5 Tips for a Bountiful, Water-Saving Vegetable Garden in a Time of Drought

male hand holding sprinkler hose spraying water over vegetable garden

 Treehugger / Steve Redmond

Many gardeners wonder what droughts mean for their gardens. There is room for vegetable gardening in a drier future, but we must adapt by conserving water, choosing vegetable varieties that are adapted to hot and dry conditions, and more. Below are some suggestions for vegetable gardening in times of drought.

1. It Starts with the Soil

two hands holding soil above a potting mix bag
Treehugger / Steve Redmond

Well-amended soil is the foundation of a vegetable garden that will tolerate drought. Prepare your garden's soil by adding lots of rich, organic compost that will help trap moisture and encourage deep root formation in plants. Biochar aids soil fertility, but this highly porous charcoal also helps the soil retain water.

All of this soil amending is for naught if you aren't mulching to reduce evaporation and water runoff. A thick carpet of mulch will also keep down the weeds that compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients.

2. Plant Smarter to Beat the Heat

Two kinds of green kale sprouting in vegetable garden
Treehugger / Steve Redmond

Plant your vegetable garden in block style layout rather than in rows to create microclimates, shade and reduce water evaporation.

Layout your vegetable garden so that plants with similar water requirements are grouped together. For example, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash all have similar water needs. Focus on vegetables that produce abundant crops like tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplants.

Edit the number of plants you grow to conserve water and space. One or two determinate tomato plants can serve your needs. Unless you can't live without them, avoid growing space and water hogs like broccoli and cauliflower.

3. The Three Sisters Garden Explained

Planting Techniques like the Three Sisters Garden is a companion planting method that the Native Americans have used for ages that you can employ in your own garden.

In the Three Sisters Garden mound, beans fix nitrogen into the soil, corn provides support for the beans to grow up, and the bristles on the squash stem protect the corn from the corn earworm while shading the soil all three plants grow in.

4. When Plants Need Water

up close shot of rosemary bush in wooden box
Treehugger / Steve Redmond 

If your vegetables are planted before the hot and dry days of summer arrive, they'll have time to establish a root system that will allow them to survive the hotter days. Deep watering will train roots to grow deep into the ground. A drip irrigation system will deploy water where it is needed and potentially reduce your water consumption by as much as 50%. Soil amended as described above should be able to go between two and seven days between irrigation.

Knowing at what stage of development your vegetables will need water can also help you reduce the amount of water you use. Vining crops like cucumbers, assorted melons, summer and winter squash are frequently over-watered by gardeners.

They require less water than many other vegetables, and watering is only critical during flowering and fruiting. The same goes for eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. In fact, this year has been great for tomato lovers because the heat and drought has lead to some of the most flavorful tomatoes in recent years.

5. Choosing Vegetables for Drought Tolerance

Mini peppers growing
IAISI / Getty Images

A few years ago, at the dedication ceremony of the organic rooftop farm at Uncommon Ground, the farm manager told me she had to research farming techniques in the American Southwest to be able to produce food for the restaurant. The conditions --just a few feet above ground -- were so different that it was like she wasn't gardening in Chicago anymore.

Seek out plants and varieties that do well in hot and arid locations. You can purchase seeds for agricultural crop varieties that are arid-land adapted from sources like Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Beans have the highest water requirement of all of the common garden vegetables. And cole crops and root crops need a consistently moist soil during their life span. But you can still grow your favorite vegetables even if they aren't exactly adapted to growing in a dry garden.

Varieties with short days to maturity are a viable option if you are conserving water in the garden. As are miniature varieties like the mini bell peppers and eggplants I grow because they need less water for fruit development than their larger counterparts.

Drought Tolerant Vegetable Suggestions

Okra growing outside
David Q. Cavagnaro / Getty Images 

ickr.comThis is by no means a complete list of vegetables and herbs that will tolerate drought, but the list can serve as a place to start.

1. Low prickly pear cactus-edible fruits and leaf pads of O. humifusa
2. Rhubarb-once mature is drought resistant.
3. Swiss Chard
4. ‘Hopi Pink' corn
5. Asparagus-once established
6. Jerusalem artichoke
7. Legumes: Chickpea, Tepary beans, Moth bean, Cowpea, 'Jackson Wonder' lima bean.
8. Green Striped Cushaw squash
9. 'Iroquois' cantaloupe
10. Okra
11. Peppers
12. Armenian cucumber
13. Sage
14. Oregano
15. Thyme
16. Lavender
17. Amaranth-green leafed varieties
18. Rosemary
19. 'Pineapple' tomato
20. Chiltepines-wild chiles