If your garden seems to be drying out, don’t give up hope! You can grow lots of tasty, nutritious food even if you live in a very dry climate. Here are some simple things you can do to make the best use of the water you have.
The first thing to do is plant your garden in the right place. A location that gets morning sun and afternoon shade is perfect.
Each plant needs at least six hours of sun every day. But too much sun will dry out the soil. You can create some shade for your plants if you build a fence. Build the fence with sticks, thatching grass, or sacking, and put it in a place where it shades the garden from the afternoon sun. Make sure you build it high enough to shade the whole garden. A fence may also protect your plants from winds that can dry out your soil. Another way to create shade for your garden is to plant next to a building which shades the garden in the afternoon. Try also to plant the garden as close as possible to water.
Here’s another good idea. You can start seeds of many plants in containers or baskets made of wood, plastic or clay instead of planting directly in the garden. These containers should be 6 to 10 centimetres deep. This is about the length of your middle finger. Fill each container with soil and make sure that it has holes in the bottom so that water can drain out. Make sure the soil is thoroughly moist before you plant the seeds. After the seeds have sprouted, give the seedlings in your containers at least six hours of sunlight a day, but shelter them from strong winds. Your plants will grow well and develop a good, strong root system. And you will use less water than if you planted seeds directly in the garden. This is because you will not be watering a lot of extra soil – just the soil around the plants and plant roots.
But choose carefully which crops you are going to start in containers. This method isn’t best for all kinds of vegetables. Many root crops, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and radishes, grow better if you plant them directly in the garden. Beans, corn, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squash are other examples of crops that do better when you plant them directly.
Here are some suggestions for planting seeds directly in the garden. First, make a furrow two to three centimetres wide. Spread a 1 centimetre thick layer of compost on the bottom of the furrow. Plant your seeds in the furrow and cover them with soil.
Make sure the furrow is deep enough to hold water. For the first few weeks, water only this planting furrow. Make sure it is deep enough to hold water and direct it toward the seed or young seedling. When the plant grows larger, make a circular trough in the soil around the stem of the plant. This trough will direct water to the roots. Make sure that the base of the plant stem is higher than the bottom of the trough, so the stem will not be sitting in water.
If you plant seeds in containers, you will have to transplant the seedlings to your garden. They will have a better chance of surviving if you gradually get them used to the conditions in your garden. Here’s how to get them used to those conditions. When the seedlings are large enough to plant in the garden, put your container in a place where it will get full sun and wind for a few hours each day. Put containers in this location for only a few hours the first day, and gradually increase the time each day. After one week you can leave them out in the full sun and wind all day. Then you are ready to plant the seedlings in your garden. This is called ‘hardening off’ your plants.
Here’s another tip. Some plants grow well with very little water. Onions, turnips, chaya and cassava are examples of crops that often grow well even if you don’t have much water available. You might be able to find other plants that do well in your area. Crops like sweet potato, white yam, watermelon, cauliflower and maize sometimes need lots of water and do not grow well when it is too dry. On the other hand, some varieties of these crops do very well in dry conditions. For example, some kinds of cauliflower require less water than other kinds. The best thing to do is to find out which varieties do best in your area, and plant them.
Good soil will help plants in a dry garden to grow strong and healthy. If your soil has lots of organic matter, it will hold more water. Compost is a good source of organic matter. Before you plant your garden, mix lots of compost into your soil about 15 to 18 centimetres deep. This is about the distance from your wrist to the end of your middle finger. If your soil has lots of organic matter, your plants will grow better in dry conditions.
Mulching is another good way to keep the moisture in your garden. If you cover your soil with straw, hay, wood bark, or leaves, much less moisture will evaporate from the soil. This soil covering is called a ‘mulch’. Put a mulch on your soil only after seedlings are several inches high and you have thinned your plants. If you have a cool season, mulch your garden after the soil has warmed up. If you are using a light mulch like straw or hay, pile it up until it is 10 cm above the soil. Wood bark and leaves are heavier, and should cover the soil to a depth of only five centimetres. Remember to leave a small space of about three to five centimetres around each plant.
Most vegetables grow well when they get about two to three centimetres of water every week. When you water your plants, soak the soil at the base of the plant thoroughly, and try not to splash water on the leaves. Water slowly and evenly, and test the soil after you water. The soil should be moist to a depth of 15 to 18 centimetres. This is about the distance from your wrist to the end of your middle finger. Remember that it is the roots which must get the water.
The best time to water is in the evening, though watering in the morning is also good. If you water in the evening, water has lots of time to soak into the soil and less water is lost through the sun’s heat. Try to water deeply once or twice a week, rather than lightly every day. Deep watering helps your plants develop deep, strong roots. These deep, strong roots can find and use water hidden deep in the soil. Deep watering is also helpful because it can prevent salts from building up in the soil around plant roots. These salts can prevent growth or even kill plants.
You can use water from rivers, streams or wells for your garden. You can also collect rainwater in barrels, buckets or cisterns. Another source is household water. For example, you can use water that you have used for bathing. Or water that you have used to clean dishes, clothes and many other things in your household. But do not use water that has harsh detergents or soaps in them. And do not use toilet water. Use as much fresh water as you can. When you water your plants with household water, watch for their response – do the plants continue to grow well, or do they look unhealthy? If they look unhealthy, use only fresh water.
I have made many suggestions here. I’ve talked about where to plant your garden, and how to plant – in containers or directly in the ground. I’ve told you how you can harden off your plants. You also need to choose the right plants, and look after your soil. I’ve talked about watering your garden and where to get water.
Now you can take just a few of these ideas and try them out. See how they work. If they do work, you can try other ideas. Then your crops will have a better chance to grow healthy and strong even in very dry weather.
- This script was prepared for DCFRN by Jenny Kendrick of Guelph, Canada. It was reviewed by Daniela Soleri of the Center for People, Food and Environment and the Arid Lands Resource Sciences Program of the University of Arizona.
- All graphics in this script were reprinted/adapted from Food from dryland gardens by David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, 1991.
- The publication of this script was made possible with the support of the Desertification Convention Office, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ottawa, Canada.
- Food from dryland gardens, by David A. Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, 1991. Center for People, Food and Environment, 344 South Third Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85701, USA.
- Drought gardening, by Sue Hakala, 1981, 32 pages. Storey Communications Inc., Pownal, Vermont, U.S.A. 05621.
- Growing foods in time of drought, 14 pages. Food Gardens Unlimited, P.O. Box 41250, Craighall, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2024.
- Amaranth to zai holes: ideas for growing food under difficult conditions, by Laura S. Meitzner & Martin L. Price, 1996. Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, Inc., 17430 Durrance Road, North Fort Myers, FL 33917-2239, USA.