5 Tips To Help Your Organic Garden Thrive During a Drought

During the dog days of summer, you should be enjoying the fruits of your labors. You've worked hard to get your garden growing: don't let drought rob you of your harvest. Here are some tips to help your gardening efforts pay off, even when the weather isn't on your side.

  1. Irrigate efficiently-- Rule number one is to know how much water you are actually applying to your garden. The easiest way to do this is to turn on your faucet and measure how long it takes to fill a one gallon jug from it. Then, figure out how many gallons per minute come out of your tap. The number will probably be somewhere between 2 and 7 gallons per minute. Just being aware of how much water comes out of the end of your garden hose will help you water more conservatively. If you know that your tomato plant doesn't need 500 gallons of water a day, you know not leave the sprinkler on it for an hour!

    How and when you water is also very important. Watering at night will reduce the amount of water that evaporates and watering with efficient irrigation systems will use much less water than watering with a normal lawn sprinkler. In fact, micro sprinkler (these are tiny mist nozzles that attach to drip irrigation line) and drip irrigation systems use 30-50% less water than lawn sprinklers do and they are relatively easy and affordable to install. They also allow you to get water directly your garden plant's roots without watering your lawn, the sidewalk, the side of your house or whatever else is typically in the path of you lawn sprinkler's spray.

    If drip irrigation isn't an option for you right now, consider hand watering your plants using a garden hose fitted with a "rainfall nozzle." These nozzles emit a gentle, raindrop flow which will reduce water runoff and keep your plant's delicate roots from getting beat up by the water.
  2. Grow Plants That Use Less Water-- Reconsider growing water guzzlers such as giant pumpkins or full-sized watermelons: they'll slurp down hundreds of gallons of water. All vegetables need regular watering, but some need more than others. For example, Swiss chard and cabbage use much less water than their respective counterparts lettuce and Brussels sprouts.
  3. Seed or set out your plants at the right time--You can increase your plant's survival rates by planting them during a cool time of day (or night), and right before a predicted rainfall (I'm often busily planting away as soon a rain STARTS to fall).

    Planting crops either very early or at the tail end of their possible growing seasons can also be a good drought-proofing move. For example, my most successful pepper plants are usually ones that I transplant in August, not the ones that I put in during the month of May and leave to swelter all summer in the North Carolina heat. And my best-yielding tomato plants are the ones that I set out very early (late March) and baby through the frosts so that they can give me tomatoes during the relatively cool, moist, and pest-free days of late June and early July.
  4. Reduce Tillage-- The University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension sums this point up: "The best advice on tillage during a drought may be: avoid it." Tilling during a drought allows stored soil moisture to escape, and harms you soil's structure. This structural damage leaves your soil very vulnerable to erosion and reduces its capacity to store moisture.
  5. Use Mulch- Using ground covers such as straw or leaves on your garden helps keep soil moisture from evaporating, which gives your plants access to more water (it's in the soil instead of in a cloud somewhere). Mulching your garden also helps the soil to soak up more water when it does rain, thus able to keep your plant's thirst satisfied for a longer time. A mulched garden will also need less frequent irrigation than a bare one.

Use these tips to help your garden thrive, even when there's not a rain cloud in sight!

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Tammy Biondi has been growing organic produce for over 10 years. Besides running Blue Horizon Farm, Tammy teaches about sustainable farming at the Central Carolina Community College. She also is a successful freelance writer, focusing on agricultural topics. Contact her at tammy@bluehorizonfarm.com.