Gardening in dry climate conditions can be really stressful but there are loads of simple strategies you can apply to make it easier. Many gardeners in Australia and around the world have been struggling to keep gardens alive and thriving. Drought, winds, dust storms, extended heatwaves and fires have been impacting plants, people and our wildlife.
Extreme temperatures and long periods without any significant rain in many places are some of the biggest problems. It’s no wonder many gardeners are giving up trying to grow an edible garden.
Yet a garden – no matter how small – gives us hope as well as healthy food. It feeds our mind, body and soul; provides wonderful stress relief; and is a welcome sanctuary to escape to. Even a single, well-cared-for plant can bring great joy and healing.
For many gardeners though, water – or lack of it – is our biggest issue. Struggling, water-stressed plants become magnets for pest insects as nature’s ‘clean up crew’ move in to feed. It’s natural to expect some casualties in hot and dry weather. Without sufficient water, crops can’t take up nutrients from the soil to grow, flower and fruit. Small container gardens also need more frequent watering.
So, what can we do to help our gardens survive and even thrive?
18 Top Tips for Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions
For years I’ve endured all sorts of harsh growing conditions in my gardens. By careful observation, applying Permaculture design principles and journalling where my gardens have been exposed to harsh dry or hot weather, I’ve learned how to grow a kitchen garden that not only survives but thrives! This has enabled me to help my clients who suffer similar problems but in different locations to get the most out of their edible gardens.
I hope by sharing some of these strategies, you will be able to enjoy an abundant productive kitchen garden too.
1. Audit your Garden and Make Tough Choices
That’s right! If you can’t save ALL your plants, prioritise and focus on keeping the most valuable ones alive. If conditions are really tough and you have limited water resources, concentrate on your high-value fruit trees, perennials and essential crops.
Turn thirsty, low-value plants into compost to feed your soil. Some plants may just have to survive without your help or be sacrificed to save others.
Collect seeds and take cuttings to pot up as a backup plan! You can always start again with these.
2. Downsize your Garden
Take areas out of play. How? By mulching or growing a hardy groundcover, you will still protect your soil without asking too much of it until better climate conditions occur.
Are you struggling to get water to plants in your garden beds? If so, consider digging smaller plants up and transplanting into self-watering pots. Then bring in closer to your home where you can more easily manage them. If you’re growing lots of the same plant, try saving just one or two.
3. Grow Food in Containers
One of the many benefits of container gardening is having the flexibility to protect and move your plants during periods of hot, windy or stormy weather. Opt for larger rather than smaller pots and ideally, self-watering ones. These will hold more water for longer.
This is one of the primary strategies I use to ensure we have a continual supply of food from our garden year-round – even when the weather is less than perfect!
4. Be Water-wise in Dry Conditions
If you are in a dry climate, water early morning and ideally drip irrigate to minimise moisture loss. Longer, deeper watering may help root development rather than short quick watering. Focus on highly visible plants near your home or those in the driest conditions.
Established plants are more resilient to hot dry weather than young ones. So avoid planting new vulnerable seedlings or plants if you can until conditions are more favourable. New plants need more water to support root growth. More water-wise tips.
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5. Time Your Planting Wisely
Avoid planting on very hot, dry and windy days or when a storm has been forecast. Pounding rain and hail can damage young plants, so provide protection if you must plant. Aim to sow seeds or seedlings in the cool of the day (early morning or late afternoon) rather than in the heat of the day. Shade protection can help increase their survival chances.
6. Hold off Fertilising in the Heat
Unless you can water your garden well, minimise plant stress by holding back on applying fertiliser in hot, dry conditions. Plants photosynthesize less as a survival mechanism. So, additional nutrient availability and resulting growth may stress the plant if you can’t consistently keep the moisture up. Sometimes it’s better to keep a plant alive even if it’s not actively growing, than risk losing it by providing nutrients at the wrong time.
7. Fertilise after Rain
If you’re lucky enough to have rain to replenish your garden, you may need to look at remineralising and feeding your soil to replace nutrients that have leached. This is especially the case if you’ve experienced extensive rain or flooding. While the soil is still moist, add your organic soil conditioners and rock minerals, then mulch well to retain the moisture. Your plants will thank you!
8. Create an ‘Insurance Sponge’ in Your Soil
One of the ways I keep my pot plants alive and thriving is to ensure the potting mix I use has five specifically chosen moisture-holding ingredients that retain water for longer and re-wet easily. This potting mix recipe is highly-efficient, minimises the water I use and still allows me to grow healthy plants – even in very small pots!
Making your own potting mix or amending a bagged one may be one easy way to grow your favourite edibles even through tough dry weather conditions.
Show me the DIY Potting Mix Recipe Guide.
9. Consistently add Compost
You can never add too much compost! It stores a reservoir of nutrients and moisture that can slowly be released to your plants, helping them survive longer. Soil organic matter helps reduce soil compaction and drying out. Compost also helps water penetrate into the soil, supports beneficial microorganisms and insects, and can sustain plant growth without the need for fertiliser.
Recycle all organic plant ‘waste’ from your kitchen and garden including food scraps, grass clippings and leaves. Compost these to build healthy resilient soil and plants.
