Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Ten tips for vegetable gardening during a drought

Asparagus, chard, eggplant, mustard greens, peppers, roma tomatoes, and California native strawberries are water-efficient edibles. (Photo credit: Jennifer Baumbach, UCCE Master Gardener Coordinator, Solano County)

Is it possible to grow a vegetable garden when water resources are scarce and water rationing could be imposed?  Water responsibly, plant carefully, and select fruit and vegetable varieties that are drought tolerant. All of these sustainable gardening practices require less water – and help ensure your family has access to a variety of nutrient rich foods.

Ten simple drought tips to reduce water use in your backyard garden

  1. Planting time
    Plant earlier in spring and later in fall. Planting earlier in the spring season takes advantage of the warm weather and reduces exposure to high mid-summer temperatures. Planting later in the fall minimizes the use of supplemental water and takes advantage of seasonal rains to establish plants. For example, tomatoes and other nightshade crops such as peppers and eggplants, should not be planted until soil temperatures reach 55 degrees. With a warm spring this could be as early as mid-April.  Remember to always use a soil thermometer for accurate soil temperature readings.
     
  2. Mulch, mulch, mulch!
    A 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch can reduce watering needs by as much as 50 percent. Mulch reduces water evaporation and keeps soil temperatures down during hot summer months.  Grass clippings, dried leaves, pine needles, straw and shredded bark are all examples of natural mulches which can be used to cover the soil. Hay is not recommended because it contains seeds, which yields weeds and can become a problematic option.

    Raised garden beds help retain water better than gardens planted in open soil.
  3. Enclosed spaces 
    Gardens planted in enclosed spaces, for example a raised garden bed, retain water better than gardens planted in open soil.  Plant seeds and transplants in a hexagonal "off-set" pattern rather than in straight rows.  A hexagonal arrangement groups plants closer together, which provides shade from leaves, keeping soil cool and water from evaporating.

  4. Companion planting
    Companion planting is the practice of grouping crops together for mutual benefit. The Native American “three sisters” approach of planting corn, beans and squash together are the perfect example of companion planting. Tall cornstalks provide a structural support for the climbing beans, the beans return nitrogen back into the soil, and the squash spreads across the soil acting as a mulch and keeping the soil cool. 

  5. Watering times
    The best time to water your garden is in the late evening and early morning hours, typically between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The cooler morning temperature and limited wind reduced water evaporation rates.

  6. Water efficiently
    Overhead watering with a sprinkler system is not as efficient as drip irrigation. Compared to overhead sprinklers - drip systems can reduce water usage by up to half. Install a drip irrigation system, grouping plants with similar water needs together on one drip irrigation line. Drip irrigation systems are relatively easy to install for most do-it-yourself homeowners.  The UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources book Drip Irrigation in the Home Landscape is a great reference on the materials, design and installation of a drip system.
    Select the correct size garden for your family, to reduce waste from overproduction.
  7. Control Weeds! 
    Pesky weeds compete for valuable water, sunshine and soil nutrients in your garden. Remove weeds before they have an opportunity to flower or spread. Visit the UC Integrated Pest Management website for tips on controlling weeds to identify recommendations for specific weed species.

  8. Drought Resistant Crops
    Purchase varieties of fruits and vegetable that do well in hot and dry climates. Many heirloom varieties from Mediterranean regions are prized for being drought tolerant. Smaller varieties bred for containers often produce a more bountiful yield per plant than standard varieties. Avoid water hogs! Some favorite water-efficient edibles from UCCE Master Gardeners include: asparagus, chard, eggplant, mustard greens, peppers, roma tomatoes, and California native strawberries. Check with a local UCCE Master Gardener Program about which varieties are recommended for your zone.

  9. Peak water times
    Fruit and vegetables have critical periods for increased water demands. For most plants once they become established watering times and amounts can be reduced until the flowering or fruit setting process begins. An increased amount of water should be reintroduced during this time. After this initial period of fruit set water can slowly be reduced again. In some cases, reducing water can improve the flavors of your harvest (think, dry-farmed tomatoes)!

  10. Garden size
    Determine the amount of fruits and vegetables needed to feed your family, does your family have two, four, or eight members? If you overproduced and wasted crops last year - decrease the amount of plants this year. Set up a garden exchange in your neighborhood so everyone grows less but still has a great variety!

The University of California Master Gardener Program extends to the public free UC research-based information about home horticulture and pest management. In exchange for the training and materials received from the University of California, Master Gardeners perform volunteer services in a myriad of venues. If you are interested in becoming a certified UC Master Gardener contact your local UC Cooperative Extension office.  

