19 Ways to Deal with Drought on the Homestead
It can be tough dealing with drought on the homestead. But with climate change, droughts are becoming more common in many parts of the world. If you really want to grow your own food, then you need to learn how to deal with drought.
The summers here in western Washington state are becoming more extreme. In 2018, we stopped getting rain in May, and we didn’t get any significant rain until September. Weather extremes like this make it very difficult to grow food without being tied to an irrigation system.
But with dropping ground water levels all over the world, even irrigation systems are likely to fail during droughts.
So, how do you deal with drought on the homestead?
My goal on my own homestead is to eliminate all watering except for new seedlings. I should be able to collect enough rainwater each winter to cover that.
But that means that potentially, my other plants may have to go without any water at all for 4 months, from the last rainfall in spring through the end of summer. This post covers what I’m doing on my own homestead to drought-proof my garden and other food-growing systems.
Head’s up—this post does not cover animal-based systems—just the plant ones. But having healthy plants to provide food and shelter for your animals will help them get through a drought, too. Plus, if your plants are using less water, then there will be more available for your animals.
The post is broken up into 3 main sections, each with 6-7 specific methods for dealing with drought on the homestead.
Dealing with drought on the homestead is a challenge, but with climate change it’s a challenge more of us will be facing every year. Droughts may become the new normal, and the methods here will help you and your homestead adapt to these changes.
Make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet that contains a summary of all these 19 methods, plus several bonus methods that are a bit more advanced, but that can help you truly drought-proof your homestead.
Dealing with Drought on the Homestead: What to do in the Spring Before the Drought Starts
Often in spring, drought is the last thing on your mind as the rain pounds down with reckless abandon and new life is springing up in every direction. But the actions you take during this time can help you deal with drought on the homestead that you may face in the coming months.
Spring is an important time, but it’s also a challenging time. In my area, about the time the last frost date is ending is when droughts can start. This is a time for planting and sowing seeds, and it can be hard to imagine adding other projects to the list. But these are some of the actions you can take to prepare for a drought.
1. Do Not Till Your Soil
Ok, I cheated. This isn’t something you can do, it’s something you should not do. But it’s a big one.
Tilling the soil is something many gardeners do in the fall or spring. It makes it easier to plant, and it helps get organic material into the ground.
But it also destroys soil structure, damages fungal networks, kills soil life, and speeds up the breakdown of organic material—all of which also reduces the water-holding capacity of the soil.
The first step to dealing with drought on the homestead is to stop tilling.
2. Apply Mulch Around All Your Plants
Mulch acts like a protective layer on top of the soil. By blocking the sun and wind from reaching the soil, mulch will reduce the amount of water that evaporates from it.
But mulch will also keep your soil cooler. This is great for plants like spinach, but not so good for tomatoes. So at first, you may just be adding mulch in spots and not covering the whole garden.
Make sure to fully cover the garden with mulch before the drought starts.
Make sure to sow seeds and plant transplants into the soil, not the mulch. Pull back the mulch as needed to expose bare soil. After you plant, be sure to leave the soil exposed so that the seedlings can come up.
When dealing with drought on the homestead, mulching is one of your best tools.
3. Create Late Afternoon Shade
If your plants are already getting more than enough sunlight, (over 8 hours,) then creating late afternoon shade can help.
It may seem hard to do in the spring before the drought starts, but here are some options.
- Plant tall vegetables (tomatoes, corn, orach, etc.) on the western side of the garden bed to create afternoon shade.
- Set up trellises for climbers (pole beans, cucumbers, etc.) on the west side of the beds to create shade.
- Set up shade cloth that can be put up and taken down easily.
This will help reduce evaporation and retain water in your soil. As an added bonus, plants like lettuce that don’t like the summer heat can be planted in the shadow to extend their growing season.
Dealing with drought on the homestead can mean blocking the sun. This is already done in hot climates like the tropics, so let’s learn from these areas and use the same technique in temperate areas.
