Breaking news from the Northeast: It's hot this week! But even if you and your garden aren't sweltering through this early summer heat wave, drought conditions across the country are defining (and limiting) this year’s growing season.
Southwestern states like Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado are suffering the most, but nearly every region of the continental U.S. (and Hawaii) has experienced abnormally dry weather patterns this year. In some areas, like New England, dryness is mostly an issue for farmers and gardeners, while in areas like New Mexico and Colorado, dry conditions have fueled tough-to-control wildfires.
Thanks to climate change, drought is likely here to stay, and without minimizing the dangers, it’s good for gardeners to realize that we have tools at our disposal to conserve water resources and keep the produce coming, even in dryer-than-normal conditions.
1. Be Prepared
Soil preparation is key to many aspects of garden success, so it’s no surprise that it affects your garden’s ability to thrive with less water. Well-composted soil holds water better than sandy soil, so keep your beds full of organic matter. Some old-school garden sites suggest amending soil with peat moss, but this is a non-renewable resource, best avoided.
2. Take Cover
Mulch, in addition to suppressing weed growth, helps the soil retain moisture–critical when rainfall isn’t what you hope for. You can use anything from straw to plastic, or purchase mulch from a local producer. If you have a lot of leaves falling every autumn, you could also make your own leaf mulch (decayed fallen autumn leaves). This is excellent for improving soil but it has to be well-rotted; fresh leaves are too acidic for vegetable gardens.
3. Measure Twice
A rain gauge is an inexpensive way to track how much water your garden is actually receiving, so you know when and how much to water. The rule of thumb is that a vegetable garden needs an inch of rainfall per week to thrive.
4. A Raindrop Saved...
Rain barrels are back (or maybe they never went away.) Stick one under your house’s downspouts and use the collected water to water your plants. It’s best to water early in the morning or in the late afternoon to minimize loss from evaporation. You should also water plants at the base, rather than showering them from above. You may also want to explore installing a drip irrigation system in your garden as a way to maximize watering efficiency.
5. Ask the Experts
Many public gardens and extension offices are offering workshops or lectures about how to deal with the new climate realities. Check your local garden resources for information. If you’re in New York, check out this August workshop at gorgeous Wave Hilll.
6. Get the Facts
Thanks to five years of increasing drought conditions, both public and private sector scientists are taking drought monitoring seriously, and collaborating to share their findings online. At Drought.gov, you can see the latest statistics on rainfall, wildfires and more, throughout the country.
7. Work With Weeds
Weed your beds thoroughly to keep them from taking water you want to go to your intentionally-grown plants. Weeds, wrote Anne Raver of the New York Times last week, often thrive under adverse conditions. (She, like me, endorses turning the fruits of the weeding chore into supper, with Tama Matsuoka Wong’s wonderful new book, Foraged Flavor.)
8. Pluck, Prune, Pick
Staying on top of your harvest–cutting back greens promptly, picking beans as soon as they’re edible–will help plants manage their water use. Some plants, like brussels sprouts and tomatoes, benefit from having lower leaves removed once fruit or sprouts appear, so that the plant directs its resources into the fruits instead of leaf growth.
9. Reap What You Sow
It goes without saying that planting wisely helps you make the most of the garden whatever the conditions: plant just what you know you’ll eat yourself, or enjoy bestowing on others. Don’t let produce or water go to waste; if you find yourself with a surplus too big to foist on the neighbors, considering donating to a local food pantry.
10. Less Grass, More Garden
In the United States, turf grass (like your lawn) consumes more water than any other crop–three times more than corn. Converting your lawn to productive growing space is one of the best ways you can make the water you use count. And even if you don’t decide to farm your front yard, you might consider switching from a golf course aesthetic to a more sustainable planting of native grasses. Check out Plant Native for resources.
Image by IRRI via Flickr