How to grow vegetables with less water

Since a couple of years now, we’re facing quite rough summers without much or any rain over multiple months. This is no recent trend, but where I live it seems to be worse every year,so much so, that getting enough water in summer is now a challenge. Cracked Soil, dead brown plants and a distinct lack of alive grass accompanies almost every summer now.

I live in a relatively mild climate, more precisely in the temperate and marine zone of Europe. So I can’t really complain about a lack of water compared to some other countries, -I didn’t notice any deserts close by. That doesn’t change the fact, that even in my garden a lack of water is noticeable in high summer. The Question of the day is: What to do about it? Is growing Vegetables and fruit with little water even possible?

The quick answer is yes. There are many great ways to reduce the amount of water needed during the hot months and in general, so far that growing plants almost anywhere is possible, given enough effort.

The first step to reducing water usage in your garden is to take care of the soil. Loamy soil with plenty of organic matter with a thick layer of mulch will trap water for your plants to use. Establishing Deep roots, installing Drip irrigation and growing in a Block Layout will save even more water.

These are some examples to save water in your garden, but before I go more in-depth on these points let’s first look at why it’s important to save water and how much water plants normally need.

Why do plants need water?

Well, it’s quite obvious otherwise they die. Water has a lot of different functions within a plant to ensure survival. Wilting, for example, is caused by Turgor pressure, or rather the lack of it. This is equivalent to the human skeleton, and we all can imagine what happens if our skeleton suddenly decides to go on a vacation.

Water is also needed for nutrient transport from the soil to the plant and for photosynthesis (water is drawn from the root by a process called transpiration), where 6 Water- and CO²-molecules will form one glucose and 6 oxygen molecules. I won’t go into detail here but the general picture should be clear, a plant without water is an unhappy plant.

How much water do plants need?

This leaves us with the question of how much water is actually needed by a plant. I wish there was a simple answer to this question, but there is not. Surprisingly there is very little information out there to answer this question, and the sensitivity to environmental factors is not helping the cause.

According to a Paper of the University of California a vegetable garden needs about 1 inch of water per week in summer, with this rate we get about 0.623gallons (2.36l) per sq foot(0.01m²).

A rough Estimate is better than nothing and can help to get a scale of Water usage. But now let’s actually get into the topic of saving water during the hot months. First things first, why is it important to be more water efficient?

Why it’s important to be more water efficient

Simply put, conserving water is an issue we have to take more serious in the next couple years, so why not start now?

Given the recent trends, it’s fair to assume summers will only get drier and drier, installing a good water saving system and growing crops with less water will help us to preserve more water now. Additionally, it gives us the opportunity to prepare for the future, where water will be even more scarce.

On a side note, it might also save some money in the process, granted you won’t get rich from the amounts you can save this way, but it’s better than nothing.

Your plants will also thank you for maintaining a more efficient water household during the next drought when all the other plants start to wilt and yours still stand strong.

Without further ado, let’s dive right into it, how can we grow crops while using less water?

Hot to grow vegetables with less water

Soil Preparation: Taking care of the soil should be the first step when improving the water household of your garden. It’s important to have a loamy soil with lots of organic matter or other water trapping materials to encourage deep roots.

Mulching is another important step to reduce water usage, helping with water runoff, evaporation and water storage especially in late spring and early summer before your plants start to shade the area around them.

Irrigation: Using the right way to irrigate your plants can save a lot of water. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way of watering plants, no other irrigation method will save a similar amount of water, especially in a mulched garden bed with good soil quality.

By far the most common way to water plants is by hand and comes with its own advantages. It’s easy to avoid overwatering compared to other methods like sprinklers, simply moving to another area as soon as the water stops to be absorbed into the ground prevents overwatering. To check if enough water was applied just come back an hour later, and check the moisture level of the soil in a depth of 6-8 inches (ca 15cm) – using a long stick or screwdriver.

Water in the morning: Watering before the afternoon sun hits your growing bed will reduce evaporation to a minimum, this will give your plants much more time to absorb the water.Early morning is by far the best time to water crops, but sometimes can be inconvenient, watering in the evening is still a good alternative but is, in general, a bit less efficient.

How to plant: Growing very close together, covering the ground without any bigger sun exposed areas will save you some additional water. This is not only true for Pots but also when growing in a field.

The less sun reaches your soil, the less will evaporate and your plants are able to use this water instead. The best Layout is growing in Blocks, rather than rows. Growing in multiple Layers and Plants with relatively similar water needs is an often used native growing method.

Growing Methods: One such example would be the “Three sisters” growing Corn, Beans and Squash together as companion plants. This method was used by Native Americans and helps to preserve water, nutrients and reduce weeds as well as pests.

Another example are Zai Pits, used to trap water in very infertile soil, mostly used in areas with low or irregular rain fall, originating from the western Sahel. This method uses holes in the ground to grow crops similar to growing in Pots, improving the soil directly around the plant to improve water storage and fertility.

Plant early: Giving your plants time to establish a root system will help your plants to survive in the dry summer days. This also helps to grow deep roots, which in turn can help to reduce water usage even further.

