Dealing with Drought — Growing Food When Texas Weather Moves North

west texas wind farm and cactus

In west Texas in the summer you can grow wind or prickly pear cactus. The cactus is edible (tastes a little like green beans). Much more of the heat wave we’re getting this year and Indiana will look like this, too. Photo by Edward Jackson at Wikipedia Commons; public domain photo.

If you decide to be self-sufficient and grow your own food, you’ll face yearly challenges unique to your location and adapt to them fairly quickly. Fine-tuning a garden to local conditions only takes a few years of experience, and then you find an approach that works. In the 21st Century when the weather goes nuts on you every year, you have to adapt your farming plan in weeks, not years. Seems like every growing season now brings a whole new set of problems.

After several years of excessive rain and a previous season too cold to plant summer vegetables until the end of June, I was all set for inundation this spring. My mound garden surrounded by deep drainage ditches seemed like the perfect solution to life in the swamp. Naturally, once I perfected this system, the weather patterns shifted 180 degrees and Indiana stepped into one of its worst droughts and a record-setting heat wave that would make West Texas prickly pear very comfortable here. Not much is growing locally, but the wind. Makes me want to look into putting up a windmill generator.

I’m still getting food from the garden, though, and it’s actually doing pretty well. The mounds turned out to work all right in dry conditions, too, although I did modify them some by layering mulch thickly on the sides. I also water them daily, and that doesn’t seem excessive considering the high temperatures here for the past couple of weeks have ranged from 102 to 107. Without stable water in a heat wave like this, many vegetable plants either die quickly or acquire damage from which they can’t recover.

high water sign in dry ground

Without the high water sign the county left, you’d never know this was swampy ground. Corn in the background is about six feet short of normal height this time of year. Photo by J.T. Hats; all rights reserved.

Some crops I don’t need to worry about at this point. I already dug my potatoes, not a big harvest but better than most years and of good quality. Potatoes don’t do very well here and are always just about to seriously make tubers when the heat puts an end to that completely. I just plant potatoes to have enough to enjoy. Garlic and onions were well designed for heat, because they just batten down the hatches and go dormant. You’ll get smaller bulbs and cloves when drought and heat cut their growing season short, but you’ll still get onions and garlic. I’m very happy with the results of that gamble, looks like some of the best onions and garlic I’ve grown so far. The peas are done, and it was an excellent year for peas of all sorts.

Summer heat plays havoc with most vegetables, and extreme summer heat can ruin everything. Tomato leaves sunburn, and some of the leaves on my plants have done that. If the leaves wilt, they’re in danger. Let them wilt for too long and they’ll burn dry. Not watering often enough also puts the fruit at risk, because without a steady supply of water the bottoms of developing fruits develop spots of black, dying tissue. Sometimes that’s due to calcium deficiency, but if the plants don’t have enough water they can’t utilize the calcium in the soil, and the water shortage is the real problem. If you want good tomatoes you have to invest water in them.

vegetable garden in drought country

Not a lot of vegetables prosper when it’s over a hundred and hasn’t rained for two and a half months. Even with irrigation you’ll need to cut back on expectations and use the water where it counts. Photo by J.T. Hats; all rights reserved.

Some of the traditional Indian crops do all right in hot weather, as long as they get water. Squash of all sorts tolerates the heat well enough, but the leaves wilt and burn during hot temperature extremes. Irrigation keeps them going, but it’s a constant struggle. Okra, a vegetable from Africa, should thrive in the heat so long as the water supply keeps up with demand, but this year okra here hasn’t as yet done very well. Seed didn’t germinate as it should, and the small stand I wound up with seems dwarfed. Runner beans also chose the conservative route, and the Kentucky Wonders that put up 12 foot vines last season have topped out at three feet. Bush beans did better, but it’s now far too hot for any of the beans to set pods, and I’ll only get more from them if the weather cools. I’m trying blackeyed peas and sunflowers, looking for something that truly loves hot weather. Truth is, nothing loves a drought. In severe droughts, civilizations collapse and people move on to places where it rains.

This might be a really good year for tomatoes, since the heat and the low humidity cut back on fungal problems, but tomatoes are always a gamble. Currently the night temperatures are too hot for more fruit to set, but there’s plenty already set on and growing. It’s a hopeful tomato year, with about five different varieties underway and doing well. Yellow Better Boy, Black Krim, German Green, Taiwan Bullseye and Hybrid Plum all apparently are thriving and producing. I’ll believe it when tomatoes are on my supper plate.

