Gardening in drought-prone areas is always a challenge, for one obvious reason: Plants, like people, can’t survive without water.
But the good news is we can manage to grow a productive dry weather garden with a bit of planning and innovation by taking a few lessons from nature. After all, nature has not left even the high deserts completely barren, and we find a unique array of vegetation surviving even here in the harshest of conditions.
Protection from wind and scorching sun
We know from our own experience that wind is highly dehydrating. The rate of transpiration – plants losing water through the tiny pores on their leaves – increases in windy conditions. Wind also replaces the moisture-laden air around the plants with dry air.
Sunlight provides the energy plants need for making their food, but it also can scorch their leaves, especially when they don’t have the protection of an envelope of moisture-rich air around them.
In desert areas, we find more vegetation between the hills and on the hill slopes than on wide stretches of open desert. Rocky outcrops offer some protection to the plants from the drying effects of wind and also provide shade. We can protect our garden by creating some windbreaks and shade.Vertical walls as wind breaks
1. Vertical walls as wind breaks. Surprisingly lush home gardens flourish within solid high walls in many desert countries. Filters such as trellises, split bamboo rolls, plastic wind-break mesh, and hedges of cacti and succulents may not block the wind completely, but are just as effective in offering wind protection as solid walls, if not better. Although they can mar the aesthetics to some extent, growing some attractive climbers over them can remedy that.
2. Natural and artificial shade. Vertical walls offer some amount of shade to the plants growing between them, especially low-growing ones, such as herbaceous flowering plants and green leafy vegetables. Planting your garden against a wall or a natural or man-made rock outcrop where they get protection from the afternoon sun is a great idea.
Shade nets can offer protection to newly started flower beds and vegetable patches. Alternating rows of vegetables with trellises covered in climbers helps, too.
Turning the space beneath trees into a garden can benefit both the trees and the plants. The canopy offers welcome shade and creates a high-humidity area that helps plants thrive. The fallen leaves enrich the soil. The trees, too, benefit from the water and nutrients we provide to the plants.
Trees with light shade and deep-growing roots should be selected. We want to avoid the tree roots competing with those of the garden plants and the canopy blocking out too much sunlight. Remember that some plants cannot thrive in the acidic soil created by the leaf litter.
3. Crowding them in
When water is premium, it may sound counterintuitive to stuff more plants into a small area. But this is one natural way to help plants thrive as a community. For one thing, the taller plants offer shade and wind protection to the low-growing ones. But more importantly, the surrounding air, dense with the water vapor released by all the plants, creates a humid microclimate for the plants. This brings down the effective temperature and further water loss through transpiration.
Providing water at the point of use
When we see plants all tired and wilted in the dry weather, it’s tempting to give them a good shower of cool water. It’s not only a waste of this precious resource, but can possibly cause some damage to the foliage, too. Drenching the soil thoroughly can definitely make the plants happy, but that would be too extravagant and can cause a weed problem, too.
1. Drip irrigation
Drip irrigation is a tried-and-proven method to supply water to the roots with minimum wastage.
2. Leaky hose watering
If you don’t want to invest in a pressure regulated drip system, leaky hose watering is a feasible alternative. You can run it below the soil surface or under a thick layer of mulching to reduce water loss through evaporation.
Amending the soil
Most dry weather areas have poor soil. Some areas may be rich in minerals, but plants fail to thrive due to the compacted soil that prevents good root run. Even the water from the occasional rain fails to seep deep into the soil. It quickly runs off or dries up for lack of humus to hold in the moisture.
Amending the soil to increase both water absorption and retention is extremely important in drought-tolerant gardening. Although clayey soil retains water for much longer when thoroughly wet, coarse sand is great at letting water seep into the soil quickly. Humus or decayed organic matter absorbs the water like a sponge, besides adding nutrients to the soil and keeping it aerated.
Adding some sand and plenty of compost, and thoroughly turning them over, would improve its structure and allow plants to flourish. Newspaper mulching can be tried to improve the soil structure of your vegetable garden.
Protecting the soil surface
Rain-fed areas with thick vegetation naturally get a sizeable layer of top soil full of dead and decaying leaves and other organic matter. This protects the underlying soil from completely drying out even during dry spells. In drought-hit areas, we need to protect the soil likewise.
A thick layer of organic mulch like wood chips may be considered, but locally available gravel/stone mulch may be more in line with the rest of the landscape. For vegetable gardens, plastic sheet mulch over the soil can conserve water and prevent weed growth. Used with drip irrigation, this offers maximum water conservation.
Selecting drought-resistant plants
Choosing the right plants is of utmost importance in drought-compatible gardening. The era of bringing in “exotic » plants from strange lands across the world and nurturing them in artificial conditions is long over. Gardeners are increasingly turning to native plants and indigenous cultivation methods to make the best of the natural resources available, including the local climate.
In other words, it is ideal for gardeners in drought-prone areas to turn to xeriscaping instead of maintaining water-guzzling lawns, a concept that has its roots in the dripping wet English countryside.
Fortunately, a large selection of plants with various textures, colors and structural beauty is available to the modern gardener to create a striking landscape in drought-prone areas. Cacti and succulents may be the first choice, but you need not restrict your creative spirit to these.
Here’s a sample selection of drought-resistant plants:
Perennials – Acanthus, Achillea, Anthemis, Asclepia, Purple coneflower, Globe thistle, Sea holly, Wallflower, Gaillardia, Helichrysum, Lamium, Sea lavender, Lychnis, Catmint, Salvia.
Bulbs – Allium, Iris, Kniphofias, Ornithogallum, Sparaxis.
Ornamental Grasses – Pampas grass, Blue wheatgrass, Fescue, Blue oat grass, Holcus, Lyme grass, Pennisetum, Stipa.
Shrubs – Artemisia, Bougainvillea, Broom, Cistus, Euonymus, Halimium, Hebe, Helianthemum, Hippophae, Hypericum, Hyssop, Juniper, Lantana, Lavender, Oleander.
Trees – Acacia, Arbutus, Cedar, Hawthorn, Cypress, Gum tree, Ilex, Staghorn sumac.
It is possible, with a little planning and work, to have a thriving garden, even in areas that are prone to dry weather. Don’t give up on your garden until you try some of the tips presented above. It will be worth the effort.
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