Coping With Heat in the Garden: Drought-Tolerant Crops, Resilient Perennials and More

You can employ several strategies for growing food while coping with drought and climate change, including planting dozens of recommended varieties of short-season, more drought-tolerant crops.

| June/July 2014

If we’ve learned anything as food growers in recent decades, it’s that climate change has placed not just one but many kinds of stress on our gardens and farms. “Global warming” does not adequately describe the “new normal,” given that many food sheds and farms have suffered from a variety of catastrophic floods, freezes, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, grasshopper infestations and crop diseases over the past few years.

The big, paradoxical question confronting many farmers and gardeners is: How do we adapt to and plan for uncertainty? While such a question may initially seem unanswerable, farmers from all parts of the world have responded over many centuries through better crop selection and strategies to mitigate the worst effects of sun and wind.

To best adapt, we need thousands of different annual crop varieties evolving in fields and undergoing evaluation in continually changing climatic conditions, as well as responding to pressures from novel strains of diseases, garden pests and weeds. But just how do we determine and select which annual crops’ seeds are most likely to help us cope with the drought, heat waves, severe storms and other climatic disasters we face?

Learn From Desert Plants

As a Southwest gardener and orchardist already facing hot, dry conditions, I try to take tips from the native desert wildflowers growing around me. They’ve convinced me that there is more than one way to approach a drought. While most seed catalogs interchange the terms “drought tolerance” and “drought resistance,” these terms are often used imprecisely to describe a whole suite of desert-plant adaptations. Drought-resistant perennials include jujube, loquat, macadamia nut, mulberry, persimmon and pomegranate. True drought tolerance is a characteristic of deep-rooted, desert-hardy trees — such as carob trees and date palms — that can survive months without rain by extending their roots down and tapping into underground aquifers.

In the interest of precision, I propose one more category. Many herbaceous annual and perennial crops function as drought evaders in that they circumvent drought. They begin their life cycle with the onset of rains intense enough to trigger germination, and then complete the cycle before the brief wet season is over. They largely avoid desiccation and drought stress by ripening their fruit and dispersing their seeds well before severe soil and water deficits recur, so they never truly experience extended drought. Many early-maturing, short-season vegetables and grains employ these drought-dodging strategies.

Short-season crops have exceptional value in an era of water shortages and climate uncertainty because, after it’s transplanted in a field, a crop that matures in 60 days rather than 90 may require 20 to 25 percent less irrigation than its late-blooming counterpart, thus conserving water and energy.

8/5/2016 10:53:46 AM

I'm confused about how to integrate the practices of succession planting and the interplanting suggested here. Is the idea to keep rotating annual crops around perennial plantings? Thanks in advance for any clarification.

8/5/2016 8:29:36 AM

Don't buy into the UN's 'climate change' propaganda which is intended to further their goal of world government, you will be sorry if they succeed. Climate 'change' has always occurred from the beginning of time and always will. Besides the annual seasonal changes we all are familiar with, there are longer wave climatic cycles occurring over decades, centuries and thousands of years. There is only one thing we and all living species can do about 'climate change' and that is adapt.

8/5/2016 8:07:33 AM

Hi I have been trying to garden in the Mojave desert in California does anyone have any good tips or books I am really struggling thanks debbie

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