Gardening in a drought

gardening in a drought

I have lived in many countries over the years, and have always had a vegetable garden. Not just for saving money, as many of the countries I have lived in have had what we considered dirt cheap food, but for the better quality. Nothing compares to the taste of veggies fresh from the garden.

During the past several years, severe drought has hit a number of states here in America. Gardens are blackened and burnt, with food only coming in, grudgingly, thanks to heavy watering every other day. Watching this happen immediately took me back to two of the hardest places I have ever tried to raise food.

Kenya and Botswana. Both places have no rain at all for months and months at a time, and then an entire year’s worth of rain in about 6 weeks. The temperatures, especially in Kenya, make even Texas heatwaves look like a refrigerator. Water sources are unreliable, even in the towns. Yet both places are stuffed with families that grow not only enough to feed themselves, but enough to sell from their personal gardens, not from farms.

So how do they manage that?

They use the following technique, which involves three separate components, all of which are easily made by anyone with the ability to use a shovel, hammer or a trowel.

Raised beds

When we rented our home in Botswana, in the yard behind the house was a series of concrete troughs, roughly 4 feet wide, 2 feet deep, and 15 feet long, running north to south. Concrete base, concrete sides, they looked like fish pools. In the corner of the yard was a pile of soil. Red, dry and fairly lifeless. Those concrete troughs were the raised beds, designed to keep every drop of water you added to the soil from disappearing into the parched earth.

You would fill them with soil during the rainy season and plant your seeds. Drainage holes about 16 inches below the top of the beds would prevent the seeds damping off, and ensure a goodly amount of water for the initial growing. One improvement we made was to use each trough in turn as a deposit for any vegetable waste – a three inch layer of chopped vegetable waste or cow manure in the bottom of the trough would rapidly compost down and improve the soil immensely. At the end of the dry season, when you had harvested the crops, you would shovel out the soil and let the sun sterilize them for the next crop.

Shade netting

Every 3 feet in the troughs was a hole, just the right size to hold a ¾ inch PVC pipe. Most people used branches, but the PVC pipe was more stable and used by anyone who could afford it. Horizontal pipes across the top turned the uprights into a frame, to which you would attach the shade netting, a fine mesh nylon weave. You have seen it before, if you have seen a stone building being renovated – it costs about $30 for 100 yards of 5 foot wide and cuts down the light to the beds by about 40%, according to my very old light meter.

One length of the netting is tied to the top of the frame, and one length on the Eastern and Western side which could be raised or lowered, depending on the day. Our drying evening winds invariably came from the West, so lowering the side flap and tying it down until sunset prevented a lot of wind drying of plants. Then raising it again and tying down the Eastern side, just before bed, prevented the plants being scorched by sunrise.

Thread watering

Watering plants is the biggest problem during a drought. For some plants, the watering can came into play, but for others, like bean vines, pea vines, tomatoes, zucchinis, pumpkins and squashes, we used a technique called thread watering.

Along the top of the shade netting frames for these beds ran three PVC pipes, capped at one end, and attached to a gallon lidded bucket at the other. Each pipe had holes drilled in them – very small holes, less than a millimeter across. At each hole location, you would tie a coarse thread – about 6 lb. test fishing line size, and run the thread down to the base of the plant, pegging it into the soil with a 6” nail. Fill up each bucket every night, and the single gallon of water would irrigate the whole row for 24 hours with minimal losses. The lids did dual duty of preventing evaporation and preventing mosquitoes breeding.

You may want to try it, you may not. But I thought it would be interesting for those who are in the drought to see how people who are always in a drought feed themselves.

Helpful resources:

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew

Desert Gardening for Beginners

Extreme Gardening by David Owens

The Rodale Book of Composting by Grace Gershuny and Deborah L. Martin

Guest post by reader Mark M. Updated on April 9, 2015.


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  1. says

    We had a mini-drought this summer, though very mild compared to what Texas is going through. To combat weeds and dry conditions, we spread 25 bales of straw on our garden and the results were fabulous. A 6-inch layer of straw did a great job holding in the moisture and keeping out the weed seeds. Consistently, upon pulling back the straw after a long hot, dry spell, we found the soil loose, cool and damp despite the weather.

  2. Jenny says

    We're in Texas. I don't get to garden in the house we currently live in but we're gardeners. We've used buried water containers of various origins. We buried them when we planted the seedlings so the root system could grow around the containers without being disturbed later. Just fill each container everyday. I also watered with the hose. Some of the items we used were milk cartons and plastic plant pots. An open container is more difficult to maintain, and flimsy containers eventually give way to the pressure from the surrounding soil. I never thought to bury a 5 gal bucket. May have to try that once we move again.

  3. says

    Wow this is great. I wish you had a few pictures. I think I get it, but I am more of a visual learner. I was wondering if you could water with only a gallon a day. This answers my question. I had not thought of shading my plants during this hot time here in Texas. Thanks!

  4. GoneWithTheWind says

    Triple digging with the bottom layer made up of organic material yard scraps even branches and larger pieces of wood. The water is held by the organic material and it composts and gives up nutrients to the garden too.

  5. Alyx says

    If you want to conserve water, probably one of the best things you can do is switch to aquaponic gardening, Alywhich can reduce water loss up to 90%.

  6. Shreela says

    @Mark M. – I was able to visualize the first two topics, but not the "thread watering". I didn't have much luck using that term in search engines either. Hopefully you'll find pics. Does the linked book at Amazon describe thread watering with images?

  7. says

    Great ideas!! Another great way to grow gardens in extreme temperatures is to use window sill and patio planters. If the weather gets too harsh all is not wasted. You just bring your produce inside and you can manipulate the amount of heat the veggies get.

  8. Pat says

    Just read this, such creative ways to make lemonade from lemons. Great info, will definitely print and retain. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Lynn says

    Here in Las Vegas, I plant in 5 gallon buckets set up on 4″ pipes plumbed into my irrigation system — all based on the Larry Hall rain gutter grow system:
    I first used gutters, but switched over to pipes to minimize evaporation. YouTube is loaded with lots of helpful how-to videos to build various systems.

    • says

      Mary Kay, I asked my husband about the water threading, because that, in particular, was a little hard to follow. He said it was just a series of string from one of the top PVC pipes, with each string leading down to each plant. He made it sound easy, but I’ll ask him again to make a drawing of the system.

  10. says

    Drip irrigation sounds similar to the method you were using to water your plants. It’s also a slow and efficient method to water your garden during a drought.


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