Gardening in a Drought

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This has been a challenging season for gardening with many parts of Catawba County only receiving a few inches of rain since April. I urge our area gardeners not to lose hope but, rather, utilize this dry season to develop a more water conserving and drought tolerant garden in seasons to come. Increasing and stabilizing your garden’s capacity to hold water will not only prepare you for future droughts, but will result in a more productive garden with higher quality fruit and healthier plants.

Put mulch on top of your garden beds to reduce moisture losses and create a more favorable rooting zone in your garden. Mulch will also help to reduce garden diseases that spread through soil splashing, protect garden soil from erosion, cool soil temperatures when heat is stressing your tomatoes, and smoother out weeds that want to compete with your squash for water and nutrients. Semi-decomposed leaves are some of the best mulching materials. Avoid putting woodchips in your garden bed as they will tie up available nutrients during decomposition. Avoid putting herbicide contaminated hay or straw in your garden for mulching purposes. We get several calls every year from gardeners that accidentally kill their garden by using herbicide contaminated materials for mulch.

Drip irrigation is a smart investment for any gardener. This water conserving irrigation method can deliver moisture needed in your garden without splashing soil and wetting leaves – two common causes of disease spread. Drip irrigation can save you countless hours of hand watering and kits are available for backyard gardens; some even come with a handy timer that you can attach to your faucet. Come by our demonstration garden in Newton to see how to set up a drip irrigation system – it’s easier than you may realize.

Increasing soil organic matter (SOM) in your garden is key for improving garden drought tolerance. Organic matter can hold 10 times its weight in water; thus every pound of organic matter added to your garden beds results in more than a gallon of extra water that can be retained. There are three main ways to increase your SOM: add organic amendments like compost to your beds, reduce the amount of tillage in your garden, and include cover crops in your garden rotation. Cover cropping for gardeners is not a common practice but it has the potential to significantly improve your garden soil’s health. There are numerous ways to produce cover crop biomass during the summer and winter. While cover cropping does require a little extra labor and seed costs, the long term benefits for drought tolerance in your garden is worth the effort.