10. Lose the Lawn!
An average of 40% of household water is typically used outdoors. Watering lawns uses up to 90% of that water yet much of this precious resource evaporates – and you can’t eat your lawn! Unless you really NEED green grass for pets or children to play or to cool your urban hard landscaping, perhaps consider swapping lawn for more drought-hardy options.
Lawns are high maintenance and rob you of time. Think how often you need to mow, weed, fertilise, edge and water to keep that patch green plus the fuel and energy used. Reducing your lawn area is one of the easiest ways to save water, money and time. Why not grow food instead?
11. ‘Greener’ Grass
If you must grow grass, mow on a high setting and remove no more than one-third of the leaf blade. Keeping the grass taller helps shade the roots. Don’t use a catcher! Allow the grass clippings to self-mulch to feed the root system and reduce moisture loss.
Sustainable alternatives to turf include:
- growing a suitable ground cover such as dichondra;
- mulching instead; or
- using permeable paving.
There are many native grasses in Australia that are resilient to drought. Research those that could grow well in your area.
12. Grow Locally Adapted Plants
Select your plants carefully, especially edibles that do well in your climate conditions. When the weather gets tough, you’ll soon see who the ‘princesses’ in the garden are! Thirsty plants often have a complete meltdown and may turn into ‘dried arrangements’ when conditions aren’t to their liking!
Research cultivars that can tolerate prolonged periods of dry weather. A few of the perennial spinach varieties I choose to grow are New Zealand Spinach (Warrigal Greens), Brazilian Spinach and Suranim Spinach. They have survived every drought and keep going year after year. Garlic chives, oregano, thyme, marjoram and rosemary are survivor herbs along with pepinos and banana capsicums in my garden. So I allocate more space for them because they deserve it!
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13. Natural ‘Umbrellas’ for Fruiting Crops
Fruits will tend to be smaller if it has been dry so don’t be too disappointed! With fruiting crops like summer eggplant, tomatoes and cucumber that can experience sunburn, I add plenty of nitrogen-rich compost to the soil. This helps these plants grow a leafy canopy or ‘umbrellas’ for the fruit and reduces evaporation from the soil.
I also grow compact cultivars and dwarf varieties with smaller fruits, fewer stems and leaf surfaces. They use less water because these crops mature earlier than larger thirsty varieties and lose less moisture through transpiration. e.g. Lebanese eggplant, cherry tomatoes and cucamelons. They also grow well in partial shade!
14. Create Beneficial Microclimates
Shady protected microclimates can make a massive difference to minimise water loss from sun, winds or dry dust storms. Use shade and storm covers, a tree canopy, windbreak or other forms of plant protection. Grouping plants together increases humidity, creates shade and reduces moisture loss too.
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15. Miraculous Mulch
So many gardeners are trying to grow food (including commercially) without a layer of mulch covering the soil. This is such a valuable moisture-holding safety ‘blanket’ for crops in every pot and garden. With so many benefits and such an easy dry garden solution, mulch should be a top of the list strategy if you’re not already using it!
Consider mulching areas of your garden until it rains and cools down so you are still feeding your soil.
16. Foliar Spray Tonic
Stressed plants need special attention. Leafy greens, in particular, can suffer as they have so many ‘solar panels’! I suggest applying a seaweed or fish emulsion ‘tonic’ to your plants as a foliar spray on the leaves early morning to help build resilience. Liquid nutrients are taken up faster than via the soil and you can easily make your own from compost or worm castings and many other plant materials for free.
17. Grow Less, but Better
When I wander around my garden and see plants suffering from water or heat stress, I feel so deeply sorry for them. I watch their leaves close up and shrivel, and am amazed at their brave battle to survive. I feel a sense of hope when I see so many plucky little plants hanging in and surviving. By growing less plants, but healthier ones that you can manage, feels a whole lot better than losing them all to harsh conditions.
Pick your favourites and maybe just put a few into pots to bring you pleasure. Some of my most precious plants are flowers because they bring colour and joy and just make me feel good! Flowers have an incredibly beneficial impact on emotional wellbeing and mental health.
18. Switch to Micro Gardens
Condensing your energy and resources into a small space can be very efficient. Whether that’s container gardens, a tray or two of fresh leafy microgreens undercover, sprouting on your kitchen bench or growing plants indoors.
Sustainable Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions
We’ve been in drought for months and endured harsh conditions for many years. I’ve challenged myself many times to make decisions about which plants to water and what to grow. I’ve put into place these strategies to give my plants the very best chance at survival and hope that by sharing them with you, you’ll be encouraged to try some of them too.
Making sustainable choices as a gardener at times can be tough. Gardens tend to ebb and flow in their growth according to the time and resources we have available to invest. When nature is against us, it’s a good time to assess your own needs and what you can reasonably manage. If you’re finding it an uphill battle, I hope you’ll benefit by applying one or two of these tips for gardening in dry climate conditions.
- Tips to Grow Food in Hot, Dry or Windy Weather
- Summer Heatwaves in My Garden
- 5 Simple Secrets to Building Healthy Soil
- 7 Sustainable Garden Design Tips
- 10 Water Saving Tips for your Garden
- 17 Water Saving Tips for Container Gardens
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2019. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
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