Garden Strategies to Cope with Drought – Part 1

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January 13, 2020

Australia. It’s hot, bone dry, smokey, and windy across much of this country. Drought and fires have devastated communities with no respite on the horizon. It’s not that these conditions are unexpected, but when all these harsh weather factors occur at once or in succession, the stress and impacts are catastrophic. The prolonged drought conditions have impacted farmers and gardeners on so many levels. 

How do you grow crops when rain doesn’t come? Not just seasonally, but for months and years on end? It’s tough on the environment, growers and gardeners, animals and ecosystems, and local economies. The emotional toll and impact on mental health in our communities are substantial. Connecting with several farmers recently in different states, I heard the same story. “We can’t supply our customers. We are waiting for rain. The dam is nearly empty. Even the trees are dying. I’m trying to be brave for the kids.” Heartbreaking reality. 

Much of the food bowl of Australia is in dire straits. Recent fires are destroying millions of hectares of bushland, properties, human lives, insects including pollinators, and animals large and small. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes with massive evacuations. It didn’t take long for food and water to run out. Given most cities rely on essential resources being trucked in, rather than being supplied locally, we’re starting to see the harsh impacts of a non-sustainable food system. Roads blocked due to fires slowed supplies arriving until it was safe. Little comfort if you’re sleeping in a car with your children and pets. 

Grow Your Own

This crisis reaffirmed my conviction; growing at least some of our own food needs in a home garden or community space, supplemented by locally grown produce, is vital to maintain food security. For the majority, we may not ever be genuinely self-sufficient, but learning to be self-reliant with sustainable food gardens can make a big difference. There are many ways we can grow a resilient garden that provides food, medicine, and a sanctuary, even in harsh climatic conditions

For those lucky enough to have access to town water, this precious resource may have been taken for granted. Turning on the tap and having a reliable watering system for the garden has been easy for some. With drought conditions escalating and water restrictions in place in more cities and towns, this is changing rapidly. Many are reliant on rain to fill tanks or have to buy water. Every precious drop counts. It’s understandable why people give up trying to grow crops or a garden on any scale when the priority is household and animal water needs. 

While waiting for the rain to break the drought and relieve these extreme conditions, we can still be proactive by applying a few simple, sustainable habits. So when rain does fall, we’ll be in the best possible position to maximize this precious resource. 

Rethink Water Management Practices 

  1. Practice thoughtful observation. 

Watch where and how water flows on your property. Start at the top or highest point of entry and take note as water moves downhill. Does it trickle or rush? Is it blocked at some points or move quickly next door? The goal is to slow water down, spread, and sink it into your soil for maximum benefit. 

Even if you’re on a relatively flat block, get outdoors during rain and observe the entry and exit points. These are opportunities for passive water harvesting and keeping the valuable moisture on your property to maximize plant growth and collection. 

  1. Save every drop. 

Passive rainwater collecting with a barrel collection system.

Even in the driest climates, it still rains. We often get too little or too much at once, which is not ideal for growing crops. It makes sense to harvest rainwater and store it in the soil and above ground so you can manage it wisely and spread the load over time. 

Outdoor opportunities: 

  • Locate swales, berms, or raised gardens on contours to soak up and passively harvest water flowing towards them. Plant roots absorb the moisture and slow it down. I’ve used this strategy very effectively in my kitchen garden with three food forest raised garden beds containing numerous fruit trees, perennials, root crops, herbs, and support species. 
  • Install rainwater tanks to harvest and store roof water so you can redirect it to where it will provide the most benefit. Capture rain in large bins and buckets. 
  • Use a small container under any air conditioning units to catch drips from condensation that would otherwise be wasted. 
  • Connect hoses and sprinklers to greywater systems that redirect wastewater from inside the house for use in the garden. 

Indoor opportunities: 

Kitchen water from rinsing potatoes, used on leafy greens.

  • When showering, use a bucket to capture and reuse wastewater on your plants. 
  • In our subtropical climate, we use a dehumidifier in summer, which collects six liters (1.5 gallons) of water from humid air in a matter of hours! Even better, there’s no fluoride or chlorine found in tap water that can burn leaf tips on some plants, so it’s much safer to use. 
  • In the kitchen, I fill a large bowl daily with water from cooking veggies, running the tap for various functions, and add cold tea or coffee dregs from cups. There’s often nutrients in this concoction that my plants love! 
  • When cleaning out dog bowls, flower vases, and fish tanks, tip this nutrient-rich water into gardens for a boost. 
  1. Conserve the moisture you’ve got. 

Once you’ve captured rainwater, these strategies can help minimize transpiration from plants or evaporation from soil surfaces: 

  • Grow ground covers or living mulch such as perennial native grasses and low-water needs plants to cover and shade the soil. 
  • Add a layer of mulch after rain to lock in the moisture and maintain cooler, consistent soil temperature. 
  • Add organic matter and compost to your soil. This acts as a sponge, releasing moisture gradually to plants over time. The higher the humus content of your soil, the more water it holds. 
  • Grow shade traps and windbreaks to protect and filter hot sun and winds from plants. This helps reduce heat stress and transpiration. For example, I’ve found by growing sun-loving fruit trees like citrus on our hot western side of garden beds (southern hemisphere), they create shady microclimates for shade-loving edibles like ginger and turmeric, which I position on the eastern side of the beds. I’ve noticed at least a 5°C (41°F) cooler temperature difference between the beds in the shade! 

Garden beds mulched heavily to feed soil, minimize weeds, & retain moisture.

We may be living with climate extremes for some time to come, so utilizing strategies like these may help your garden survive and even thrive. In part 2, we’ll look at using microclimates, plant selection, and downscaling strategies to cope with drought.

Look for part two on Wednesday.

Anne Gibson
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Anne Gibson

Author, Speaker + Organic Gardening Coach at The Micro Gardener
Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener, is a speaker, author and urban garden community educator on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland, Australia. Anne is passionate about inspiring people to improve health and wellbeing, by growing nutrient-dense food gardens in creative containers and small spaces. Anne regularly presents workshops, speaks at sustainable living events, coaches private clients and teaches community education classes about organic gardening and ways to live sustainably. She has authored several eBooks and gardening guides. Anne shares organic gardening tips and tutorials to save time, money and energy on her popular website @ themicrogardener.com.
Anne Gibson
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