Are you trying to grow a garden with little rainfall? Struggling with a dry season, heat, drought or water restrictions? If so, it can be especially tough to grow food. You CAN grow healthy crops in pots – with the right strategies. These easy, water saving tips may help YOU achieve an abundant harvest.
Discover the best containers to choose; how to improve your growing medium; suitable plants; where to position your pots; and how to maintain them to save water.
Two Common Problems
- Whilst edible container gardening has many advantages, some people find they have to water more frequently. This is often due to the soil mix used.
- The core ingredient in most commercial potting mixes is cheap pine bark. Unfortunately, it tends to dry out quickly. This causes container gardens to become hydrophobic (repel water).
So are there easy solutions? Thankfully, in my experience, YES!
“With some thoughtful choices, you CAN grow food in planters using LESS water than in-ground or raised garden beds. So, it definitely makes sense to grow at least some suitable crops in container gardens.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
17 Water Saving Tips for Edible Container Gardens
These are some of the key strategies I use to grow healthy crops in pots – even in tough, dry conditions.
- Choose pots wisely to minimize moisture loss. Avoid porous planters like terracotta or coconut/coir fibre liners in hanging baskets. These materials leach nutrients and moisture more rapidly than glazed ceramic pots and solid stone. Dark colours like black, and metal containers heat up quickly. They provide little insulation, causing the potting soil to dry out faster and increase the possibility of root damage. If you have dark coloured pots, try positioning in a shady spot with shade-loving edibles. Locate your light coloured, non-porous pots in full sun areas.
- Use self-watering containers that slowly ‘wick’ moisture up from the bottom. You can also install drip irrigation or upturned bottles (with holes in the lid). These systems trickle water into your planter, so there’s no waste or over-watering. Water spikes are another option. They direct moisture into the root zone where your plants need it most.
- Use pot saucers. Many planters come with matching saucers. Better still, make your own. Rather than wasting valuable moisture, water not absorbed immediately can ‘wick’ back up into the pot. No water lost running out the bottom! Add a thin layer of gravel or coir peat to the saucer. This helps prevent mosquitoes breeding.
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- Improve or make your own potting mix. Add moisture-holding ingredients like coir peat (rehydrated coconut fibre). It’s hydrophilic or ‘water-loving’ (from the Greek words for water, hydro, and love, philos). Vermiculite also holds moisture, minerals and is an efficient insulator. These ingredients may help extend the time between watering.
- Build healthy living soil. Plants living in a microbially-active, nutrient-rich soil are stronger, having all their mineral needs met. There are easy ways you can help create a healthy soil to support them in dry times. Add organic matter like compost, microbes, worm castings and minerals.
- Double mulch. Add a feeding mulch e.g. sugar cane. This builds organic matter, holds moisture and provides nutrients. Top this layer with a second mulch e.g. pale coloured pebbles or gravel, to help reflect heat and further improve moisture-holding capacity.
- Select short-season crops. They mature faster and require less water and energy to grow. The ‘Days to Maturity’ on a seed packet or catalogue will help you choose wisely. Try rocket/arugula, loose leaf lettuce varieties, radish, baby spinach, Asian greens, pea shoots, spring onions and bush beans.
- Choose easy-to-maintain, low-water needs edibles like sprouts, microgreens, rosemary, garlic chives, garlic, nasturtiums, chard, Malabar or New Zealand spinach, bush beans, pineapples, Italian flat leaf parsley, sage, oregano, marjoram and thyme. Look for the terms “drought tolerant” or “drought resistant” food crops on seed packets and in catalogues. Let’s face it: the mint family are thirsty water hogs! It may be more sustainable and economical to buy dried mint than grow it in dry conditions.
- Upsize your plants into BIGGER container gardens. It’s much more efficient to water five large pots every 2-3 days than 15 small ones daily. Also try to combine plants with similar water needs. e.g. tough herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano may only need a brief water weekly. If you combine these with edibles that need a more regular drink, you’re wasting time and water!
- Locate tall pots and leafy plants so they shade shorter, smaller ones. Hang or attach pots vertically (one above the other) so water drips down to those below to minimise wastage.
- Provide short-term shade protection from the sun or drying winds to help minimise plant stress. e.g. temporary portable solutions like shade cloth stapled to stakes or A-frame trellises. Move them around to where they are needed most. Fold up when not in use.
- Move plants into protected or semi-shaded conditions to minimise moisture loss. e.g. in a cooler microclimate under trees, taller plants or a porch.
- Prune unnecessary growth. Plants with lots of large leaves are prone to losing moisture. They transpire (lose water) through the pores or stomata on the underside of their leaves.
- Harvest on time. Pick produce when young and tender, before fruits and vegetables go past their prime. This helps reduce water use, minimises transpiration and conserves the plant’s energy.
- Use a moisture meter so you water only when absolutely necessary.
- Time your watering. Water when the air is still and early morning, when temperatures are cooler. Water evaporates from the soil surface more quickly later in the day, when the air is hot and dry. Watering in hot or windy weather = increased evaporation. Vegetables also tend to require more water on sunny days with low humidity.
- Apply seaweed/fish emulsion as a foliar spray ‘tonic’ or ‘rescue remedy’ for your plants.
Finally, grow only what you can manage. A small, well-maintained container garden can provide you with many of your basic food needs – even in dry conditions. Be realistic with the time, space and resources you have, so you can find satisfaction with what you choose to grow.
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.