The Good Earth: Building a drought-resistant vegetable garden

COURTESY SYLVESTER MANOR PHOTO These baby lettuce plants will grow to cover the exposed soil between them, providing shade and conserving moisture.

These baby lettuce plants will grow to cover the exposed soil between them, providing shade and conserving moisture.

Shortly after my arrival on the Island, I learned two important things: Food is very expensive and everybody is concerned about the levels of fresh water. Since I am a farmer, it seems that more folks should grow food and how they grow it needs to use as little of the Island’s freshwater resources as possible.

Here are some questions to consider when developing a drought-resistant garden: What’s the most efficient way to water my plants? How can I increase the ability of my soil to retain as much moisture as possible? Does my plant selection and garden layout take into account water use?

The most efficient options for watering are by drip or by hand. Drip hose or drip tape can be purchased in many home garden stores. Water drips and oozes into your garden through small perforations in the hose.

Drip tape is efficient, unless you let it run too long and let your soil get soggy. Run it early in the morning or in the evening and don’t oversaturate your soil. Purchase some quality hose and care for it well. The less expensive options will work just fine, but even with care, you won’t get as much life out of them.
Watering by hand is a little more work but it allows you to water plants depending on their preferences.

When watering by hand, focus on watering the ground around the base of the plant, not just on the leaves of the plant. The plant takes up moisture and nutrients through the soil.

The key component in building the moisture-retaining ability of your garden is organic matter. Organic matter can be comprised of plant residue, manure and compost. Compost is the easiest and safest method of increasing the organic matter in your garden, but you can also use plant residue and manures.

It’s all about pore space and as the organic matter increases, so will the quantity of porous spaces in your soil. Ideally, pore space can account for up to 50 percent of soil volume. These spaces are critical in holding air and water and providing room for the beneficial microbiology to live. You’ll see more worms, have healthier plants and have to water less frequently.

When choosing plants and their locations, you should also consider water use. The simplest way is to learn about your plants. I’ve encountered a lot of folks who think tomato plants require a lot of water, which is not true. Tomato plants actually prefer environments with less water; a little bit of moisture around their root system is their preference. This is one example of how knowing your plants can reduce the amount of water your garden utilizes.

The next step to reduce water use is to minimize spaces of bare soil. When your soil is exposed to the sun, moisture will evaporate. If your plants are closer together, the area of exposed soil can be reduced, saving you water, time spent watering and fewer weeds.

Tomato plants enjoy some space; when you transplant, sow dwarf clover or other plants that won’t grow tall and compete with the tomato. You’ll reduce the area of exposed soil while minimizing weeds at the same time. This is called undersowing and it also allows you to water less.

Developing a drought-resistant garden can lead to less work, healthier plants and lots of worms for the children and grandchildren to fish with, so head over to the Recycling Center, load up on some compost and have a great summer in the garden.

Kurt Ericksen is a vegetable grower at Sylvester Manor.