7 Strategies to Deal with Drought Today and in the Future
In this episode, we’re going to dive into 7 strategies you can use to deal with drought today and in the future. As this episode goes live the western United States is in the throes of a mega-drought. A situation that is becoming all too common in a warming world. Let’s look at how you can deal with drought today and prepare for future ones.
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What type of landscape do picture when you think about western Washington? Rain? This area does have a reputation for being wet.
But despite a large amount of rain we can get in the winter our summers are very dry.
It’s not unusual to get little to no rain in July, August, and even September. And some years the rains stop in May and don’t return until October.
The key to deal with drought and seasonal dryness is to hold on to as much of that winter moisture as possible.
Especially if like me you don’t have a water system for your garden.
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My goal has always been to avoid watering as much as possible. Despite getting little to no rain in the summer months I often go weeks without watering my garden.
And my perennial areas never get watered.
Now I can’t promise that the 7 strategies covered in this episode will let you stop watering your plants. Your soil may hold less water than mine and you may get hotter than we do.
But what I can promise is that these 7 strategies will help you deal with drought and reduce how much watering you need to do.
And if you implement these strategies year after year your growing areas will get more resilient to future droughts.
Eventually, you may be able to stop watering completely.
That’s my goal—and in a warming world with droughts becoming worse it makes sense to strive to use as little water as possible.
Before we dive into how to deal with drought and these 7 strategies I want to take a moment to say thank you to our newest Patron Cat W.
The support of patrons like Cat makes it possible for us to create free weekly content to help people heal the living world around them by cultivating abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
And I also want to take a moment to read a recent review from KarisLikesToGoBarefoot on Apple Podcasts.
Daron’s approach to growing your own food and managing your property (whether an acreage or backyard) is not only helpful to anyone wanting to live a more home-grown life, but also provides critical information for anyone who wants to help our climate, support native wildlife, and reduce your carbon footprint. I absolutely love that he provides information on how I can both use my property to provide for my own needs AND also support native plants and animals at the same time.
What Daron has to offer is super practical for any gardener and so timely in a climate that is increasingly posing dangers to wildlife and humans alike. I hope that his message will have a far-reach and help contribute to systemic changes in the way we all relate to our food and the environment around us.
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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- 19 Ways to Deal with Drought on your Property
- How to Prepare Your Garden for Climate Change
- 3 Excellent Ways You Can Store Water on Your Property
- 5 Ways to Transform Your Garden into a Low-Water Garden
- What is a Food Forest? (And How to Get Started)
- What are Perennial Vegetables and How to Get Started (podcast episode)
- Getting Started with Native Vegetables (podcast episode)
- What is Mulching? The Complete Introduction to Mulching
- 5 Types of Mulch – Here’s What You Need to Know
- Why You Should Plant a Hedgerow (Plus 5 Tips to Get Started) (podcast episode)
Books and Other Resources
- Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 3rd Edition: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain Into Your Life and Landscape
- Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2, 2nd Edition: Water-Harvesting Earthworks
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
How to Deal with Drought Today
When we bought our land it was the end of summer and I made sure to bring a shovel with me the first time we visited it.
It was the end of a dry summer and very hot.
The grass was dry and the soil was a pale grey—the color of concrete.
When I tried to dig into the soil I couldn’t get the shovel into the ground. The soil not only looked like concrete it was as hard as it too.
I knew creating abundance from this land was going to be a challenge but I like challenges.
Today in the areas I’ve been working on are much better—instead of grey the soil has turned brown and I can dig in it using a hand trowel even after months of no rain.
These areas are far more resilient to droughts than the areas I haven’t improved. But of course, it takes time to get to this point.
So what should you do today to deal with drought?
Drought is always on my mind when I’m getting new areas ready for planting. In a warming world, it’s best to expect hot, dry summers. This is our new normal—so let’s get ready for it.
Here’s what you can do to deal with drought today.
And don’t forget to check the links in the resources section to help you get started with each of the following techniques.
