Drought Resistant Crops & Water Wise Techniques for the Veggie Garden

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As some regions are looking ahead to a parched, dry summer, a lot of people might be reconsidering the idea of planting a vegetable garden at all. When the weather is hot and rainfall scarce, vegetable gardens can really fail to thrive. Implement some of these drought resistant crops and methods in your gardening plans to harvest food from your backyard in spite of the climate.

Be sure to check out this handy guide on watering vegetables the right way.

turnips growing in dark soil

Use drought resistant methods when planting a vegetable garden

If you’re not ready to completely throw in the towel, there are a number of tactics to consider that will still allow you to harvest fresh veggies from your backyard garden. Choosing drought and heat tolerant veggies is just one solution. [Check out these heat tolerant vegetables if you’re facing a drought situation in your region.]

Dig the shoulder seasons

Expand your spring and fall garden plans. Trying to keep vegetables growing through the hottest months with limited water will frustrate even experienced gardeners. Instead, take advantage of crop varieties that thrive in cooler weather. Peas, greens, beets, and radishes will do just fine without the summertime heat.

Relief from the sun

Think about shade. Even plants that like full sun will appreciate just a little bit of afternoon shade if they’re struggling with drought conditions and heat. Situate your garden so that they’ll catch a little shade from trees you have on site. No trees? A patio umbrella or strategically placed shade cloth can help your garden tolerate a drought situation better. Similarly, space your plants so that they are just touching at full size to create a shaded—and cooler—soil surface.

Deep watering gets to the roots

When you do water, water deeply. This encourages plants to sent roots further into the ground. Surface watering might give plants an initial boost, but those surface roots tend to dry out more quickly than deeper roots.

Make a wicking bed. These self-contained planters have a reservoir of water at the bottom and a wicking medium that slowly pulls water up to the plant roots.

Consider experimenting with an olla irrigation system. This is a traditional method of deep watering. When planting a vegetable garden, submerge an olla—a porous vessel—in the ground near the base of your plants, leaving the top accessible. Fill the olla with water and it will slowly seep into the ground and be available as the plants need it. While ollas are available pre-made it would be expensive to outfit an entire garden with these. Not to worry; you can easily make your own with terra cotta pots — see the how-to in my book.

Try deep watering with a drainage pipe or even a nursery pot buried upright next to plants. Instead of watering at the surface, water into the pipe or pot so the water goes straight to the roots. Another alternative is to poke several small holes in a recycled plastic milk jug, fill it with water, and let it slowly seep water into the ground next to a plant.

terra cotta olla

Water retention in the garden

Amend your soil to incorporate lots of compost. A soil that’s rich in compost will be able to hold onto what little soil moisture there is. Something to really consider when you plant your own garden.

Mulch, mulch, mulch! Adding 3″ to 4″ inches of mulch will help prevent the soil surface from drying out. Try straw, leaves, grass clippings, or wood chips to create a more drought tolerant garden. I’ve even seen people use shredded office paper, though it does look a bit like a random snowstorm hit. Consider using some of these permaculture methods in your vegetable garden design phase, too.

Consider trench composting. By burying your kitchen waste alongside your plants, you’re nourishing your plants and also adding a bit more moisture to the soil. Sheet mulching is another method of gardening that improves moisture retention.

Keyhole gardens, popular in Africa, are used in other hot, dry climates as well. Keyhole gardens (so named because of their shape) have an active compost pile at their center. The central compost helps nourish the plants growing around it and acts as a source of moisture. Supplemental water goes right into the compost “well.”

A soaker hose or drip irrigation system allows you to put water right where you want it. Invest in a simple timer and set it so that it goes off at night. That will give your plants a chance to drink up before the sun heats the ground, causing evaporation.

Dry farming

I just learned about the idea of “dry farming” tomatoes last year. It seems a method well-suited to drought, and I’m told the resulting fruit is superior. You do, apparently, need good soil in order to pull this off. Essentially, you’ll water your tomato plants to get them established, then water sparingly as fruit matures.

Related: Planting Vegetables that Grow in the Shade for a Successful Harvest

squash plant growing in dry dirt

Hugelkultur

If you have access to logs, branches, and other natural debris, consider trying the hugelkultur method. Simple enough that anyone can try it, this method is essentially just a matter of stacking natural material into a mound and planting on top of it.

The decomposing matter turns into healthy soil that will hold moisture, requiring little or no irrigation by the second year, mitigating some of the effects of drought. Yeah, it’s not going to solve your problem this year, but if another year of drought follows this one, you’ll be happy you got a jump on it.