Posted on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 11:43 AM
  • Author: Melissa G. Womack
  • Author: Nancy Grove, UCCE Master Gardener of San Mateo and San Francisco counties

Comments:

1.
Great tips, thank you!

Posted by Garden Goddesses on April 4, 2014 at 9:14 AM

2.
A diagram of "Plant seeds and transplants in a hexagonal "off-set" pattern rather than in straight rows." would be useful.  
 
Thanks,  
Joe Boldt  
Master Gardener, San Diego

Posted by Joe Boldt on April 5, 2014 at 9:59 AM

3.
Thank you for the recommendation about hexagonal planting, I do this successfully for strawberries, it opens opporutnities for other plants.

Posted by Anne Osborn on April 7, 2014 at 7:54 AM

4.
I'm interested in why Roma tomatoes are included in this list. Why do they need less water than others? Because they are meatier and hold less water is my guess. Am I way off base?  
 
Patricia Silva

Posted by Patricia W Silva on April 19, 2014 at 8:56 AM

5.
HI Patricia,  
There are a couple of reasons why Roma tomatoes are on the list. Roma tomatoes are a type of paste tomato - meaning they have a denser fruit wall and less water. This is what makes them great for sauces, ketchup and canning. Roma tomatoes are determinate meaning that the plant grows to its full size and then stops. Indeterminate tomato varieties often have more vegetative growth than determinate ones and therefore typically need more water. The other tenant of a determinate tomato plant is that the fruit crop ripens together instead of the fruit ripening over the course of the season. Once you’ve harvested your Roma crop, you can pull out the plant and compost it – there is no further need to water it.  
Thanks, Melissa

Posted by Melissa G. Womack on April 21, 2014 at 9:37 AM

6.
Thank you so much for this article! I live in a place with very hot climate and I don't know how to plant vegetables. Thanks again! Regards!  
Emma

Posted by Emma on November 4, 2014 at 2:21 AM

7.
I think your last tip is arguably the most important. When I first wanted to start a vegetable garden, I set aside a huge plot of yard for it. I had all these visions of a beautiful and efficient garden that would yield more vegetables than anyone else's. It didn't take long before I realized what I really had on my hands-- an overwhelming mess. Now I plant only as much as I know I'll be able to handle. I might not get as many vegetables, but I can keep up this way.

Posted by Jenn on January 23, 2015 at 12:54 PM

8.
I think your last tip is arguably the most important. When I first wanted to start a vegetable garden, I set aside a huge plot of yard for it. I had all these visions of a beautiful and efficient garden that would yield more vegetables than anyone else's. It didn't take long before I realized what I really had on my hands-- an overwhelming mess. Now I plant only as much as I know I'll be able to handle. I might not get as many vegetables, but I can keep up this way.

Posted by Jenn on January 23, 2015 at 12:55 PM

9.
Those are excellent tips on reducing the usage of water for gardening. Thanks a lot for the share.  
 
Impressive write-up, indeed!  
 
- Artificial Grass GB

Posted by Kevin on May 27, 2015 at 6:03 AM

10.
Great tips! You are absolutely right about using drip irrigation over a sprinkler system. So much more efficient. A product I use that is simple to use is a drip irrigation hose. It's similar to a soaker hose but is more efficient and waters more evenly.

Posted by Lauren on June 23, 2015 at 11:07 AM

11.
Drip irrigation has always been the better choice! Thank you for the informative article, I'm going to share it to my colleagues. It's important for us as professionals to be aware about the ways to reduce water usage during a drought.

Posted by Elyse Chase on July 17, 2015 at 6:50 AM

12.
I'm surprised there's no mention of rain barrels.. We have a dozen 55 gallon barrels (some connected forming larger reservoirs) collecting runoff water around our property\, and we use drought-resistant crops. Since the crops don't need that much water, the barrels can last weeks, sometimes. Entirely sufficient for the dry spells we get here. For an additional bit of water and water-saving, we run the overflow from the largest set of barrels (they fill much faster than the others) into a large kiddie pool, then we can use that water for a foot soak on hot days or for watering, depending on needs.  
 
This past summer, we did not use a single drop of city water for any of our 4x12 raised beds, nor the 4 wildflower beds/2-dozen potted veggies (to bring indoors, fully mature and producing, over winter) or any of our indoor plants.

Posted by Emily on September 15, 2015 at 7:26 AM

13.
Wow! This is something that I need to do and probably a lot of others. I have been looking at different ideas on pinterest.

Posted by Jhoell on July 7, 2016 at 2:36 AM

14.
I didn't know that about the best watering times, very interesting. Thanks for sharing!  
 
Clive  
DIY Garden UK

Posted by Clive on January 18, 2017 at 2:35 AM

15.
Read above info. Found it very thoughtful and informative

Posted by Bob Archer on September 3, 2017 at 11:37 PM

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