Growing in dry conditions

Article originally published by: Kiwi Gardener

Rebecca Lees shares tips on growing during dry times.

Simple plastic barrel water collection system – water feeds into the barrel from roof downpipe, with a pipe for overflow which directs water back down the storm water drain.

If you’re faced with this dilemma, a little planning can go a long way and, from our experience, it’s best to work with nature rather than against it.

Think small

When a plant gets stressed from lack of water, high temperatures and hot winds, it can bolt to seed, become diseased or perish. If you have grand plans of building bigger and better gardens, but don’t have the time or access to large amounts of water, then reduce your garden size for now.

Grow only what you will need. This will reduce watering and the plants that do get watered will have a better soak.

Try growing smaller fruits, dwarf or mini cultivars, such as small cucumbers, gherkins or mini eggplants. There are plenty of options available. They may require less watering, a shorter growing time and can be picked when small – plus they look great and are fun to grow.

Change your planting habits

Neat, tidy rows look great, but they’re not drought tolerant. Instead, planting in clusters builds up a small microclimate and holds moisture better in the soil. Add companion plants to the mix and you’ll help keep the bad guys out (pests) and the good guys in (beneficial insects). Take nasturtiums for example – I’m planting nasturtiums everywhere in our forest garden – this robust plant does well in dry soils, the leaves, flowers and stems can all be eaten and it acts as a living mulch when grown between plants, shading the soil and keeping the ground moist (great for beneficial microorganisms as well). Nasturtiums are also a good companion to fruit trees and other edibles.

Try not to plant out in very dry conditions. You’re better to keep the plants potted up in the shade. If you just have to plant them out give them a really good soak before planting.

Robust rainwater collection system. Building consent may be required for a larger installation such as this.

Look after the soil

Keep your garden mulched at all times to retain moisture and promote steadier soil temperature. Try to find organic mulch if you can – the last thing you want during dry times is to stress a plant even further with toxic residues. Add plenty of organic matter to your soil to aid in moisture retention (compost, humus, manure, chopped up plants), the more the better, as it enables your soil to act like a sponge.

Learn how to dig a swale – this is an ancient way of better utilising the water than runs through your property.

Change your watering habits

The best way to reduce reliance on council water supply is to harness the water that falls from the sky. Set up a rainwater collection tank from the roof of your house or shed – it can be as simple or complex as you like. A barrel placed under a downpipe (with the overflow fed back into the storm water drain) works well. Or you may really go to town and install a more complex system of tanks which all feed into one another and greatly increase your water supply (pictured).

Water at night or in the morning before the heat of the day. Use dripper irrigation on timers (rather than sprinklers). Water plants deeply, but infrequently. Roots follow the water, so if you only water lightly, the roots will be shallow. You want the roots to head down to where the soil is cool and damp. Choose your plants wisely Rather than growing plants that require heavy watering, choose those which flourish in hot dry conditions. Here are a few to consider:

Yellow mini eggplant – growing smaller fruits often requires less watering and a shorter growing time.


Yarrow (Achillea filipendulina) does well in dry conditions and is a companion for fruit trees, grapes and raspberries. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), sunflowers, lavender, catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) are others that enjoy dry times. For sunny borders, hardy perennials garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), and salvia and sage varieties are worth planting.


Nasturtium, calendula or pot marigold, cosmos, Gypsophila elegans ‘Baby’s Breath’.


Rhubarb, silver beet, nasturtiums, garlic chives, Chinese artichokes, sage, oregano, thyme, German chamomile (flowers for tea), burdock, root vegetables, asparagus (once established). For mint, lemon balm and peppermint, rather than containing these wonderful companions in a barrel, let them go for it under your fruit trees and around your berries. The high levels of essential oils in herbs like these are great for warding off pests.