I have a collection of mint and other herbs in pots near my porch, and I’ve noticed that the ones in the plain terra-cotta need exponentially more water than the ones in plastic do.

I need to re-pot this mint into a glazed or plastic pot to keep in moisture.
I need to re-pot this mint into a glazed or plastic pot to keep in moisture.

Plant varieties that mature faster, are heavy producers, and are determinate. Choose varieties that are ready in less time, like Emerite Runner Beans, Lemon Cucumbers, Early Girl and Sungold tomatoes, which are ready in just 50-60 days. You’ll get more for your water with high-yield plants like beans, squash, peppers and tomatoes. If you have the option, plant determinate varieties. Determinate plants grow to a certain size and produce for a specific amount of time, as opposed to indeterminate varieties that will continue to grow and produce until frost. The determinate types, with their shorter growing season, will use less water.

Squash is always a good choice for high-yielding plants!
Squash is always a good choice for high-yielding plants!

Understand stresses of drought and prioritize your watering . Common symptoms on plants include wilting or drooping of leaves that do not return to normal by evening, curled or yellow leaves that may fold or drop, or foliage that becomes grayish and loses its green luster. If a plant shows signs and you want to save it, re-prioritize your water allotments to make sure its getting enough. Your first priority for watering should be trees and perennial bushes and shrubs (which are the most expensive and take the longest to replace). Your lawn is the very last thing you should be watering.

Maple tree suffering from drought stress. source: Oregon State University

Consider Out-of-the-Box solutions. Consider permaculture based solutions like watering with Ollas, an ancient method of watering using unglazed clay pots; or longer-term projects like hugelkultur beds or creating swales to divert what precious rain we do have into your garden’s soil. Explore what farms and gardens are doing in other dryland areas of the world, like parts of Mediterranean and Australia, or places with very little or no water, like parts of Africa.

buckets left out in the garden captured what little rain we had fall the past few days
buckets left out in the garden captured what little rain we had fall the past few days

If you have questions about the current water situation in your town, call your water department. Santa Rosa’s is at 543-4200, and everyone I’ve ever talked to is super friendly and helpful. They can help you understand your bill, give you water conservation tips, and explain the current regulations.

Even if you are not in California and have plentiful water, our drought could be a rallying point for you to put in your own garden, or encourage you to buy locally grown produce. California grows about 50 percent of the nation fruits, vegetables and nuts, and most of it comes from the areas that are most affected by the drought. And since fruits and vegetables are considered a “specialty crop”, they aren’t subsidized by the government and the cost will be passed on to consumers. Demand will still be high, but supply is less, so my guess is produce is about to get super expensive or harder to get. Some of the big commodity crops, like almonds, appear to be ignoring the fact that water is becoming more and more scarce, but other farms are abandoning leaving fields, or selling what water they have, like this 2014 article discusses. Relaying on your standard supermarket produce will either leave you with boring meals or broke.

I, like any person who’s slightly paying attention, could go on a long rant about how restrictions are on households but ignoring commodity crops, beef and dairies, how Nestle is bottling up all our water, the lack of groundwater regulations and fracking’s water use, but I won’t. While these concerns are real and justified, I’m focusing my energy on doing the very best that I CAN DO in my own garden, instead of pointing fingers and placing the blame on someone else. Unless you’re still watering your lawn….then yes, I do blame you.


“I think we are bound to, and by, nature. We may want to deny this connection and try to believe we control the external world, but every time there’s a snowstorm or a drought, we know our fate is tied to the world around us”. — Alice Hoffman

how to garden during a drought, tips for growing your own food in a drought, water-wise gardening

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8 thoughts on “How to Garden in a Drought

  1. What a fantastic post. I can tell you’ve given this a LOT of thought. Sorry to read you are still in the throes.

    Our severe drought came and went a few years ago, but I still catch and and release (into my garden) all of our home’s piped water as a matter of habit. Kitchen sink run-off and dish rinsing goes straight from the catch-bucket to my keyhole garden (same as all kitchen waste) as does what remains of bath and shower water (what isn’t used to flush the commode). Water conservation is not that difficult once routine is established.

    Healthy soil is the foundation. Though our rainfall has still not recovered to ‘normal’ levels, gardening with stolen organic waste keeps my soil alive and moist — even with long periods of no rain and no supplemental watering. Gotta love those soil microbes and red wigglers.

    Watering turf grass is beyond futile in a drought. Salts build up in the soil and do more damage to the grass than not watering at all. The underworld creatures do NOT like salts which is why synthetic fertilizers also fail miserably (in the long run).

    My fav veggies are greens like chard, kale, turnip, parsley, and radish and beet. They require little to no water input and are great bulking up salad dishes or cooked. I will only grow gourds, squash, tomato, or peppers if there is ample water to establish. In my garden, edibles must fend for themselves! I do not like ‘managing’ my garden.

    Companion planting also aids in soil water retention as well as to prohibit weed growth and insect invasion. Cheers, Melissa! Happy drought gardening.

  2. People in Central Texas used to bemoan the rain. Then our severe drought hit. We’re catching up still years later, but no one, and I mean no one, has complained about rain yet. I hope the businesses using most of the water in California do what they can to adapt to better irrigation practices (or relocating bottling) so that the earth can recover.

  3. Great post! I can’t seem to figure out the whole plant the right amount of veges thing. It’s especially hard when you buy starts and they inevitably come with 3 more plants than you need!

  4. Love this post! With Melissa’s great detail about how much water is needed in a garden, the next question is how many rain barrels to install! If we catch rain when it falls, we have water to use when its dry!

  5. Love this post. I am very concerned about the drought here in Sacramento. I don’t understand all the lush green lawns I see when I walk around my neighborhood! I wish I could find studies showing how much water you save by growing your own veg versus agriculture’s use of water. In the back of my mind, I feel like I save lots of water by growing my own (reusing shower water, drip systems, Olla pots, replacing my lawn with edibles and drought tolerant plants) but I wish I had more data to back up this thought.

  6. I live in Santa Rosa, and have been looking at ways to save water. Thanks for the post. I do a lot of planting in pots which seems to keep my precious water right where it’s needed.

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