Dry Farming

Jethro Tull–the agriculturalist not the rock flutist

According to a 2010 report by Ceres “Water Risk in the Municipal Bond Market,” Los Angeles ranks number one in water supply risk. But we’re not alone. Many other US cities including Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas also face a future of water insecurity.

Due to these water risks we’d all do well to consider ways to grow edibles without supplemental irrigation. This may sound absurd at first, but I’ll note that in our garden we’ve discovered, quite by accident, that many plants such as prickly pear cactus, cherry tomatoes, cardoon and pomegranates will do just fine in a climate where it doesn’t rain for six months out of the year.¬† Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch proved that you can grow chard in Southern California with almost no irrigation through a hot summer (the chard thrived in the Ranch’s food forest under almost complete shade).

As an avid gardener in a dry climate I certainly use a lot of water for my vegetables. Most modern vegetables are adapted to copious watering. But this was not always the case. A classic book Dry Farming by John Andreas Widtsoe, first published in 1911 and available as a free download in Google Books, describes how many farmers got along without the modern conveniences of supplemental irrigation.

A dry farmed wheat and alfalfa field in Wyoming from Dry Farming

Other than the advice to till frequently (tilling, among other things, destroys beneficial fungal networks), Dry Farming has some good tips:

  • Maintain soil fertility¬†
  • Plant deeply
  • Plant varieties adapted to dry farming
  • Know when to plant
  • Pay attention to soil structure

The main takeaway for us home gardeners will be the development of drought tolerant veggies. Native Seed Search is a good start, but seed saving will be the ultimate solution. We’re simply going to have to breed drought tolerance back into our water hungry vegetables. Combined with passive water collection techniques such as sunken rather than raised beds, those of us in arid climates can grow a surprising amount of food with a lot less water.

Clarification: dry farming is not growing during the rainy season (which is called “rainfed agriculture”). Dry farming uses strategies to store water in the soil during the rainy season and then grow during the dry part of the year. Though controversial, dry farming traditionally involves tilling.¬† It also requires much greater spacing of plants. For more information see the website of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

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21 Comments

  1. Great post! I am running my own test plantings of produce my family enjoys to find the most water thrifty varieties. I believe major water shortages in all of California will become the norm in the very near future(despite the record rain and snow fall we’ve had this year). I’d rather be prepared now then sorry later.

  2. Steve Solomon (the fellow who started Territorial Seed in Oregon) has a couple of books (Water-wise Vegetables, and Gardening When It Counts) that describe strategies for gardening without or with little irrigation that may be of use to some folks. Some strategies are not planting things so close together so that they don’t compete for water, planting more drought-tolerant stuff on the edges of the garden and the stuff that needs more water in the same line so that you can water those with drip irrigation, dry mulching which is to keep the top inch of soil constantly loose and use that for mulch because it doesn’t wick water out of the ground like other mulches and because the hoeing keeps capillarity down, and then something he calls fertigation.

    I’m glad to know about the chard doing well in shade- I was just thinking this morning about making a bed toward the back of my yard that is shady in the summer and might make a good place for lettuces. I’m not super-fond of chard, but being able to grow enough food is important, and chard is a great cut and come again plant. I wonder what else would do well back there? Kale maybe?

  3. Sunken beds–in a dry climate it makes more sense to garden in the ground, perhaps slightly below grade to allow water to seep into your growing area when it rains. I still have raised beds in our garden but I’m in the process of eliminating them–they dry out fast and need lots more water. In a wet climate–say Portland–raised beds make more sense as roots can become water-logged.

  4. I’m piloting sunken beds this year in NM. So far I’ve been quite pleased with their water retention capabilities. We also flood irrigate, so that helps tremendously, too.

  5. @Rena: Thanks for that link! That was a fantastic article. I learned so many things. The salsa prepared on a comal sounds heavenly. And I want to try that garbanzo water!

  6. Hugerkultur (also spelled hugerculture) is supposed to be a water-thrifty method of gardening. We’re experimenting with a couple of beds built that way this year, although we left the wood exposed around the edges which I suspect will be counterproductive in the long run. When we have some surplus soil, I hope to fix this.

    My husband also found that hydroponics ironically used less water than his in-ground garden beds during a summer in southern Arizona.

  7. I live in Australia, and a LOT of people around here have at least one rain water collection tank – we have two, one big one and one REAL BIG one (please don’t ask me the exact measurements). We can water our vegetables with rain water pretty much exclusively. Other people use theirs to do their laundry. A lot of new public parks are also including underground rain bladders in their construction, and I believe that it’s the law that any new houses built have to have one, too.

  8. I’m actually compiling some information on this exact subject for Mediterranean climates like ours (which include parts of Australia, Kristina) particularly So Cal, for a book. Some great trees that work in our climates for fruit, (particularly the closer to the coast and away from the hills and foothills) are like you said Poms and prickly pear, then there are figs, medlars, Persimmons, the Native elderberry, most Citrus once established, additionally, most grapes, and all the Mediterranean herbs will survive ok without additional irrigation if planted in the right locations with the right soil.

  9. If you have not done so, you should also look at water problems on a widespread basis. For example, the massive Oglalla Aquifer is nearing dangerously low levels–and will not recharge for thousands of years. It is the primary groundwater source for a huge percentage of the grain grown in the U.S. Already, around its edges in places like the Texas Panhandle area, the water level has receded drastically where once there were open watering holes for the cattle drives of the 19th century.
    There is also salt water incursion into the ground water in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas due to so much water being pumped from the ground that seawater is entering into the reduced pressure.
    Similar problems exist in much of the world–making water the *real* next environmental catastrophe, dwarfing what increasingly appears to be a trumped-up furor over “global warming.”

  10. I haven’t been able to get this post off my mind since I read it yesterday. We already practice lots of water conservation techniques, but with Texas in the midst of the worst drought since the 60′s and a hard summer ahead of us, I am trying to learn more. I heard on the news today that the world’s wheat prices are going up because of our weather and it really hit home that this is about more than just the state of my hobby garden.

  11. You said to till frequently to conserve water? I wonder if this is a type-o infrequent tillage would conserve water- frequent tillage would dry the soil out faster.

  12. I would suggest not tilling. The Dry Farming book suggests tilling, which was common advice when it was written. More recent (last half of the 20th century) advice suggests that tilling destroys soil structure.

  13. I was intrigued by your post on biointensive gardening, and have read before about tilling destroying the microbial and fungal networks of the soil – what are your thoughts on reconciling these two concepts?

  14. @Wissa:

    The till or not to till question is a tough one. This questioncomes up here, and in our more recent lasagna mulch post. I’m thinking we need to do a full post on this to explore the issue in depth, so stay tuned!

  15. Wow great! I never even thought of the idea of sunken beds. I want to try! Also I’ve been wanting a native Elderberry but don’t know how to get one. Anyone know if they are easy to propagate from a cutting?

  16. Great post.

    Sustainable Seed Co (http://sustainableseedco.com/) also has a small collection of dry farmed tomato seeds – you can do a search for “dry farmed” on the site. I’ve have had good results with their seeds in general but have not tried dry-farming any of them.

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