Follow these 24 tips to maximize water use and grow the best urban garden in your dry climate.
By Debbie Moors
When containter gardening in dry climates, choose plastic or glazed pots, which retain more moisture than terra-cotta pots. Also, add a saucer under each pot, so excess water can be used later.
When I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Colorado, I brought along my gardening tools — but I was ill-equipped for the region’s water worries. That first summer, deep in a Colorado drought, my garden humbled me, and I began to feel like I needed to be part inventor and part engineer to water wisely.
It’s a science and an art, but growing food in an arid climate is possible. Your success depends on how well you plan, prep your garden and use the water that you have.
We’ve collected a stream of tips from horticulturalists, extension agents and master gardeners that will help you make every drop of water count.
1. Choose local superstars.
Ask your extension agent which varieties have been proven to perform best in your area — not just in your zone.
2. Find plants that thrive without a lot of water.
Amaranth, quinoa, tepary beans or beans in the “cowpea” group (such as black-eyed peas) like dry conditions. Some fruits, like gooseberries, grapes and currants, are well-adapted to dry conditions. Culinary and medicinal herbs also grow well in arid conditions.
3. Group plants by water needs.
Vegetables like lettuce, beets, green beans and chard have shallower root systems; corn, tomatoes, squashes, melons, asparagus and rhubarb have deep root systems. Green beans and sweet corn are among the thirstiest garden vegetables. Plant according to water needs to keep from over- or under-watering one area.
4. Place containers strategically.
Put your thirstiest plants in areas where they get more sun earlier in the day, rather than in late afternoon. Place containers next to each other to capitalize on humidity, shade and run-off from taller to shorter containers.
5. Use a slope.
Use gravity to your advantage by placing higher-water-demand plants at the base of a slope and lower-water-demand plants at the top.
6. Improve the soil.
Dig deep and loosen soil, then apply a lot of organic matter (such as compost) to help with drainage and water retention. In containers, consider lining pots with sphagnum moss or adding other media to retain and conserve water.
7. Use raised beds.
In some parts of the Southwest, highly alkaline soil and layers of cement-like calcium carbonate called caliches can challenge gardeners. If you have a shallow caliche layer, you’ll likely have better luck with raised beds.
8. Play in the dirt.
To contain and channel water to the roots, make furrows along rows of plants, or use small rocks to build troughs around plants. Make sure plants aren’t completely flooded or submerged.
9. Block the wind.
If you live in a windy area, consider planting wind breaks to slow water loss through evaporation.
10. Provide shade.
In some areas (particularly at high altitudes), the sun’s intensity can add a challenge. You may be able to grow cooler-season crops like lettuce if you use natural shade or erect a shelter using shade cloth.
11. Choose containers wisely.
Terra-cotta pots will lose moisture more quickly than plastic or glazed pots. Look for containers that have a built-in watering system, or build your own self-watering containers.
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