As far as putting away food for winter, the chances are currently very slim. Unless there’s rain, I won’t have much of a fall garden, and no one expects any rain very soon. If I don’t have a good fall garden, I guess I’ll go fishing. There’s some good in every situation.

A Tip for Dealing with Drought:

Soil temperature can be every bit as important as soil moisture for maintaining plant health. Most gardeners today practice clean cultivation, eliminating weeds and maintaining bare pathways between widely spaced rows of vegetables. While weeds do compete with vegetables for nutrients and moisture, not all weeds cause harm, and the extra shade of a living plant cover can prevent soil temperatures from reaching disastrous highs. Some common weeds like Dutch White Clover, in moderation, can shade the ground and enrich the soil. Bare soil heats up, and in extreme heat it won’t take long until it heats to the point where vegetable life isn’t possible. I used to garden in the Ozarks, where soil ranged from six inches to two feet deep on top of limestone bedrock. Once that layer got hot and the bedrock underneath warmed up, it was like trying to grow food on an asphalt parking lot.

Here in Indiana, the soil goes deep. Keep the upper levels cool and you can nurse your little garden spot past the hot weather. A living mulch can work, if you provide sufficient water and cut down the competition around the desired crop plants. Most of the garden space between rows, as allowed by modern agriculture, is space for walking or hoeing or driving machinery. It has nothing to do with growing food, and is just convenient space for tending crops. If you want to condense a garden and conserve water you can place double rows in a staggered “per plant” spacing and just leave enough for a single foot trail in between rows, leaving you a way to pull weeds if you have the agility to put one foot directly in front of the other foot. You don’t want to walk on top of a plant’s roots, but a plant’s roots don’t extend very far beyond the plant’s upper canopy. Less square footage of garden means more production with less water, in a dry year.

The problem with this is a wet year, because crowded plantings foster fungal diseases when the weather stays either cold and damp or hot and damp. Another helpful trick in dry seasons, deep mulch, also has good aspects and bad ones. In dry weather the mulch shades the ground and helps retain moisture in the critical first six inches of soil where plant roots obtain most of their nourishment. Mulch also provides a home for sowbugs and slugs in damp weather, and those pests can decimate a garden when the weather isn’t desert-like. Keep all these things in mind and adjust the garden environment to fit the circumstances. The tricks that help when it’s dry won’t help when it’s wet. Yes, it’s a lot of work to adjust the garden to fit the weather, but nobody ever said that growing your own food would be easy.

I used to grow ginseng in a woodlot in the Ozarks and as a result I learned a lot about shade gardening. My garden in Indiana gets periodic shade from nearby trees throughout the summer days, and this year that helps quite a lot, giving the plants a break from exposure to intolerable direct sunshine. You only need a total of eight hours of sunshine daily to grow healthy vegetable crops, and in midsummer the environment provides almost twice that in North America. In heat waves and droughts, that’s more than vegetable crops can handle. Some plants, like ginseng, can’t survive in unmodified direct sunlight even in a good year, so you have to grow them either in natural partial shade or artificial partial shade. In places like Texas, frontier gardeners learned this trick and grew gardens under lath. In Houston, Missouri, once the ginseng capital of the United States, a prosperous industry grew up briefly in the early 1900’s, based on growing ginseng under lath gardens built of slabwood from local lumbermills. If you’re doomed to excess sunshine, you can compensate with artificial shade. Cutting back the direct sunlight by 25 to 50 percent can save your garden, but this is an expensive solution that makes no sense unless you garden where you expect those conditions every year. Something to keep in mind, for the end of the world situation. You’ll still have zucchini.

Purslane

Hey, any time you find an edible plant that tolerates adverse conditions and still tastes good, it’s a bonus. Purslane in many places ranks as a common weed, able to colonize bare ground and hard environments and difficult to eradicate. Common purslane, in my opinion, isn’t all that great as a vegetable addition to meals. Golden purslane eliminates most of the dirt problems welded to the ground-hugging common varieties and adds flavor. Golden purslane grows with an upright habit instead of hugging the muck, easier to harvest and much cleaner, with a vastly better taste. Common purslane tastes and looks like worms when it’s cooked. Not that I have anything against worms, but it’s not the end of the world yet. After the end of the world, maybe I’d rather eat worms. (Not so bad if you squeeze out the grit and dry them on a hot rock before adding them to your meal.) Purslane originated in a Mediterranean climate, dry and hot in the summer, and its succulent leaves and stems trap water and allow the plant to survive drought conditions. The first year we planted golden purslane here, we scattered seed and tilled lightly and got nothing. In succeeding years, purslane emerged. Golden purslane self-seeds, once it begins, and you won’t need to buy it again. Tastes good.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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