Gardening in a Drought
Growing Food in a Drought Year
With drought conditions official, you may be wondering whether or not to bother with a food garden in a drought year. One option is to eliminate the edible garden for a while, but, there are water-wise actions that can be employed for a successful harvest. Not only do we need to practice soil and water management strategies, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions:- How much available water will I have for a food garden?
- How much food do I need to grow and can I grow it with available water?
- What supplemental water is available and how safe is it for edibles?
- What strategies can be employed to produce edibles with less water?
We need to educate ourselves about the water needs of various crops and stages of plant growth that require irrigation. In this regard, we should explore crops and varieties that may be new to us, but are drought-tolerant.
The Food Gardening Specialists (FGS) group is offering an action plan for food gardeners as well as suggestions for drought-tolerant plants:
Sonoma County is now officially in a drought, and in reality we’re in the third year of extremely low rainfall. Some experts such as UC Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram are fearful that it could last for some years to come—about 2014 she states “if it continues this way, this could be one of the driest years in the past 500 years”. According to her research, marathon multi-year dry spells occur every 50 to 90 years.
For this year, and very possibly beyond, gardeners need to re-evaluate everything about their gardening, from plant selection, to irrigation methods to the amount of garden and landscape we actually maintain. Rainwater catchment (what little there is), gray water use, conversion to drip irrigation from less efficient watering systems, prioritizing removal of remaining lawn, and good cultural practices such as mulching well and staying on top of weed removal are all part of the picture.
Sonoma County Master Gardeners have produced several documents that address gardening under drought conditions in detail.
Drought Management Guidelines is the master document and addresses all aspects of gardening with lower water.
Food Gardening with Less Water discusses how to be water-wise and successful growing a food garden during a drought.
Drought Resistant Crops lists edible varieties that require less water than normal.
Getting by with Less Water
Proper mulching is one of the best strategies for reducing water loss through evaporation, and hence water use. Harvesting rainwater, while less effective in our climate than in those with summer rain, can be useful in certain situations. Stormwater and runoff management considerations are also important in the big picture, and there are landscape design issues to address those. Rain Gardens are one way to direct and control rainwater.
Rainwater capture is fairly easy to do, though by definition limited in use in low rain conditions. Re-cycling and re-using household gray water is an idea whose time has come. This can range from simply diverting bath and wash water to a tank for later re-use in irrigation, to a more complex system combining a sand filter, holding tank, pumping system. A few package systems are commercially available.
Water-wise Garden Design and Plant Selection
Xeriscapic plants are those which need relatively little water, and a water-wise approach generally incorporates many such plants, some of which are natives, but many of which are those used in Mediterranean Gardening. Sonoma County, with our significant maritime influence, is one of the world's Mediterranean climate areas. Ornamental Grasses are a wonderful design element, and also a great lawn replacement strategy. California native plants are more often than not water-thrifty, and Natives Now details many that are perfect for Sonoma County. Sonoma Superstars contain almost all low water plants, and our Very Drought Tolerant list is
Remember that many landscape plants establish themselves faster when planted in native soils with little or no amendments. This is especially true for California natives. Plant in the fall whenever possible to allow young plants to establish themselves with the help of winter rains. But for the moment, in the worst of the drought, consider not planting anything new at all.