In combination with Drip irrigation, Deep watering and the right soil this will allow you to only water 1 or 2 times a week and saves up to 50% of your normal water consumption.

Know your plants: Crops grow in different stages and require water accordingly, it’s very common to over water-plants during the summer months. While flowering and fruiting water consumption of the plant is crucial, however during all the other stages far less water is needed.

Avoid hot afternoon sun: Minimizing exposure to afternoon sun will help to reduce evaporation even further. Plants, which require around 6 hours of sun are still happy if they receive 3 in the morning and 3 in the evening, avoiding the afternoon sun altogether.

Reduce unwanted competition: Grass, weeds and other wild plants all need water to grow, so if your gardening bed is overrun by all kinds of unwanted plants, they will suck the ground dry, not leaving any water for your crops.

Use Rainwater: Not exactly a way to use less water but collecting and using Rainwater can help save some money and will reduce the impact on ground water. Rain water is also generally free from most pollutants, contaminants and chlorination and ideal for the needs of your plants.

Drought tolerant plants

Certain plants are also more tolerant to dry conditions and fit perfectly in a more water efficient garden. 7 of my favourite drought tolerant plants are listed below, while I only mention very few crops here, there is no shortage in other plants suitable for harsh summers. I should also mention, that I mostly included food grown in my climate, and didn’t focus on crops grown in deserts.

Lentils: The cultivation of Lentils date back an impressive amount of time, making the first appearance as agricultural crop about 8500 years ago. Originating from the Near East, Lentils quickly spread to Asia, Europe and in the early 1900s to America.

Due to its robust nature, lentils are a great option for drought-plagued gardens but are more suited for cool growing conditions. Most of the Lentil production in the US is located in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Lentils are known for their high Protein content and known as a very healthy staple food in many countries, making them not only good addition to your garden but also to your plate.

Chicory: First cultivated in ancient Egyptian about 5000 years ago primary served as a meditation plant. The root found a lot of different uses over time and are now best known as a coffee alternative.

Both the leaves and the roots of Chicory is used for cooking (especially in Belgium), animal feed, and still has a use as meditation plant.

Chicory is a cool-season plant and prefers temperatures below 77°F(25°C). The Seedlings are sensitive need to be water properly in the beginning but after establishing its roots (about pencil-thick), it becomes drought resistant.

Artichokes: Artichokes have been cultivated since around 300 BC, and originate from the Mediterranean. This Flower was once a symbol of wealth and was enjoyed by wealthy Romans.

I have more of a mixed relationship with Artichokes, I like their taste and they provide a lot of other benefits but are a lot of work to prepare and eat in general. Nonetheless, if grown in the right climate (Hardiness zone 8-11) Artichokes can provide food all year round. In colder climates, they can be planted in spring and harvested during late summer, but will die of in winter.

Amaranth: First discovered evidence of domesticated Amaranth seed dates back about 8000 years, being a staple food of the Aztecs, native to Peru. That being said, it’s still unclear if this is the first use of Amaranth or if the cultivation of this plant dates back even further.

Similar to the more known Quinoa, Amaranth has a lot of different uses and can build the base for a nice Dinner, used to make a salad or as a sweet Breakfast. Due to its versatile nature and the fact that its Gluten free, Amaranth builds a solid foundation for a lot of meals.

Figs: Being one of the oldest fruits to be cultivated, Figs originated from West Asia and have been farmed since more or less 11000 years. In the first Centuries AD, the cultivation of Figs spreads around the Mediterranean and all the way to northern Europe. In the 1500s Figs finally, complete their journey around the world and were imported to America by Spanish settlers.

Figs are known for their health benefits, rich in Calcium, potassium, iron and lots of Vitamins. Additionally, Figs can be dried and used throughout the Winter, making it a perfect food for long cold periods.

Mediterranean herbs: Herbs like Rosemary, Sage or Thyme tend to use much less water than vegetables and fruits. They do, however, require well-drained soil, otherwise their roots are prone to rot if they come in contact with too much water.

Heirloom varieties: Heirloom varieties tend to be more drought resistant in general when originating from a dry climate area. That being said, this is not true for every Heirloom plant. They also have a host of other advantages over hybrid plants, which makes them a good choice if you are looking for a new addition to your garden.

Signs of dehydrated Plants

The first sign of dehydration in plants will be shown by their leaves, they start to droop. Curling and Rolling will follow shortly after. If lack of water persists over longer periods of time parts of the plant will start to die off. Dead brown leaves and Leaf scorch are some signs of severe dehydration and indicate a plant is close to dying.

More importantly are the subtle indicators of a dehydrated plant, which will show far before wilting. Lack of water can cause the plant to grow smaller leaves to reduce water evaporation. Dropping of leaves, blossoms or fruits is another preemptive step to keep the plant alive during a drought.

Getting a good picture of which areas of your garden are more prone to water-shortage will help you to adjust your water-household accordingly.

Related Questions

Which vegetables need the most water? Some examples of high water usage plants are Pumpkins, Beans, Onions and Broccoli.

Which vegetables need the least water? On the flip side, Plants known for low water, expectations are Herbs, lettuce, spinach, radish and interestingly enough even Watermelons, which do not need lots of water but will definitly benefit from it.