A sensible gardener knows better than to try to grow vegetables in extreme heat and extreme drought. Right? Right.

A sensible gardener throws in the shovel and the hoe (and the soaker hoses) when record breaking temperatures make April feel like June and June feel like August. Yes. Definitely.

But what if you’re the kind of gardener who hates to give up the fight until you absolutely have to? The kind who somehow thrives on the hot sweaty challenge of growing vegetables during one of Austin’s hottest, most rain-starved summers ever.

True confession: I’m one of those kind. The harder it gets, the more determined I become. In many matters I consider myself to be quite sensible and pragmatic, but when it comes to gardening, especially growing food, every day is a new day and anything is possible — even rain.  So until another rain shower comes along, I get up a little earlier each morning to make time to stand around in the garden holding a water hose on my summer survivors: tomatoes, beans, eggplants and squash.

2011 backyard beefsteak

(Sidenote: Strange but true — I still have several relatively bug free and disease free tomato plants with lots of green tomatoes hanging on them. The photo above is a tomato I plucked from the vine just a few days ago. Check back here for a spring-summer 2011 tomato report — which will include an assessment of my best performing varieties, most successful soil amendments, best tasting fruits, etc, etc.)

Now back to today’s post — the not-so-sensible gardener’s guide to keeping a home vegetable garden limping along even though our state has just been declared a natural disaster area because of relentless extreme drought. It’s also almost time to start a fall garden. Yes, garden friends, late June and July is typically when Austin area gardeners start preparing their beds for a fall garden. Early to mid-July is generally considered a good time to set out tomato plants for a fall harvest.


What follows is a list of things I’ve been doing for the last couple of months to keep a little bit of food coming out of my hot hot garden and onto my dinner table. Feel free to add your own extreme gardening methods to my list (just leave a comment or send me a message (reneesroots@gmail.com).  I’m willing to try just about anything (at least once) to keep my heirloom tomatoes going a little longer. And if you’re a rain maker, I really want to hear from you.

1. Mulch mulch and more mulch. Mulch decays faster in high heat, especially with regular watering. So check to make sure you still have a depth of  2-3 inches of chopped leaves, coarse compost, pine needles or whatever you’re using. Spread a thin layer of good compost on top of the soil before topping with mulch to feed microbes and improve water retention. Lately, I’m using a heavier, chunkier pine mulch because it seems to hold moisture a little longer.
2011 amaranth seedlings

2. Dig trenches. Dig a 5-6 inch deep and 3 inch- wide trench around your beds (or even around individual plants) and fill with mix of coarse compost and chopped leaves, or compost and mulch). Best to do this at planting time so you don’t disturb roots. If you’re adding trench after plants are established, start your trench farther away from plants. I’ve known tomato roots to travel as much as a foot through loose garden soil to reach an area of steady moisture.

3. Add shale pieces to your garden soil: Mix a couple of handfuls of shale into each planting hole or dig in 1 or 2 cups per square foot of your growing beds. A UT geologist friend of mine confirmed that shale does indeed hold water, more than vermiculite and much more than decomposed granite. As the soil dries, it draws on additional water stored in the shale pieces. I have several pepper plants that are hanging in there and producing peppers. They only get a few hours of morning sun, and then dappled light in the afternoon. The planting area is loaded with compost, chopped leaves, and several big handfuls of shale. (Note: shale isn’t not cheap, but it doesn’t break down like compost and mulch, so you only have to add it once.)

4. Water at the root zone: Use sunken plastic plant pots, milk jugs or soda bottles to direct water straight to the root zone of each plant. It’s best to install pots and bottles when plant roots are still small so you don’t disturb the roots. If your plant is mature, you can still add a watering pot, but poke around gently in the soil and try to avoid roots. You may need to install pot 5 or 6 inches away from the plant’s stem to avoid damaging roots.

Several vegetable gardeners around town are reporting success this summer with the buried watering pot method, including Iris at Society Garlic and Carla at Austin Urban Gardens. And longtime garden blogger  MS at Zanthan Gardens has for several years planted her tomatoes alongside sunken water bottles. My grandmother used to save 1 gallon milk jugs to use as garden water bottles. During really dry spells, she ran a hose from her kitchen sink drain out to her tomato beds, so that every drop of water from the kitchen faucet was doing double duty. (In Austin, direct watering with gray water is not allowed; it must be properly filtered first. By the way,  in the near future I plan to take a closer look at the dos and donts of gray water garden watering in this space.)
2011 watering pots

5. Suspend shade cloth over plants: Create a hoop- or stake-supported shade cloth tent. I’ve found that 40 percent shade cloth works well. It’s available at some local nurseries and online. If you use shade cloth that shades more than 40 percent of the sun, many plants will have difficulty thriving, so the 70 or 80 percent shade cloth commonly sold for shading outdoor patios is not your best choice for vegetable plant shading. In the picture below, I reached for a quick fix with shade cloth to cover one of my sprawling heirloom tomatoes when I saw that some of its leaves were scorched. I know it’s not beautiful, and I could make the setup more aesthetically pleasing, but I’ll save that project for a cooler day.

2011 tomato shade
6. Try lowered instead of raised beds:  A well-mulched vegetable bed that’s a few inches below the soil’s surface will hang on to moisture longer than a raised bed. But when a big bad thunderstorm comes along, make sure fast pooling rainwater isn’t trapped in your recessed beds. An overflow trench to take excess water away from the bed is needed during rainy spells (remember when we used to have those?).

7. Hand water: If your vegetable plants are looking thirsty and stressed even though you’re giving them two deep soakings a week using drip irrigation or soaker hoses, you may need to hand-water most mornings to help your plants survive between soaks.

8. Use liquid seaweed and/or Thrive: Heat stressed vegetable plants need extra TLC. Weekly foliar feeding with liquid seaweed solution will help them cope. Monthly drenching with a gallon of water dosed with a few drops of Thrive will also help.

I wonder, is there something like Thrive that works as a tonic for gardeners as we hunker down and wait out the drought? Perhaps I should consult an herbalist. Or maybe a bartender.

Stay cool, and happy gardening!