How To Grow And Maintain A Drought-Resistant Garden

If you look at a map of North America, you’ll notice that there are many areas with low average rainfall, mostly in the western and southern states (as well as in many other parts of the world).

The rule appears to be erratic weather, 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 area, you’ve probably looked into water-saving gardening techniques.

Nearly everything in a city is imported, and far too few of us have considered how to provide for our own food, water, medicine, and other necessities. When you learn to provide for some of your needs, no matter where you live, you strengthen your family and community.

So, how do you keep growing and producing food when the ground and skies seem to be drying out?

Let’s take a look at the different aspects of drought-resistant gardening.

Water is a precious resource

Water is essential to life. According to health officials, only 20% of the world’s population has access to safe drinking water. Consider this: The oceans contain 97 percent of the estimated 333 million cubic miles of water on the planet, with the remaining 2 percent locked in ice.

The remaining water is well over a mile underground, beyond the reach of conventional good drilling, and contains about 0.01 percent of the water in ponds, lakes, and rivers.

Agriculture is one of the most important uses of water, and fortunately, most farmers rely on rainwater for about 85 percent of their water needs. The remainder is supplied by wells, dams, aqueducts, and other man-made means.

Yes, rain is important, but consider that the amount of rain falling on the earth at any given time amounts to about 0.001 percent of the world’s water. Even if you live in an area where water is plentiful, it is still beneficial to learn some methods for doing more with less.


Droughts are not uncommon on Earth, and long stretches of severe drought have affected vast swaths of land throughout recorded history. Those who learned to adapt and live with the change were the ones who survived. Those who did not or could not move on died out or were wiped out.

Another, perhaps more ominous, point to consider: as the population of humans and other water-dependent organisms grows, so will the demand for and competition for potable water.

So, aside from reducing your needs, how can you make better use of limited water resources?

There are only two ways to do this: use your water multiple times and collect rainwater.

Using your water more than once

using your water more than once

When water is scarce, you must learn to do more with less.

Here are a couple of examples:

Simply take the dishpan outside after washing your dishes and water plants with the “gray water” that remains.

I found ways to disconnect the drains of the bathtub, kitchen sink, and washing machine in nearly every place I’ve lived in the last 40 years, and I directed the water out into the yard. This is easier if your yard is hilly, especially if your house is on the upper part of the lot.

On larger properties, you can direct a hose from a washing machine’s drain, for example, and move the hose around to irrigate different trees or garden areas. This obviously necessitates a careful selection of detergents that are not harmful to the soil or your plants.

Don’t underestimate the amount of water that the average household can reuse. Even with a low-flow toilet (or a composting toilet), there is plenty of water for washing clothes, taking showers and baths, food preparation, and other kitchen tasks. The average American household uses about 80 gallons of water per day or more than 31 gallons per person.

If you have a slightly larger yard than a suburban lot, you should think about terracing it so that rainwater does not immediately wash away and can settle in basins (called “swales” in today’s jargon).

Dams and canals were built by ancient natives of the American Southwest and South America to bring water long distances to their desert homes.

We still do this today: For example, Los Angeles County is a classic case of a desert domain that would not exist if the great cement aqueduct that brings water from hundreds of miles north to the Los Angeles basin did not exist.

World War Water Banner1

Collect and use rainwater

Collecting rainwater is also relatively simple, and your storage volume is only limited by the number of barrels you have.

When I first started doing this, I used trashcans with tight-fitting lids, as well as white, 5-gallon “food-grade” buckets that bakeries everywhere discarded.

Outdoor water containers must have snug lids because when the rain stops, the water must be covered. You don’t want to be a mosquito breeding ground for the neighborhood.

There are two primary methods for “harvesting” rainwater for agricultural use in the backyard or on a small farm.

One method is to dig swales, which are hollows in which rain settles and is slowly absorbed into your property. A swale is a channel carved into a hillside so that rainwater does not rapidly flow downhill, but rather is collected in a series of switchback-style fl at 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 and store it for later use when there is no rain. The simplest method is to collect runoff from a house’s, barn’s, or garage’s roof by placing a large drum at the bottom of each downspout.

However, because a 40-gallon drum of water weighs more than 330 pounds, you will not be able to move it once it is full. Filling many buckets without moving your drums is as simple as placing 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 using half-inch tubing attached near the barrel’s top. Each bucket is then connected to its neighbor in a series using the same tubing. The tube directs the excess water to the first bucket when the barrel is about to overflow.

When bucket number one is nearly full, rainwater naturally flows into bucket number two, and so on. You can connect as many barrels as you can afford and have room for them. This system works best when the next bucket is level with, or slightly lower than, the previous bucket.

