The Drought War of 2011: 5 Tips for the Urban Garden

Every day so far in August, we've watched the mercury climb over 100 degrees. Combined with the lack of rain, this summer has been brutal not only to us but also to our botanicals. My husband and I had planted our first urban garden this spring with the hopes of harvesting ingredients for some truly fresh home-cooked meals. Unfortunately, with the way the climate has been going this summer, we got little more than burnt tomatoes and dying lemons.

The scorching son has decided to prematurely dry our herbs for us, but we have no fresh fruits and vegetables with which to eat them--only wizened, half-dead stumps where vegetables used to be. This year, we'll attribute our brown thumbs to our status as unseasoned gardeners, but next year, I swear our garden will be a rainforest of vegetation--with or without that rain--thanks to these five gardening tips for when the sun is plenty but the rain runs scarce.

5. Plant-compatible crops together.

To maximize your garden's ecological efficiency, learn the nutritional and irrigational needs of each fruit and vegetable. High nitrogen levels in the fertilizer can be good for leafy greens like parsley but will burn the roots of, say, tomatoes. Some crops will need more water than others. Some plants attract the same "good" bugs, while others repel "bad" ones. Companion planting involves grouping crops with similar required conditions together in a block (rather than a row) so it will be easier to tend, e.g. tomatoes and basil, carrots and leafy lettuce, eggplant and thyme.

4. Plant crops that require less water.

Get a head start by beginning with a garden that already requires relatively less water; plant vegetables such as okra, mustard greens, eggplant, carrots, zucchini squash, and peppers like jalapeños or poblanos. Certain herbs like parsley and Thai basil also do remarkably well in heat. Learn which are drought-resistant vegetables and get to planting.

3. Mulch.

Make sure fertilizer is deep enough so that the plant's roots grow downward. If fertilizer and compost are set on the garden's surface, roots will climb upward to get food, and this increases the chance of the plant burning. Applying mulch to the garden slows water evaporation, prevents weed growth, and keeps the soil cool. Of course, not all crops (like peppers, which like it hot) need mulch.

2. Irrigate.

If the average temperature were 60 degrees, our gardens would only need one inch of water per week. But the hotter the climate, the more water needed. Houston gardens need about two to three inches of water a week. It is best to irrigate early morning or late evening when the sun won't dry everything up within seconds. Water around the plant directly onto the soil to maximize effectiveness; you want the roots to get water, not necessarily what's above ground. Certain leafy vegetables such as lettuce, however, do enjoy a mild spritz to keep cool.

Although water conservation is important year-round, it is especially pertinent when we have summers like this. Save the water you used to boil eggs or pasta and, once it's cool, use it to water the garden. Set up a rain-collecting barrel (more on this later). Even shower with the watering can--just be sure not to drown your vegetables in soap.

1. Use tools to make irrigation easier.

Let's face it: it's so hot outside, we can barely make it from our cars to our front doors, let alone tend to our gardens. The last thing most of us want to do after a hard day at work is crawl back outside and drag a hose or pail around the yard. If you don't have the dollars to install an automatic sprinkler system, there are other ways to automate your irrigation. Most hardware and home goods stores sell rain barrels or water collectors which (just as their names indicate) collect rainwater for later use. My husband made his own rain barrel out of a 30-gallon trash can. Total supplies cost about $50--a much cheaper alternative to many of the barrels out there, which can cost as high as a few hundred.

From the rain barrel, we attached a drip irrigation line which is wrapped around the garden bed. A water timer is programmed to turn on and off the water every other day for 45 minutes or so. Except for the dwarfed lemon and lime trees and the herbs which are all potted and thus separate from the garden bed, we virtually don't ever have to manually irrigate anything.

How has your urban garden fared this summer? Do you have any additional drought tips to keep our crops alive?

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Christine Ha
Contact: Christine Ha