How To Construct A Drought Pod

Reader Contribution by Ron Ferrell
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Experimentation and observation are key to my years of successful gardening. Below are a few books and authors that are instrumental in my approach to gardening.

I spent NO MONEY to build this Drought Pod and it is fueled by my food waste.

I’ve read many books and perhaps my favorite author is Ruth Stout. What I especially like about Ms. Stout is her observation of the forests around her home and the role that heavy mulch plays in nature and the fact that Mother Nature does not till the soil. Secondly, she is funny and her approach to gardening is light and forgiving. I highly recommend her books, even though they are difficult to find. I think Barnes and Noble has reprinted her best seller. Search the used sites first!

Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza is another great book. Her approach to building a garden is forgiving and resourceful. Starting with cardboard, layers of available, mostly free materials are used to build garden soil. I used this method at my Ecohut to block out weeds, add layers of whatever organic materials I could drag home and created an awesome, rich garden soil up to 12″ deep.

No-Wrong-Answer Gardening

The great thing about building a garden is that most of the materials one needs to build an organic, rich, microbially diverse garden soil are free.  These materials are considered waste materials and would otherwise be taken to a land fill, but are free to you if you can haul it home.

How I Developed the Drought Pod

I started in 2006 at my Ecohut with a barrel in the ground that I briefly described in my first blog post. I used horse manure in a bottomless barrel, submerged into the soil about 12″ and created a simple form of horse manure compost tea, along with cardboard and heavy mulch to grow about a dozen awesome tomatoes. The tomatoes were planted directly beside the barrel so that the roots could tap into the compost tea inside the barrel.

By planting beside the barrel, and not directly into the barrel, the tomatoes never had ‘wet feet’ and could tap into the nutrient rich moisture as they so chose.

Passive Moisture-Retention System Using Straw Bales

As I was moving hay bales one hot summer day, the only naturally wet spot in the garden was under bales of hay that had been stacked there for a while, waiting to be broken apart for mulch. The realization that the only wet spot in the garden is under a bale of hay led me to my next experimental project.

I shallowed out the soil about 6″ deep, the width of the bale, for the length of the row and then arranged my straw bales in a long row in that recession. The bales are placed on their edge, with the wires NOT in the soil to keep them from coming apart. As the bale very slowly breaks down, the wires continue to hold the bale together.  I have bales in my garden that are going on 5 years that are very slowly dissolving into the soil but still performing their intended purpose: moisture retention.

A drip hose can be placed under the bales as the row is being installed, so that both rows can be water simultaneously.

The importance of the bale as organic mass is huge: weed elimination, moisture retention, and the most important function of keeping the root system cool on a hot day. These bales only need replacing ever few years.

Additionally, I added squares of straw between the rows as heavy mulch for weed control, etc.

I don’t believe you can have too much mulch, plus the elimination of tilling from year to year is priceless. This is a no-till system. Everything is created on top of the existing soil.

Using this system, I added steel posts and cattle panels on both sides of this straw bale row and planted tomatoes on both sides of the row. I trellised the tomatoes for space utilization with great results.

Let me state here the importance of compost tea. I’m a big believer and heavy user of compost tea in my garden for both root stimulation and as a foliar spray. In another blog, I will describe how I make compost tea.

Organic Mass

A dense mass of organic material stays wet much longer than an equal amount of organic material distributed over a big surface area. For example, I just brought to my garden a water logged bale of wheat straw that had been left out in the rain. It must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. I cut the wires and am using the flakes and cardboard, as mulch around my Drought Pod.

How to Build a Drought Pod

Walking home one day, someone had discarded a 40 gallon plastic barrel that had been fashioned into a compost tumbler. The barrel had been drilled with lots of holes and a lid made into the side of the barrel. These type compost tumblers rarely work as dreamed, then are discarded. I had no intention of using it as a compost tumbler, but because of a video I watched on YouTube called KEY HOLE GARDENS IN AFRICA, I realized I could create a similar effect with this barrel. Any type container can be used to create this effect. Be creative. Recycle.

I hollowed out the soil about 6″ deep where the barrel would sit, then lined that depression with spoiled alfalfa hay. The barrel was placed atop the hay, then INSIDE the barrel I layered, lasagna style, from bottom to top:

1) 6″ spoiled alfalfa hay
2) 6″ veggie waste compost
3) one gallon of rabbit manure
4) two gallons of worm castings plus worms
5) 4″ of veggie waste compost
6) enough spoiled alfalfa hay to cover this organic mass
7) approximately 3 gallons of super rich compost tea

What I have created, instead of a compost tumbler, is an in-ground worm composting station for all of my food waste. This organic mass should stay wetter than a sponge, but not soaking wet. Generally, whatever moisture is in my food waste is all I will need to add for a very long time.

Buy you a moisture probe for a more accurate assessment of the moisture content.

Another tip I highly recommend is to use an old food blender, put all your veggie waste in that blender and add some water to make a slurry of the veggie waste. Then dump that slurry into this worm station for easier consumption by the worms and general composting breakdown.

The Garden Pod Perimeter

Around the perimeter of the pod, I lay down cardboard to discourage unwanted plant growth then I add stall mix from a horse farm (wood shavings and manure the older the better), compost, powdered manures, anything to create a planting base for your garden plants. This bermed soil should be at least 8″ to 10″ deep, and acts as a planting medium for your plants.

This bermed soil is moderately moist, because the bulk of the moisture and nutrients will come from inside the pod. Then plant DIRECTLY beside the pod, and as the plants grow the roots will intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients through the holes in the barrel. By planting on the outside of the barrel, the plants never have wet feet and are able to tap into the moist nutrient ORGANIC MASS inside the barrel. The bermed soil will actually be on the slightly moist scale, while the inside the barrel, the organic mass will be wet.

Once the organic mass inside the barrel is complete and the soil bermed around the Drought Pod, mulch heavily with spoiled alfalfa (preferable), wheat straw, berlap bags, anything to create a heavy mulch which will reduce evaporation and most importantly keep the roots cool.

Just remember this is no-wrong-answer gardening. There are no absolutes.I’m not telling you how to garden or to create this project, I’m just telling you how I created this. Be resourceful, use free manures for the compost tea, get veggie waste from your neighbors.

The Drought Pod is ideal for small spaces where one doesn’t have room for garden rows.

As Ruth Stout said, “Plants don’t know if they are planted in a straight row or not.”


I have spent $0. on this project. It will grow food for years. No tools are necessary. The Drought Pod may be my best experimentation project to date.

I hope this makes sense and motivates you to experiment in the garden!

Until next time.

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