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Coping with Drought

Prepare ahead for a dry growing season

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Drought is a pervasive problem in the United States and Canada. In addition, did you know that one-third of North America is either desert or high prairie, where water is in short supply? 

Plants drink their food. If your soil dries out, your plants will starve—or wilt.Take these steps to avoid disaster in a drought or areas with dry conditions.

Improve the Soil

Rainwater sluices through pure sand at the rate of 20 inches per hour or even faster, taking with it everything plants need to survive. Soil with lots of organic matter slows the transition of water from the soil to the subsoil, giving plants a chance to take in what they need. To help retain moisture, mix lots of peat moss and compost into the soil at planting time.

Plan a Smaller Garden

Take stock of what you really need to grow and don't exceed your calculations. For example, two or three hills of zucchini and cucumbers will easily meet the needs of a family of four.

Choose Bush Varieties

Plants that grow low to the soil will lose less water through transpiration than those that spread rampantly (Hubbard squash) or twine up to the sky (pole beans). Check descriptions in seed catalogs for varieties that need little space and can tolerate dry conditions.

Place Plants Close Together

Leaves from neighboring plants will shade the soil, helping to conserve surface moisture and reduce weed growth. Plant beans about an inch apart, tomatoes about 18 inches apart.

Mulch Well

Mulch prevents moisture from evaporating directly from the soil surface, and it can greatly reduce weeds. Use whatever you have at hand—newspaper; black plastic; old carpet; large, flat stones—and apply it when the soil is wet. (Don't mulch with peat moss; it dries out and forms a mat on the top of the soil that easily sheds water. Instead, work peat moss well into the soil.)

Weed Diligently

Smother weeds or pull them out—roots and all. Don't make your plants compete with weeds for moisture.

Reduce Evaporation

Water your garden in the late afternoon or early in the morning—times when the least amount of water will evaporate from the leaves. To encourage roots to develop, soak the garden thoroughly rather than watering it lightly several times.

Use a Drip System

Drip irrigation provides greater water savings than sprinklers. (Consult your county extension agent for tips on setting up drip irrigation.) If you install a drip system, allow for different beds or separate parts of the garden to be on separate sets of commands. The water needs of plants differ widely, and a system that delivers one rate of water to your entire plot can be wasteful.

Strip Off Leaves

Large, bushy tomato plants lose a lot of water through their leaves. Once the green tomatoes reach their full size, strip off most of the leaves to reduce evaporation and keep water going to the ripening fruit.

Harvest at Once

As soon as a fruit or vegetable is ripe, remove it from the plant. Pull up any plants that aren't productive or that are past their prime.

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