How to Grow Food in a Drought

The drought this year is pretty severe. Worse, it’s not only dry, it’s HOT.

If you want to get a sense for how bad it is, take a look at this amazing graphic that compares this year’s drought vs. previous droughts.

Of course, this drought means it is going to be a bad year for farmers. Corn prices are already at an all time high and other crops are following its ascent. It also means that it’s going to be a bad year for many gardeners. Why? Many communities are going to impose strict water controls by the end of the summer….

So, what should we do? Like so many of the smart and (VERY) capable people in our online community, my reaction to this news isn’t to wring my hands in worry or gnash my teeth in fear.

Instead, since we are a resilient and pragmatically optimistic community of people, this drought will serve to motivate us to make ourselves less vulnerable to droughts in the future (of which there promises to be many).

Pushing the Envelope: A Self-Contained Aquaponics Solar Greenhouse

One of the solutions to growing food during more frequent and severe droughts is to use aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a gardening system that combines both fish farming and hydroponics.  It is a very good system to use during a drought, since it uses much less water than traditional gardening (more on aquaponics automation and business thinking).

Since my research indicates that droughts are going to be much more frequent in the future, I’ve been on the hunt for interesting aquaponics projects for quite a while now.

Luckily, I met the entrepreneurial innovators at Portland Purple Water, a company that provides rainwater harvesting and aquaponics systems.  They introduced me to a system designed by Franz Schreier. Franz’ design and prototype of an Aquaponics Solar Greenhouse is the most advanced I’ve seen. It’s designed to operate without any external energy input.

Technical Note: His greenhouse combines everything from special coatings on the greenhouse glass (better performance than standard glass) to rotating solar panels (to use the light energy the plants can’t use) to PAR light films (these films can shift light from green, a color that plants don’t use much for photosynthesis, to other usable colors) to a sulfur plasma lamp (an artificial light source that can mimic the sun).

Here’s a picture of the greenhouse prototype he put together (you can access his entire presentation here).

Here’s another viewpoint (you can see the fish tank to the lower right).

This looks like an amazing prototype.  The next step is to see if it can be built on a larger scale.

That’s exactly what the guys at Portland Purple Water are doing. They are trying to raise the money, using Kickstarter, to build a larger version of this system.

Here are the goals:

  • Scott Yelton (he’s a partner at Portland Purple Water) is building a blog and discussion zone for donors (like me) and CSA members to participate in the construction of the system.
  • Demonstrate the viability of an Aquaponics CSA (community supported agriculture).  The difference between this type of CSA and traditional ones is that this CSA can supply members with weekly baskets of produce throughout the ENTIRE year.
  • Use the system as an incubator for other aquaponics efforts.

Hope that you find this project interesting enough to back (NOTE:  if it doesn’t make the funding goals, the contribution is returned to you, so it’s low risk).

Growing Vertically Rocks!

Andy, a resilient member of our community, graciously sent in photographs of how he uses structurally rigid and low cost cattle panels to grow vertically with his large scale garden.

Remember. Don’t worry. Don’t fret. Just focus on the problems that are in front of  you and solve them. One by one. I’ll be here to help.

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  • andy

    You might also note the use of drip irrigation. May and June were very dry months here and I used drip tape for the first time, and saved our garden, I’m convinced……as other local gardens dried up and died.

  • Melissa

    My husband and I were just talking about this today. But this only addresses one part of the problem: water. It doesn’t necessarily address the issue of heat: This drought had high temperatures that interfered with the proper development of plants. So no matter how much we (and the farmers) watered, corn didn’t tassel right, tomatoes stopped growing, etc.

    I was also thinking that the climate shifts might mean we need to grow our food at different times/cooler seasons too if summer comes earlier and winter cold is delayed.

    But I know some plants are “internally timed” to go to seed when the sun is in a certain trajectory, so I wondered how long it might take for seeds to evolutionarily adjust to being planted at a different time.

    Any thoughts?? Thanks for the wonderful blog!!

    • d. fish

      melissa, it’s not so much the air temp that affects the plants, it’s soil temp. this is why heavy mulching is critical — to keep the soil underneath cool and moist, no matter what the environmental conditions are. remember there is no bare soil in nature, except in barren deserts.

      if you can get past the heavy dose of evangelism, the doc ‘Back to Eden’ is a great case study on using wood chips to boost crop yields and overall plant health.

      also, here’s an good discussion on lo-tech watering techniques:

      your question on how long it takes for plants to adapt to environmental changes is interesting. some people who’ve worked with using ORMUS in agriculture have noted evolutionary changes in the next generation of seed.

      john, how’s the hugelkultur bed doing in the drought?

      • Carl Farnsworth – Exactly. Mulching is key!

        If people can find some land that has a heavy cover of leaves, pine needles, twigs etc., just shift some of the top layer around a little and see the glorious brown soil underneath. That’s the sort of stuff you want in your garden – so get mulching! It helps so much with water retention and prevents soil degradation/erosion.

    • different clue

      If one out of ten, or one out of a hundred . . . corn plants tasseled right AND silked and pollinated right, they might set seed which is selected for producing corn plants which can survive such conditions. Planting out such seed might be the start of a more heat-adapted corn selection.

  • Michael

    I’m using aquaponics in the Florida Keys and while it’s not dry down here (yet) I have found that the system, once running, uses very little additional water and enables me to garden through our hot summers. I strongly recommend aquaponics for those who want to garden in small areas.

  • d. fish

    awesome presentation by John Jevans of Ecology Action on how to grow biointensively and why:

  • Penny Pincher

    I’m buying “humus and manure” from Wal-Mart, 7 40-lb bags at a time, which is around $11 each time, and carting them home in my economy car, mixing it with sphagnum, and building raised beds. I’m also growing tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets, mostly on the porch, but the ones in the garden are doing much better. That Wal-Mart “humus and manure” doesn’t have enough nutrition in it, as it turns out. The garden where the tomatoes are doing real well, I put horse poo on it last fall. This fall I intend to fertilize again, and get leaves from other people’s trash for mulch. By the time winter rolls around, I hope my back yard will be almost all raised beds, a foot deep or more, with aged horse poo and leaves on them. And I also have a compost bin.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Penny. That’s been my experience too. Direct purchase is better than bagged.


  • Matt Smaus

    Two often-overlooked but very resilient approaches to drought-proofing your gardens:

    (1) Grow your plants farther apart. Each will be able to get its roots out a lot further to scrounge for water. For some plants, you can virtually eliminate watering even during dry summers this way. For others, you can supplement ground water once or twice during the dry season by placing a full 5-gallon bucket next to it with a small hole in it. Steve Solomon offers more on this in Water-wise Vegetables, available for free here:

    (2) Grow wet-season staple crops. In the NW, for example, you can grow your potatoes nearly without irrigation in the spring, and wheats, barley, and rye through the winter, as well as some legumes such as chickpeas.

    • John Robb

      Thanks much Matt.

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