You could also use the buckets for consumption because the majority of the sediment from your roof will collect in the barrel.

If you use this system, it is highly recommended that you install a spigot at the bottom of each barrel so you can access the water, and that you attach a hose to any barrel to drain its water to the garden or orchard.

Remember that in the past, a city could never grow in an area where there was no available water. Water is the lifeblood of Las Vegas and many other cities in the Southwest. If you live in such an area, you should practice wise water use as well as any drought-tolerant gardening techniques you can find. Furthermore, you should get to know all of your water sources.

Trees help your garden

Trees are the world’s green miracles. They bring underground water to the surface, where it is released into the atmosphere by their leaves, providing both shade and cooling.

Trees should be planted around the perimeter of small homesteads to provide a wind barrier and to help capture moisture. Choose your trees wisely, beginning with those that are already drought-tolerant and native to your area. All the better if they can also provide you with food or medicine.

How do you figure out which trees thrive in your area?

Contact a local garden club or the botany department of a college or university.

It is a huge mistake to believe that you can save water by cutting down trees! Trees draw moisture from deep below the surface, influencing the local environment and even the weather. In fact, when you plant deciduous trees, they lay down a layer of leaves that helps to keep moisture in the soil even more.

Except for eucalyptus, we can always say that planting trees is a good thing. This tree is possibly the only one that has ever been accused of contributing to “desertification,” the process by which otherwise productive land eventually becomes a desert.

There are several reasons for this, but in summary, eucalyptus trees transpire at one of the highest rates, which means they release a lot of moisture into the environment through their leaves. While this appears to be a good thing, it implies that wells dried up when many eucalypti were planted.

Furthermore, the oils emitted by eucalyptus make it difficult for other crops to grow; and something in the eucalyptus oil makes the soil less permeable to water, causing it to absorb less. This causes more flooding or runoff after rain. So, instead of eucalyptus, plant something else.

Retaining water

olla irigation pots for drought resistant garden

What do you do in your drought-resistant garden to keep water from evaporating?

The key is to improve the soil and add layers of mulch. This will help trap moisture and keep it available for the plants you’re trying to cultivate for a longer period of time.

Mulching is one of the most effective methods of retaining moisture in the soil. Mulch comes in a variety of forms that are simply laid on the surface of the garden or landscape.

The majority are composed of biodegradable materials such as grass clippings, wood chips, sawdust, straw, alfalfa, and other materials. These are typically placed on the ground around the plants and help to retain moisture in the soil as well as absorb moisture.

When I first started gardening, I discovered that many layers of grass clippings made a huge difference in plants, allowing them to thrive even during dry spells. I’ve also used straw layers from discarded straw bales (and, in some cases, alfalfa). This alone made a significant difference in the quality of the crops I grew, as well as their ability to thrive later in the season, when they would otherwise have died off.

Non biodegradable materials, such as gravel and even rocks, can also be used. Some gardening supply stores now sell recycled rubber that resembles wood chips. Yes, it works as mulch, but I would not use it in my vegetable garden.

Other suggestions

selfsb b4Growing your crops in containers is one way to control the amount of water they require. Containers can refer to a variety of things, including large, traditional gardening pots, stacks of tires, large wooden boxes, raised beds, and more.

When it comes to containers, bigger is better because small containers dry out too quickly and require constant monitoring to keep your plants alive. Native Americans in the Southwest built miles and miles of sophisticated canals to bring water to their otherwise desert environment.

But what are some of the more modest methods that can be used in an urban backyard or on a small farm?

Drip irrigation is a relatively new technique. Small hoses transport water to each plant and deliver it only to that plant, not the surrounding soil. It can be very effective on a small scale, but it is usually too expensive and takes a long time on a larger scale.

Every garden shop can tell you the benefits and drawbacks of drip irrigation and sell you whatever you require.

In some cases, burying clay (and, in some cases, plastic) pipes perforated with holes has resulted in great success. These pipes are hidden beneath a row of crops. Water can then be introduced into these pipes and reach the roots.

Others have had success by planting ceramic vessels beneath trees or other crops, filling them with water, and using a cotton wick to bring the water to the plants’ surface.

On a much smaller scale, if you have foods and herbs in clay pots, put basins beneath them to catch any water that drains out. As the water evaporates, it is absorbed by the soil.

These and many other methods are some of the strategies that inventive gardeners can employ to produce crops even if they are in the midst of a drought or live in the desert.

Additional resources:

Smart tips for gardening on dry soil

If you see this plant in your backyard, don’t touch it!

Tips for preparing gardening soil in winter

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

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