Drought is a phenomenon that’s likely to occur in many parts of our country. Look at a map of North America, and you’ll see that there are many areas where the average rainfall is low—mostly in the western and southern states (as well as in many other parts of the world). Erratic weather seems to be the rule, and learning how to survive in an area with limited water is a good long-term skill to develop.
If you live in a desert or semi-desert region, you’ve probably looked into some of the methods for gardening with less water. If you live in a city, nearly everything comes from afar, and too few of us have considered how to provide for our own food, water, medicine and other necessities. When you learn how to provide for some of your needs—wherever you’re living—you build strength into your family and community.
So, how do you continue to grow and produce food while the ground and heavens seem ever drier? Let’s look at the various aspects of drought-resistant gardening.
Water is the key to life. According to health authorities, only 20 percent of the world’s population has access to potable tap water. Consider: Of the 333 million cubic miles of water estimated to be on the planet, 97 percent of that is in the oceans, and 2 percent is locked in ice. About 0.01 percent of the water is in ponds, lakes and rivers, and the remaining water is well over a mile underground, beyond the reach of conventional well drilling.
One of the biggest uses of water is agriculture, and fortunately, most farmers rely on rainwater for about 85 percent of their water needs. Wells, dams, aqueducts and other man-made means supply the rest. And yes, rain is important, but consider that at any given moment, the amount of rain falling on the earth amounts to about 0.001 percent of the world’s water.
If you’re fortunate to live in an area where water is sufficient or abundant, it would still benefit you to learn some methods for doing more with less. Why? Periods of drought are not rare upon the earth, and long periods of severe drought have affected vast swaths of land throughout recorded history. Those who learned to adjust and live with the change survived. Those who did not—or could not—moved on or died out.
One additional, if not ominous, point to ponder: The need and competition for potable water will increase as the populations of humans and other water-dependent organisms increase. So, aside from reducing your needs, how do you get more use out of limited water? There are only a couple of ways to do this:
1 Use your water more than once, and
2 collect rainwater.
USE YOUR WATER MORE THAN ONCE
When water is limited, you must find ways to do more with less. Here are some examples: When you wash your dishes, simply carry the dishpan outside and water plants with the “gray water” that’s left over.
In nearly every place I have lived in the past 40 years, I found ways to disconnect the drains of the bathtub, kitchen sink and washing machine, and I directed that water out into the yard. If your yard is hilly, this is easier, especially if the house is on the upper part of the lot. On large properties, you can direct a hose from the drain of a washing machine, for example, and move the hose around to irrigate various trees or garden areas. Obviously, this necessitates carefully choosing detergents that are not harmful to the soil or your plants.
Don’t underestimate the amount of water that can be reused from the average household. Even with a low-flow toilet (or a composting toilet), there is a lot of water for washing clothes, taking showers and baths, and for food prep and other tasks in the kitchen. An average household in the United States uses about 80 gallons daily, or more than 31 gallons per person. That’s a lot!
If you have a slightly larger area than a suburban lot, you should consider the possibility of terracing your yard so that rainwater does not immediately wash away and so there is the possibility of rainwater settling in basins (called “swales” in today’s jargon). Some of the ancient natives of the American Southwest and South America made dams and canals to bring water great distances to their desert homes. We still do this today: Los Angeles County is a classic example of a desert empire that would not exist were it not for the great cement aqueduct that brings water from hundreds of miles to the north to the Los Angeles basin. Water is also diverted from the Colorado River to feed the growing demand for water in the Los Angeles basin.
COLLECTING AND USING RAIN
It is also a relatively easy matter to collect rainwater, and your storage volume is only limited by the number of barrels you have. When I first started this, I used trashcans with tight-fitting lids, and I also used the white 5-gallon “food-grade” buckets discarded by bakeries everywhere. You must have snug lids for outdoor water containers, because when the rain stops, you need to cover the water. You don’t want to be raising mosquitoes for the neighborhood.
In general, there are two primary ways to “harvest” rainwater for agricultural use in the backyard or small farm. One method involves digging swales, which means carving hollows in which the rain settles and is absorbed slowly into your property. Where there is a hillside, a swale means carving channels so that the rainwater doesn’t rapidly flow downhill, but rather is collected in a series of switchback-style flat areas where the water can seep into the landscape. If you don’t have the space for swales, you can simply collect rainwater in tanks or buckets so it is available later in the year when there is no rain. The easiest method is to collect runoff from the roof of a house, barn or garage by placing a large drum at the bottom of every downspout.
However, because a 40-gallon drum of water weighs more than 330 pounds, for example, you will not be moving it after it’s full. One way to fill many buckets without having to move your drums around is to simply place a row of buckets near the barrel, next to each other and along the wall, out of the way. Connect the first bucket to the barrel with half-inch tubing that is attached near the top of the barrel. Each bucket is then attached with the same tubing in a series to its neighbor. When the barrel is about to overflow, the tube directs the excess water to the first bucket.