1. Keep the Soil Covered
The first thing you should do to deal with drought today is to keep the soil covered. Not only does this help keep the soil moist it also keeps it relatively cool.
Keeping the soil covered doesn’t just protect the soil from the heat of the sun. It also helps shelter it from the wind.
A mild windy day can dry out the soil even quicker than a hot but calm day.
There are several ways to keep the soil covered.
One is to use mulch—wood chips, straw, and fall leaves are all great options. You can even chop-and-drop spent flower heads, veggies that go to seed, and plants that need cut back as easy sources of mulch.
I often end up cutting back plants that fall into my paths. These cuttings either end up in the compost bin or just dropped onto the ground to protect the soil. A general rule for me is fresh green cuttings go in the compost or worm bin and old brown cuttings get dropped as mulch.
Living plants can also work as living mulch.
Just make sure they’re thick enough to fully cover the soil. But you should still try to have a layer of old leaves and cuttings over the surface of the soil.
Picture a forest floor—living plants cover much of the ground in a healthy forest but there are also old leaves, dead stems, logs, branches, and other old plant material making up a duff layer that protects the soil below it.
And you can use logs, stumps, and large branches to help cover the soil in your growing areas. I often put logs or large branches on the south side of my trees and shrubs.
This creates a relatively cool and moist micro-climate behind the log where the tree or shrub is planted.
I first learned about this technique while touring the restoration work being done on the Elwha after the dams were removed.
The old lakebed was very exposed and harsh making it hard to get trees and shrubs established. But the plants that were planted on the sheltered side of logs were protected and did much better than those planted in the open.
This same principle can be used in your backyard and is a great way to deal with drought. I’ve even used small logs in my garden beds placed between rows of vegetables.
The key though is to keep the soil covered—exposed soil will dry out and heat up hurting not only your plants but also all the life in the soil.
2. Water Deeply and Infrequently
While keeping the soil covered will help it stay moist and cool you still got to make sure the soil has water in it.
Now any watering you do will be more effective when the soil is covered. Less of it will be lost due to evaporation.
But you’ve got to water correctly if you want to effectively deal with drought.
Often people water every few days but only a small amount at a time.
The result is only the top few inches of the soil gets wet—this is also the hottest part of the soil that is most prone to evaporation.
And because this is where the water is most of your plant roots will stay in this shallow top few inches.
But what if you could get your plant roots to go deeper?
If you water deeply and infrequently you encourage your plant roots to follow the water deeper into the soil. The upper parts of the soil will dry out, but the lower parts will remain moist for much longer.
This is how dryland farming works—and in some cases, you can skip watering once the plants are established.
By encouraging your plant roots to go deeper into the soil your plants will become more resilient to drought. Plus, this will help build soil by adding organic matter through the roots deep into the soil. Over time this will make your land even more resilient and will help you deal with droughts now and in the future.
How to Prepare for Droughts in the Future
Dealing with drought today is important but the best way to deal with drought is to take steps that make your property more resilient to future droughts.
By taking appropriate steps now your property will be able to weather future droughts without you needing to take extra actions.
My food forests and hedgerows never need watering—with healthy living soil, perennial and native food plants, cool micro-climates these growing areas are resilient to droughts.
And when the rains come more of the water is kept in the soil so plants can access them when droughts come.
With the impacts of climate change getting worse preparing for more frequent and more intense droughts is more important than ever.
Let’s look at what you can do to deal with drought in the future.
And don’t forget to check the link in the description to visit the show notes which has a list of resources to help you get started with each of the following techniques.
3. Build Healthy Soil
The single most important thing you can do to deal with drought is to build healthy soil. Keeping the soil covered is the first step in this.
But you also need to stop tilling the soil.
Instead, the focus should be to let the life in the soil build rich soil for you. The single best way to do this is to increase the organic matter in the soil.
Not only will the soil structure improve but the soil will be able to hold far more water without becoming saturated.