If you’re a container gardener, skip the terra cotta pots. They just dry out too quickly.

green bean plant with wine cork marker

Choose drought tolerant plants for the vegetable garden

When planting a drought resistant vegetable garden, choose drought tolerant varieties of the crops you’d like to grow. There are drought tolerant varieties of beans, broccoli, chard, corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, melon, okra, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Go here for a full list of drought tolerant varieties from the University of California.

onions growing in a garden with rich soil
  • Tomato Dirt has a list of both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes that do well in drought-like conditions.
  • Baker Creek Seed Company lists some drought tolerant crops.
  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange suggests sticking with Tromboncino squash, and recommends varieties of beans, eggplants, and peppers that do well in hot, dry conditions.
  • Choose vegetables that have a short growing season. Beans, for instance, can produce a full crop in a relatively short amount of time, using less water than a crop that takes longer to mature.
  • Corn is shallow rooted and not a great choice for growing during a drought. Opt for a more drought tolerant variety if you really want to grow corn.
  • And don’t discount trees. They may not fit your idea of a “garden” plant but they do provide food and are generally drought resistant. Once established, most fruit trees can get by with very little supplemental water. [More about growing fruit trees here.]

Choose vegetables that produce a lot of food per plant. While a broccoli plant provides just a single head, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and eggplants, for example, will produce enough for many meals. Do your research to find drought tolerant varieties.

In addition to watering deeply, choosing vegetables that have a deep root system allows you to water less frequently. Tomatoes, melons, asparagus, and artichokes are fairly deep rooted.

fruit trees in bloom with green grass below

Water

Don’t let water down the drain if you don’t have to! Collect it and use it to water your plants.

  • Warming water for showering or dishwashing? Catch the water in a five-gallon bucket to use as irrigation water.
  • Place a 5-gallon bucket in the shower with you while you’re showering to catch some of that water.
  • Water used for cooking pasta, potatoes, or hard boiled eggs can be taken out to the garden once it’s cool.
  • Instead of rinsing dishes under running water, do it camp style. Rinse them in a dish pan, then use the water in the garden.
  • If you’re bathing a baby, that water, too, can go out to the garden.

If your growing area is sloped at all, consider creating swales to slow down any rainwater that does come from the sky. Geoff Lawton uses this technique as part of his permaculture method.

Originally published January 2014; this post has been updated.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

24 comments… add one
  • Jo Dancingtree Jan 25, 2014, 2:49 pm

    All good suggestions, and I’ve used mulch, hugelkulture, and drainage pipes-instead-of-ollas with good results. But I would be careful of the last idea, using the baby’s bathwater in the garden. On ornamentals, trees, or bushes, okay, but not on veggies – naturally you clean the baby’s bottom before you plop him/her in the tub, but still – you can’t SEE germs. Better safe than sorry. Other than that, great article – thanks!

  • Pam Jan 25, 2014, 5:10 pm

    Another dry farming method is to allow more space for individual plants. Plant farther apart to reduce competition between plants and mulch, mulch, mulch.

  • naredla.venugopal Jan 26, 2014, 3:31 am

    nice suggestions.

  • April Jan 27, 2014, 1:22 pm

    I absolutely love the documentary Back to Eden. We built our whole garden around this method. You can watch it free online. I’ve started lots of people on it. Last year once my plants were established I didn’t water at all (except my strawberries) and had a great garden. I live in an area that gets about 16″ of rainfall a year. It’s a very dry, arid climate. It is so simple but makes so much sense. 

    • Kolleen Dohermann May 28, 2015, 2:25 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion of Back to Eden. I’d like to learn more about lessons that have been lost during our quest for progress. Ha! Laughable!

  • Dana D Feb 5, 2014, 3:53 pm

    I visited LA and Palm Springs last summer and I saw lots of use of drip irrigation but no where did I see use of mulch. I just don’t get it! There are so many benefits of using mulch and the commercial landscapers don’t see the benefits? Maybe because it’s not their money??

  • Stealthy Mom Feb 7, 2014, 12:58 pm

    Iowa was dry last year, really dry. We are looking forward to building our keyhole garden for next year, since our spring to-do list might be too full to get to it. I was thinking of two: one larger one for vegetables, and a smaller one that I can cover to grow greens into the winter. A good compost should generate some warmth for the winter, right? 

  • Rachel Mar 1, 2014, 5:43 am

    No mention of aquaponics? This gardening technique requires only 10% of the water required for traditional gardening while supplying fresh fish to harvest as well. 

  • Suzanne Mar 30, 2014, 12:02 pm

    The price on that amazon olla is outrageous. I couldn’t imagine asking that much for one in our shop. Aside from making your own from terra cotta pots, you can inquire with your local potter or ceramics department at a nearby college or community center. Sustainable AND local. Keep it in the community. For sure shop around, Dripping Springs strikes me as a chic price gouger.