4. Block Summer Winds
We don’t usually think of wind when we think of evaporation, but the truth is that summer winds can dry out your soil even on cloudy days. Combine that with the heat of the sun, and your soil can quickly become parched.
Use the same methods that you would use to block the late afternoon sun, but this time set them up where they will block the prevailing summer winds.
If you install a fence to protect your garden from deer, rabbits, and other grazers, you can grow climbing vegetables like peas and beans up this fence to block the wind. See the next section for more on this.
If this will cast too much shade on your garden beds, then you can try setting up the wind blocks outside your main garden beds, about 3-5 feet away.
This will deflect some of the winds without casting too much shade.
5. Install Protection Against Deer, Rabbits, and Other Critters
Critters like deer and rabbits can wreak havoc on a garden. I have spent the better part of 2 years working to keep deer out of my homestead because of the damage they’ve caused.
So what does that have to do with drought?
Normally plants can recover, but when stressed during a drought, the damage caused by these critters can easily be too much for your plants to bear.
There are multiple ways to deal with these critters, but a good fence is your best option.
Dealing with drought on the homestead is much easier if you don’t have the constant pressure of deer and other similar critters.
6. Water Deeply and Infrequently
If you can, it’s great to just rely on rainfall and skip watering during the spring. But if the rains are not consistent enough, you may need to water a bit when your plants are seedlings.
This is a great reason to plant perennial vegetables, since they won’t need any springtime watering.
If you do water, only do so when absolutely necessary, (that is, when the soil has dried out fully in the top first inch or 2.5 cm,) for your young plants to get established. Then make sure to water deeply so the moisture soaks down into the soil a fair bit).
This will encourage the roots of the plants to go deep underground for the water and rather than staying in that top inch or 2.
Soil dries out from the top down, so when plants send their roots deep, they are more able to access water during the dry season.
Encouraging your plants to send their roots deep is a critical part of dealing with drought on the homestead.
Dealing with Drought on the Homestead: What to do During the Drought
The dry days are upon you. You are now dealing with drought on the homestead. While you prepared your homestead for this, it’s still a challenge.
Still, there are several things you can do to help deal with the drought without relying on regular irrigation.
1. Only Water When Necessary
The first step to deal with drought on the homestead is to avoid watering your plants when they don’t need it.
That may seem obvious, but your soil can hold far more water then you might think. As long as the plants are not showing signs of stress, (wilting or turning brown,) then you can wait to water.
When you see wilting, wait to water until the evening. Even then, check the soil first. If it is at all moist or wet, then the plant does not need more water. It’s likely that either a pest has damaged the roots, or that the plant is wilting in response to intense sunlight rather than the drought.
Check the soil under the mulch. (You’re mulching, right?) If it feels moist, then don’t bother watering.
When you do water, make sure to water long enough to let the moisture sink deep into the ground, so you can actually recharge the soil rather than simply getting the top inch wet. This can mean watering for 30 minutes to an hour, but then you should be able to skip watering for a week or more if you have a good mulch layer over the soil.
2. Add Additional Mulch
If you notice parts of your garden drying out quicker than others, then adding more mulch can help. Since your plants will be bigger than they were in the spring you should easily be able to add more mulch without damaging the plants.
Just make sure to leave some space between the stem of the plant and the mulch.
Try combining this method with the previous one. First, water your plants deeply to help recharge the soil. Then right after you finish watering, add more mulch on top of the existing wet mulch/soil. This will help lock in all the water you just added.
If you add more mulch to your garden in early summer every year you will be able to more easily deal with drought on the homestead.
3. Water When the Temperature is Relatively Low, and the Garden is Not in Direct Sunlight
The time of day that you water is also important. It’s tempting to give your plants water during the heat of the day, since you might think that’s when they need it the most. But this is actually a bad time to do it.
Instead, wait until the plants are out of direct sunlight and the temperature has dropped a bit. Then go and do your watering.
This means that you may need to water early in the morning or late in the afternoon or evening. But your plants will be happier, and more of the water will stay in the soil to benefit your plants.
When dealing with drought on the homestead, you and your plants will be happier if you water during the cooler parts of the day.