When that is nearly full, the rainwater naturally flows into bucket number two, and so on. You can connect as many barrels like this as you can afford and have the space for. This system works best when each successive bucket is level with, or slightly lower than, the prior bucket. Also, because the sediment from your roof will collect mostly in the barrel, you could use the buckets for consumption, although it really should be processed before drinking it. If you practice this system, it is highly recommended that you add a spigot to the lower end of each barrel so you can access the water, and you can add a hose to any barrel for draining its water to the garden or orchard.
“The easiest method is to collect runoff from the roof of a house, barn or garage by placing a large drum at the bottom of every downspout.”
Remember that historically, a city could never develop where there was no available water. Water is the lifeblood of Las Vegas and many other Southwestern cities. If you live in such an area, you would be well served to practice wise water use, along with all the drought-tolerant gardening methods you can. Plus, you should get to know all your local water sources.
TREES FOR DROUGHT RESISTANCE
Trees are the miracles of this world. They bring underground water up to the surface to be released by their leaves into the atmosphere, thereby providing both shade and a cooling effect. On small homesteads, trees should be planted around the perimeter, because they will provide a barrier to winds, and they help capture some moisture, mitigating some effects of drought. However, choose your trees carefully, starting with those that are already drought tolerant and native to your area.
If they can also provide you with some food or medicine, all the better. How do you find out which trees do best in your area? Contact a local garden club or a college or university’s botany department. It is a big mistake to think that you cut down trees to save water! Trees pull moisture up from deep below the surface, and they actually affect the local environment and even the weather. In fact, if you plant deciduous trees, they lay down a layer of leaves that help even more to keep the moisture in the soil.
As a general rule, we can always say that it is a good thing to plant trees —except eucalyptus. This tree is perhaps the only one that has ever been accused of contributing to “desertification”—the process through which otherwise productive land becomes a desert over time. There are several reasons for this but, briefly, eucalyptus trees transpire at one of the highest rates, meaning they put lots of moisture into the environment through their leaves. While that seems like a good thing, it means that wells have dried up when many eucalypti were planted.
In addition, the oils emitted by eucalyptus make it difficult for other crops to grow; and something about the eucalyptus oil makes the soil less permeable for water, so that it will no longer absorb as much. This results in greater flooding or runoff after rains. So, when planting trees, choose anything but eucalyptus.
What do you do in your drought-resistant garden so that water is retained longer?
The key is all in improving the soil and in layers of mulch. This will help trap moisture and keep it available longer in the season for the plants you’re trying to cultivate. Mulching is perhaps one of the single best ways to trap the moisture in the soil. There are many possible types of mulch, and they are simply laid on the surface of the garden or landscape.
Most consist of biodegradable substances such as grass clippings, wood chips, sawdust, straw, alfalfa and other materials. These are generally placed on the ground around the plants, and they not only absorb moisture themselves, they also help retain moisture in the soil. When I first began to garden, I discovered that many layers of grass clippings made a tremendous difference in plants, which continued to thrive, even in dry spells. I have also used layers of straw from discarded bales of straw (and, in some cases, alfalfa). This alone made a great difference in the quality of the crops I grew and in their ability to thrive later in the season, when they would have normally just died off.
Non-biodegradable substances can also be used, such as gravel and even rocks. Some garden supply centers now sell recycled rubber that looks like wood chips. (Yes, it works as mulch, but I would not feel comfortable using rubber mulch in my food garden.)
“Trees are the miracle of this world. They bring underground water up to the surface to be released by their leaves into the atmosphere, thereby providing both shade and a cooling effect.”
One way to control the amount of water required for your crops is to grow them in containers. “Containers” can actually mean a lot of things: large, conventional gardening pots, stacks of tires, large wooden boxes, raised beds and more. In the case of containers, bigger is better, because small containers dry out too quickly, and you have to constantly watch them to keep your plants alive.
Natives of the southwestern United States built miles and miles of sophisticated canals to bring water to their otherwise desert environment. But what are some of the less grand methods someone can practice in an urban backyard or on a small farm? Drip irrigation is one method that is relatively modern. Small hoses take water to each plant and deliver water only to that plant and not the surrounding soil. It can be very effective on a small scale, although it’s usually too costly and, on a larger scale, demands a lot of time. Every garden shop can inform you about the pros and cons of drip irrigation and will sell you whatever you need.
In some cases, there has been much success by burying clay (and, in some cases, plastic) pipes that have been perforated with holes. These pipes are buried under a row of crops. Water can then be introduced to these pipes and be available to the roots.
Others have had success making their gardens drought-resistant by planting ceramic vessels under trees or other crops, filling them with water and using a cotton wick, which gets the water to the surface for the plants. On a much smaller level, if you have foods and herbs in clay pots, you should place basins underneath them to hold any water that drains out. That water will then be re-absorbed into the soil as it dries.
These and many other methods are some of the strategies creative gardeners can use to produce crops—even though they might be in the midst of a drought or are living in the desert.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.