What to grow in California during a drought?

General    Lausanne, Switzerland

Having just moved out west to California, I'm pretty shocked about how dry it's been this winter. Given how little rain has fallen in the past few weeks, it looks like 2014 is going to be one of the driest years on record.

At the moment, I have two questions that are on my mind:

1. What should I grow / not grow in a vegetable garden in such a dry year?
2. What are proven and effective dos and donts in terms of water management?

Posted by: deactivated (25 points) deactivated
Posted: February 25, 2014


1. Grow what you will eat in quantities you will be able to use. This is one of the simplest and most overlooked gardening strategies! Because of water restrictions on California farmers, it's likely that produce prices will increase sharply this summer. It will be more cost-effective to grow your own, provided you plant the appropriate varieties and amounts so that your harvest does not go to waste. (And if you do have excess, find out which local food banks will take fresh food to give away.)

As long as you incorporate a bunch of water-management strategies, I don’t think the drought affects the choice of annual crops. I would not, however, plant fruit trees, brambleberries, asparagus, or other perennial crops that won’t produce a crop this year. They will struggle to survive and will be better off planted next fall or winter.

Some crops do not need much water once they set fruit, such as dry beans, winter squash, and tomatoes. One of my neighbors at the community garden does not water her well-mulched tomatoes after July 1; it both saves water and improves the flavor.

Herbs are easy to grow and nice to have on hand when all you need is a snippet. Many of them do better when kept on the dry side -- not including basil and cilantro, which like water.

2. Mulch mulch mulch. This has always been important in our summer-dry climate and is especially important this year. Mulch helps keep the soil alive and reduces the amount of water you need to add. I’ve used tree trimmings (usually aged in my paths a few months before applying to my veg garden), straw, and garden clippings (chop and drop) as mulch.

Add compost, which increases the water-holding capacity of soil. I add it under the mulch or lightly raked in, rather than digging it in. I let the worms work it into the soil.

Don’t till. Preserving the soil structure in an established garden is an important way to optimize its water-holding capacity. I also use a humic-acid product to help build soil structure.

Water the surface, near the roots, rather than using sprays. I occasionally wash down the leaves, but when I'm hand-watering, I direct the water at the base of the plants. I like to use a water breaker, which delivers a gentle rain of water and does not disrupt the soil or damage seedlings. Another alternative is drip irrigation (checked regularly for leaks, clogs, and timer malfunctions!) or soaker hoses, which can be installed under a layer of mulch to further cut down on evaporative losses.

Watering early or late in the day also reduces evaporative losses.

Needless to say, reserve your outdoor watering for edibles. if your ornamental plantings are not drought tolerant, consider whether you want to spend part of your water budget on them, or let them fend for themselves. Add lots of mulch, available free from tree trimmers, to keep your soil alive -- 4 inches to existing plantings and 6-12 inches or more to unplanted areas. Lose the lawn. Hold off on replacing ornamentals or planting drought-tolerant natives until the next rainy season.

If you’re starting a new garden, consider planting at ground level this year rather than building raised beds. The soil in raised beds will be a little warmer earlier in the season, but it will dry out faster than soil at ground level. In arid climates, sunken beds are used to retain as much moisture as possible.

Containers are a good choice if you don’t have a garden plot, but they will require regular monitoring and will use more water than plants in the ground. If you must use containers, consider a double-wall system (a smaller pot inside a larger one), a system such as the Earth Box or a do-it-yourself equivalent, or a structure where the containers wick water from below (I’ve seen plans for a row of containers sitting on a covered rain gutter, with a valve that fills the gutter when water falls below a certain level).

Random strategies include putting a bucket in the shower to collect water, or installing a greywater system to water ornamental plants and fruit trees (not edible crops).

Posted by: Tanya in the Garden (128 points) Tanya in the Garden
Posted: February 27, 2014

Tanya in the Garden commented,
Here are a couple more tips I came across.

If you water automatically, observe it to make sure runoff is not occurring. If it is, reduce the watering time, cycle it on and off, or reduce the flow if possible.

Don't overfertilize. Excess fertilizer stimulates new growth, which attracts pests and increases the need for water. Use low-number organic ferts or compost. In Palo Alto, the wonderful clay soil needs only some N. I use alfalfa pellets (from a pet store) in the bottom of the hole when I plant tomatoes, and that's it.

over 5 years ago.

deactivated commented,
Thanks Tanya for this detailed answer - this is very helpful!
over 5 years ago.


Consider sunken beds, rather than gardening on a level surface. This allows your plants more access to subsoil moisture.

Additionally, space your crops further apart and keep them well-weeded. Look up Steve Solomon's "Gardening without Irrigation" for a LOT of water-saving farming tips. It's a free book - you'll find it multiple places for download.

Unlike Tanya, I would recommend planting edible trees and shrubs - I would just stay away from water-needy varieties. I can't ever go for a year without planting at least a few trees.

Think figs, olives, pomegranates. I'd also pack in a lot of tough nitrogen-fixing trees like cassias, etc. They'll help keep moisture on your property and mine deep in the soil for nutrients and water, plus provide shade on the ground.

Native touch edibles like fruiting cacti are a good idea as well.

One more source that might help you:


Posted by: David Goodman (67 points) David Goodman
Posted: March 5, 2014

Tanya in the Garden commented,
David, the reason to hold off on shrubs and trees is because the best planting time in this summer-dry climate is winter. In a normal year, the winter rains will help grow roots so that the plant is well on its way to being established by the time the dry season begins. But this year, we didn't have a rainy season. Anything that's planted will need a substantial amount of added water to survive, and I'd rather use the limited amount of water for plants that will produce crops this year, than for plants that will struggle to survive with water restrictions.
over 5 years ago.

David Hughes commented,
Link to Steve Solomon's "Gardening without Irrigation" http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/03...
over 5 years ago.

For a dedicated vegetable plot, drip irrigation systems will use much less water than overhead watering. Or, rather, they get the water where you want instead of evaporating. With a timer, you can water in the early AM hours and lose even less to evaporation.

I would also consider installing rainwater collection barrels if you have gutters (which would be unusual in CA). When it does rain, these will fill up surprisingly fast, and can be used for many years to put a dent in your water bill.

Posted by: Nicole Castle Brookus (21 points) Nicole Castle Brookus
Posted: March 23, 2014

deactivated commented,
Great idea with the barrels. Will put them up in the next few days.
about 5 years ago.

The answers already here are excellent, but as a farmer facing the same question, one strategy I intend to use this year is to make sure my plantings are as intensive and closely grouped as possible so that I can take advantage of fewer irrigations. I like to interplant herbs and flowers with vegetables for a number of reasons, not having extra rows to irrigate is a plus.This might also help you...an info guide on what classes of plants need more/less water and when: http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopEx...
I was raised in the Bay Area....in SF you will be able to grow many crops in the summer that are usually considered "cool season" veggies, and other crops that require a lot of heat...you're going to struggle, and may not wish to bother. Google "best vegetable plants for San Francisco," to save yourself a lot of headache!

Posted by: Deborah Raven-Lindley (4 points) Deborah Raven-Lindley
Posted: April 6, 2014

You need to log in if you'd like to add an answer or comment.