4. Place Small Logs on the Sun-Exposed Sides of Your Plants
You know how you leave space between your plants? In the classic vegetable garden, that space is the perfect size for small logs (about 3-6 inches or 7.5-15 cm across).
By placing small logs in those open spaces, you create little cool and moist micro-climates just behind and underneath the logs.
If the log is placed on the southern side of your row of plants, (or on the northern side in the southern hemisphere,) it will keep the soil moist and cool, and it will potentially block some of the wind.
In nature, you’ll often see small seedlings of trees growing on the sheltered side of downed logs. In my restoration work, I’ve observed this affect at many sites.
The logs can be placed on top of the mulch, and it’s a great way to help you deal with drought on the homestead.
5. Leave Tall Spent Plants to Cast Shade and Block Winds
Some vegetables, like peas, will likely grow and be spent by the time you’re dealing with drought on the homestead.
But they can still provide some partial shade for your other plants.
Even a lettuce plant that has bolted will cast a little shade.
Plus, this is a great way to save seeds from your vegetables and to get volunteer vegetables next year!
While it may make your garden look a bit messy, it’s often better to leave these spent plants where they are instead of removing them. If you do remove them, don’t pull them up. Instead, just cut them down at the base and use them as additional mulch.
6. Harvest During the Morning or Evening
When you are dealing with drought on the homestead, a simple way to help your plants out is to limit your harvesting to the mornings and evenings.
Harvesting actually does damage your plants, and they can lose water from where the leaf, flower, fruit, etc. was. By harvesting in when the temperature is cooler, the plant can seal the damage before the heat comes.
But this does mean you will need to plan your meals a little in advance rather than harvesting right before you start cooking.
Dealing with Drought on the Homestead: The Fall or Winter After the Drought
The drought is over, and at last the rains are falling again. It’s tempting to move on to the next big task, but this is actually a great time to deal with a future drought on the homestead.
The following methods will help make your homestead and garden more resilient to future droughts. If repeated every fall or winter, you can steadily drought-proof your homestead.
1. Chop-and-Drop All Spent Garden Material and Leave the Roots in the Ground
Increasing the amount of organic material in your soils will increase the water-holding capacity of the soil. Potentially even by large amounts—every 1% increase in organic material in the soil could store enough water to keep your plants going for a week or more.
Mulching is one way to do this, but another very effective method is to cut your dead plants down in the fall and leave the roots in the ground to decompose.
The tops can be chopped up and left on top of the garden as free mulch. If you put fall leaves down on the garden in the fall the chopped and dropped vegetable material can help hold the leaves in place over the winter.
Chop-and-dropping all the spent garden material and leaving the roots in the ground is an excellent way to deal with drought on the homestead by increasing the water holding capacity of your soils.
2. Add Fall Leaves to the Garden Beds
People are often just trying to get rid of their fall leaves. But these leaves are a fantastic source of mulch, and they’ll quickly break down to build your soil.
Adding these around your plants is a great way to increase soil life and increase the amount of organic material in your soils.
You can add the leaves whole, but if the leaves are large, this may not work great with seedlings in the spring. The leaves will blow around a bit, and they could cover up small plants.
Shredding the leaves is another option, and it’s a good choice if you’re going to use the leaves around small plants.
But you can also make what is called leaf mould and store the leaves in a big pile (3 ft x 3 ft or approximately 1 m x 1 m) for 1 to 2 years. This gives the leaves time to break down a fair bit into a great material to help build your soil and mulch your plants.
If you don’t have enough fall leaves from your own homestead, try reaching out to family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Sites like NextDoor can be a great way to find leaves.
Fall leaves are an under-utilized way to deal with drought on the homestead. Don’t miss out on this free resource!
3. Grow a Cover Crop
This is actually a step you will likely want to take in the summer, but the benefits will come in fall or winter. By sowing a cover crop in late summer, you can grow the biomass (both above and below ground) that will build your soil.