Every 1% increase in organic matter increases the amount of water the soil can hold by as much as 25,000 gallons per acre.
If this was done overall U.S. cropland the equivalent amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls over 150 days could be stored in the soil.
And that is just a 1% increase—imagine what could be achieved if soil organic matter was increased by 3, 5, or even 10%.
But not tilling and keeping the soil covered are just the first steps. The next is to transition to perennial foods.
4. Plant Perennial Foods
Planting perennial foods instead of annual foods is a great way to deal with drought. These plants not only have more extensive root systems giving them access to more water and nutrients—but they also feed life in the soil.
By supporting soil life over the entire area covered by their roots, perennial plants help build soil deep below the surface.
Over time this will add organic matter and greatly increase the water holding capacity of your soils.
And with their expanded roots, these plants will be able to better weather future droughts than any annual crops could.
5. Plant Native Foods
As with perennial foods, planting native food plants is another great way to deal with droughts. These plants have evolved to deal with the natural climate found where you live.
While the climate has dramatically changed due to human action, native plants are still often the best able to adapt to these changes compared to non-native plants.
In addition, these plants support the greatest diversity of wildlife. And a more diverse environment will always be more resilient to droughts and other impacts than a less diverse system.
Planting native plants are one of the best things you can do to create a resilient and diverse landscape. And these plants can help you deal with drought in other ways—such as providing shade for other plants.
6. Create Cool Micro-Climates
Often when people are growing food they want their garden to get as much sunlight as possible. But full-sun is defined as at least 6-hours though 8-hours is often the goal.
Beyond that and the sun can be harmful to your plants by causing heat stress and by making droughts worse.
Plus some common food plants like lettuce do fine with less than full sun. And many perennial foods and native foods can easily be grown in semi-shade or even full shade.
A great way to help with this is to plant hedgerows or clumps of trees and shrubs to cast some shade and block summer winds.
This is especially effective if you can block the late afternoon sun when temperatures are at their highest.
Native plants are a great option for these hedgerows. And you can learn more about hedgerows in our recent podcast episode all about them. Link in the resources section of the show notes.
But even leaving tall spent vegetables like lettuce that has bolted can help shade their neighbors. And tall heat-tolerant plants like tomatoes can be used similarly.
You could plant them along the west side of your garden beds so they provide late afternoon shade to the plants planted around them.
All these options will create relatively cool micro-climates that will help you deal with drought.
7. Retain as Much Water as Possible
All the techniques we’ve covered so far will help you deal with drought. But you do still need water for them to work.
Deep watering is one option that we covered.
But the best option is to retain as much water as possible when it comes naturally in the form of rain.
Increasing the soil organic matter is the first step you should take and we discussed that earlier. But another step you should take is to slow the water down to give it time to soak into the ground.
Far too often people try to move water quickly off their property through ditches and other methods.
Instead, try to slow the water down.
You can install rain gardens at the base of your rain gutters where the water can collect and soak in instead of being directed off your property.
Instead of ditches that quickly move water away, you can create swales that are dug on contour so the water slowly builds up giving it time to soak in.
Or you could use ditches to direct water to rain gardens or ponds where the water can soak in.
Regardless of which methods you use the key is to keep the water on your property as long as possible. Slow it down and spread it out so the water has time to soak in.
How to Deal with Drought - Moving Forward
If you take the steps covered in this episode you will be better able to deal with drought now and in the future. But these are the only steps you can take.
Try growing more drought-tolerant foods—orach for example is much more drought tolerant than spinach and can be used similarly.
Climate change has already made droughts more common and more intense. And this will get worse in the future. As I write the outline for this episode western Washington where I live is going through an intense record-breaking heatwave and the entire western United States is facing heat and drought.
This is our new normal but you can deal with drought by using the techniques outlined here. The result will be a more resilient landscape that can truly cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife—even in the face of climate change.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at purple tree collards which are a fantastic perennial vegetable that I highly recommend trying.
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