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High and Dry: keeping kitchen gardens productive during dry periods

by Cindy Shapton

A kitchen garden’s survival during a drought, or periods drier than normal requires planning, preparing and making smart, water-saving decisions along the way.

Start with the Soil
Add organic matter and compost to your garden soil before sowing seeds or planting veggies. This will help the soil retain more water and to absorb more rainfall when it does come.

Choose the Right Plants
Choose plants that have low to moderate water needs or those that can better handle drought and water restrictions.

Pile it on! Mulch with newspapers, cardboard, leaf mold, grass clippings, straw, etc. My neighbor Jack puts down a heavy layer of leaf mold around his plants in his garden, followed by layers of cardboard, topped with – you got it – more mulch. By doing this, he helps his vegetables survive an unexpected drought without having to provide supplemental water. Evaporation and water runoff are minimized.

Understand When Water is Essential
Seeds need moisture to germinate, and all plants need consistent water to get established. After that, most vegetables benefit from 1 inch of water per week, at least until fruit set. During extreme temperatures, that amount may need to be increased.

When Watering
Water deeply once every four to six days so roots learn to search for water deeper in the earth. This will help when rainfall is inadequate in mid to late summer.

Drip irrigation is less wasteful, with water going directly to individual plants. Soaker hoses also do a good job of delivering water where it is needed most. Watering at dawn or in the evening at the bases of plants will allow soil to soak up moisture before it can easily evaporate from the heat of the sun. Avoid overhead watering altogether, if possible.

If water for irrigation is unavailable or water restrictions are in effect, invest in rain barrels to collect water to help your garden through dry periods.

Provide Natural Shade
Plant in blocks rather than rows to create shade for roots and reduce evaporation. Raised beds work well when vegetables are planted close enough for leaves to shade the soil.

Control Competition
It is important to keep your garden weed-free, since weeds will compete with your plants for water. Remove plants that are struggling or have finished their major production, giving young plants easier access to soil moisture.

Keep an Eye on the Thermometer
When daytime temperatures reach 95 F and nighttime temperatures stay 85 F for more than a couple of days, many warm-weather crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, will come to a standstill and stop setting fruit; blooms may simply fall off, taking future harvests with them.

Cool Off
When extreme heat is predicted, it is time to provide shade for the kitchen garden. Drape shade cloth over frames or hoops, allowing enough room for air movement around plants. Or, lightweight floating row covers can be placed directly on plants, helping to lower temperatures by about 10-15 degrees and hold some of the moisture in.

Extend Cool Crops
If you are trying to grow cool-season crops, such as lettuce, chard, spinach or other greens, in the warmer season, try growing sunflowers or trellises of climbing beans at the end(s) of the kitchen garden on the south and west sides, providing a cooler climate for them.

Growing vegetables in the heat of a dry summer can be challenging, but so worth it when you bite into a fresh, juicy tomato that you grew yourself in your kitchen garden!

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