Growing a Drought-Tolerant Garden

These six strategies, along with dozens of recommended short-season cultivars, will keep your garden thriving as the climate heats up.

| Winter 2017-2018

If we’ve learned anything as food growers in recent decades, it’s that climate change has placed not just one but many kinds of stress on our gardens and farms. “Global warming” does not adequately describe the “new normal,” given that many agricultural regions and farms have suffered from a variety of catastrophic floods, freezes, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, grasshopper infestations, and crop diseases over the past few years.

The big, paradoxical question confronting many farmers and gardeners is: How do we adapt to and plan for uncertainty? While such a question may initially seem unanswerable, farmers from all parts of the world have responded to climate uncertainty over many centuries through better crop selection and strategies to mitigate the worst effects of sun and wind.

To best adapt, we need thousands of different annual crop varieties evolving in fields and undergoing evaluation in continually changing climatic conditions, as well as responding to pressures from novel strains of diseases, garden pests, and weeds. But just how do we determine and select which annual crops’ seeds are most likely to help us cope with the drought, heat waves, severe storms, and other climatic disasters we face?

Learn From Desert Plants

As a Southwest gardener and orchardist already facing hot, dry conditions, I try to take tips from the native desert wildflowers growing around me. They’ve convinced me that there’s more than one way to approach a drought. While most seed catalogs interchange the terms “drought tolerance” and “drought resistance,” these terms are often used imprecisely to describe a whole suite of desert-plant adaptations. Drought-resistant perennials include jujube, loquat, macadamia nut, mulberry, persimmon, and pomegranate. True drought tolerance is a characteristic of deep-rooted, desert-hardy trees  —  such as carob trees and date palms  —  that can survive months without rain by extending their roots down and tapping into underground aquifers.

In the interest of precision, I propose one more category. Many herbaceous annual and perennial crops function as drought evaders in that they circumvent drought. They begin their life cycle with the onset of rains intense enough to trigger germination, and then complete the cycle before the brief wet season is over. They largely avoid desiccation and drought stress by ripening their fruit and dispersing their seeds well before severe soil and water deficits recur, so they never truly experience extended drought. Many early-maturing, short-season vegetables and grains employ these drought-dodging strategies.

Short-season crops have exceptional value in an era of water shortages and climate uncertainty because, after it’s transplanted in a field, a crop that matures in 60 days rather than 90 may require 20 to 25 percent less irrigation than its late-blooming counterpart, thus conserving water and energy.

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