    • Scott Jul 25, 2015, 12:02 am

      For a cheap cheat just use a 2 liter or similar bottle with the bottom cut off and place the top (so it looks upside down) into the soil and fill it up. It will slowly drain into the soil under the plant directly to its roots.

  • https://ledgrowlightscenter.blog.com Sep 11, 2014, 7:04 pm

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  • Vicki Mar 17, 2015, 1:55 pm

    Living in Australia, we are constantly trying to minimize water usage, so in our vegie garden we are turning to wicking beds. We now have 3 up and running and it saving us a huge amount of water and $$$$$$$$. Our vegies are thriving in them and we only have to top it up once a week. Because the water is drawn up through the manured soil, the plants only take what they need. No more watering not only the vegies, but everywhere else as well. Eventually we will replace all our beds with wicking ones. So far I cannot find a fault with them.

  • Barbara Shelton May 2, 2015, 11:22 am

    use the water from rinsing your clothes. You can separate the ” grey water ” from your sewage and use it to irrigate your lawn/ vegetable garden. Many of us in New Mexico do this. I requires forethought when building, or a plumber if it is an afterthought. All your shower water goes there, too.

  • Dave May 19, 2015, 6:02 am

    My version of an olla pot is a Home Depot bucket mostly buried with holes in the bottom and near the surface. I fill it once a week and my tomatoes (two Early Girls, one Ace) get a deep soak. They are growing like weeds and are producing lots of fruit.

  • Jean | DelightfulRepast.com Jun 20, 2015, 4:27 am

    Glad I found your site! Not sure how, maybe Twitter? I’ll be coming back regularly for garden inspiration.

  • Kathy Jun 21, 2015, 6:10 pm

    I live in an area where we switch back and forth from very wet (its a swamp) and drought conditions. This year, I documented all my activities trying to protect my garden on my blog – I found this year easier than most! https://bit.ly/1FvILrk

  • Kathy Jul 13, 2015, 12:34 am

    Drought can be so tough on the garden, and in my opinion survival is really all about preparation https://bit.ly/1FvILrk

  • Marlene Sep 6, 2015, 12:57 am

    “Water used for cooking pasta, potatoes, or hard boiled eggs can be taken out to the garden once it’s cool.”

    Never mind the garden. Use this water to make soups, stews, or even drink it. The water is full of minerals and vitamins. Yes, good for plants, but better for us. I freeze this water and when I have enough, I make a batch of soup/stew. Then freeze any leftover broth to reuse in next soup/stew.

    • Kris Bordessa Sep 6, 2015, 7:34 am

      I do use SOME in cooking, but I find I’m usually inundated with more than we can use!

    • Ma Kettle Sep 10, 2015, 2:45 pm

      I’ve used cooking water on houseplants and even bedding plants but now, for me, I dilute old tea and coffee into my houseplant watering container but I’ll keep pasta/potato water, especially, for soups and sauces because it tends to go stinky and scummy even in planted pots.

  • Marlene Sep 6, 2015, 1:06 am

    Great website.
    I live in an apartment now. I started a garden indoors. I use “terrariums” made from 2 litre bottles, no cap. Instant terrarium. Terrariums self-water, almost. For now, I grow onions and parsley. I even started some spruce trees (about an inch high now). Soon doing carrots and beans.

  • a woman Oct 31, 2015, 12:05 pm

    I have a small container gardening and I reuse the water from the kitchen: what I wash/cook vegetable, a part the water to take showers etc. Here the water is verrrry expensive ( 4euro m3, 1 euro > 1 dolar), so people become inventive: they reduced the consumption of chemicals, use biodegradable products to clean, and the water from the house is used in the garden. I sow even a toilet with sink incorporated ( water from the sink used in the toilet).
    Think too at the permaculture and the layers of vegetation: some plants will keep shadow and to not loose all the humidity.

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 4, 2015, 11:13 am

      Sounds like you’ve learned to be very water savvy! We could all learn something from you, I think.

  • Nan Mar 3, 2019, 2:21 pm

    Kris, I like your review of the many things we can do in drought – and when drought threatens. I am with you – do not give up gardening! Learn new ways you can grow. I’ve posted your article on my personal facebook page: Nan Curtis Sundgren, and I will also post it on my PrairieGrowersGuide facebook page. You can see in my post what I will be doing this coming season, whether we continue to get more rain than usual – as we certainly did last season! – or whether we have to deal with drought and / or unstable, irregular weather patterns.

    I think you would enjoy getting to know about cover cropping! Kansas/Nebraska Soil Stewardship Group is a bunch of people (1417, at last count) – mostly ‘boots on the ground’ farmers and ranchers, soil scientists, ag advisors, anyone connected with agriculture really who is doing no-tilling and cover cropping, or who is interested in it.

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