If you pick a cover crop made up of plants that won’t make it through the winter, you can let the frost kill the plants for you. The roots will remain in place and the tops can be chopped and dropped.
Some cover crops like daikon radishes will put a large amount of organic material into the soil through their tap root. Just let the large daikon radish roots decompose in the ground instead of harvesting.
Fava beans are another great option, and as a nitrogen-fixer, they will further help to build the fertility of the soil.
By growing a cover crop, you can build your soil, which will help you deal with future drought on the homestead.
4. Plant Perennial Plants
Perennial plants are plants that come back year after year. While fruit trees, nut trees, and berry bushes are the more well-known edible perennials, there are also loads of perennial vegetables you can grow in your garden.
Perennial vegetables—and all perennial plants—will establish much more extensive root systems than most annuals. They also don’t need water to get established every spring.
This makes planting perennial vegetables (and other perennials) a great choice for dealing with drought on the homestead.
Fall is a great time to plant perennial plants, unless your ground freezes very early, but some will need to be planted in the spring. Some seeds for perennial plants need to be sown in the fall so they can go through the winter chill in order to sprout in the spring.
5. Plant Hedgerows to Create Wind Blocks and Late Afternoon Shade
In many climates, the fall is a great time to plant shrubs and trees. These can be planted as a hedgerow, which, if properly designed, can function as a wind block and provide late-afternoon shade.
A hedgerow is a perennial system, so like other perennials, it won’t require watering once it’s established. Plus, you can grow edibles like fruit trees and berries, so you can enjoy a harvest in addition to the other benefits.
Growing your own hedgerow in locations where it can provide shade to your garden in the late afternoon and block the hot summer winds will help you deal with drought on the homestead.
6. Improve the Water-Holding Capacity of the Area Around Your Garden
Don’t forget to use the methods listed in this blog post in the space around your garden, as well as in the so-called “unproductive areas” between your growing spaces.
By increasing the amount of water those areas can hold, you will improve the overall health and resilience of your homestead.
Plant roots might be able to spread from your growing area into these other areas to get water and nutrients, and fungi will create webs that aid your plants.
Think of your homestead as one large, interconnected system—you might call it an ecosystem! Help the whole system become drought-proof, not just the garden and fruit tree areas.
7. Replace Your Garden Beds with Hugelkultur Beds
This final method will take some work, but it’s a great investment into your garden’s long-term resilience to drought.
Hugelkultur beds are essentially raised beds with large woody debris buried inside them. This wood slowly breaks down, feeding your plants. It also provides a huge injection of organic material into the soil, and it creates the perfect environment for beneficial fungi that will nurture your plants.
The result is garden beds which, if built large enough with enough wood, may not need to be watered at all. At a minimum, they will require far less water than regular raised beds.
If you are creating new garden beds, then that is the perfect time to build hugelkultur beds. But you can also replace your existing garden beds with hugelkultur beds. Though in truth, that would involve a lot of work, and hugelkultur beds take about 3 years to reach their full potential.
If replacing your old beds seems like too much work, just keep hugelkultur beds in mind when you start any new growing area.
Dealing with Drought on the Homestead – Next Steps
With climate change making droughts more frequent and more intense, we all need to start now to drought proof our homesteads.
While none of us wants to deal with droughts on the homestead, the unfortunate reality is that for many of us, this is the new norm.
You don’t need to implement all 19 methods to start improving your homestead’s resilience to droughts. Pick 1 or 2 from each main section to start implementing.
Perhaps you can apply mulch around your plants in the spring. Then water deeply and add some extra mulch in the summer. And finally, practice chop-and-drop in the fall or winter.
Just doing those 3 things each year will result in a more resilient garden and homestead.
The more of these methods you use, the more benefits you will get. But don’t take on more than you can handle. Start small and integrate additional strategies as you go.
To help you get started with these methods, make sure to grab the free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet. This cheat-sheet has a summary of these 19 methods, making it easy to hold onto for future reference. Plus, the cheat sheet introduces several advanced bonus methods that are a bit more involved, but that can help you truly drought-proof your homestead.