Gardening During Disasters

It can be frustrating to plant a garden and watch it fail. It can be mean life and death when it is the food your family is counting on for survival.
It can be frustrating to plant a garden and watch it fail. It can be mean life and death when it is the food your family is counting on for survival.

Last Updated on August 10, 2016

Coping with Challenges – Growing in Drought & Short Seasons

It can be frustrating to plant a garden and watch it fail. It can be mean life and death when it is the food your family is counting on for survival. Yet crop failures happens, to big growers and small farmers and backyard enthusiasts. There are methods that involve earth works, terra-forming or terra-sculpting, or things like hugelkultur mounds that can increase resiliency. Depending on location and if we’re saving to move, our age and finances, or if we’ve just relocated and don’t know the land well yet, those may not be a great solution for us – at least not yet.

We may also find ourselves in a special season instead of a special climate, a year that just tests us to the limits of sanity. It can happen in a lot of ways. Late, wet Springs that have what would normally be a hay cut going to seed because we can’t get in, and forget trying to till for crops. Flooding, heavy rains that wipe out our seed or sprouts. A season that just doesn’t produce the Spring rains our plants need to germinate and get established. Incredible heat and sun that has our plants growing like weeds, but then wilting off at midday – something that can wreck tomatoes and corn, especially.

It’s heartbreaking. I know a permaculture homesteader in Alberta and a nursery grower in Ottawa who both practice clean, sustainable, resilient planting methods, and they’re suffering this year, hugely, while some of the home growers around them are cheering about the incredible sales they’re finding – quart and gallon pots as little as five and ten cents, a dollar, even for fair-sized perennials. The homesteader finally just washed her hands of most of her annual garden, skipped her summer planting, and will skip a lot of her autumn planting.

Why would they put things on such deep discount, 10-20 times lower than normal sale prices, taking a loss on even perennials? Why would they walk away from gardens that usually provide 50-80% of their fruits and veggies, and almost all of their livestock crops?


Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre
Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

It’s more expensive to keep pumping (or buying) water than it is to fall back on their savings and stored foods.

It’s the second year in a row that weather had been screwball for the homesteader, in a part of the world where we don’t usually think of droughts forming. Yet her pond is half its normal size, her creek is dry, and she purchased water and tanks because her well level concerned her – purchased them early, and now there’s another pair near her who are on Facebook and forums begging for tanks and deliveries, trying to find them cheaper, because their well is drying and they have just enough to last their animals and households a week.

It happens. Even in deep-well rural Canada. It for-sure happens further south.

It happens with water, and it happens with heavy frosts and ice that show up late, with false springs that last two weeks and then return to winter, wrecking fruit crops as in the U.S. Northeast, and with sudden frosts that come in a month early. It happens today, with all the advantages of credit cards and technology and the difference a few phone calls can make.

What happens if we’re in a situation similar to World War II’s Victory Garden push, the Cuban oil crisis, or Argentina’s and Venezuela’s collapses, or the more sudden and more devastating and widespread disasters like EMPs, internet-shutdown viruses, and earth-shattering asteroids or eruptions that some preppers foresee? Our options may be limited to making sure we have enough food and water stored for a poor season or year, or join whatever relief community or agency we can find.

There are some other preparations, however, that can limit and avoid some of the stressors, and help us still get yields from our gardens, whether they’re small planters and beds in the city or ‘burbs, or larger acreage.

I’ll mostly deal with drought. Historically some of us have always dealt with drought during our growing seasons, but it’s increasing in prevalence, as is heat. The solutions can also be applied to losing an early “normal” harvest, getting a late start for any reason, or noticing a trend early.

I also use some in years I’m going to be traveling during the normal garden heyday period, so that I can still produce some of our groceries, or so that I can collect early harvests and then drop seed that doesn’t really much need me, or can always be harvested as livestock feed.

Generating Shade

Let’s start with the Cuba example

When the embargo went into effect, the impact was felt almost overnight at the markets. Cuba’s incredibly sunny, and there are native fruits and veggies that thrive there, but growers were too few, too far between, and too reliant on European crops that required an enormous amount of water. There are also periods in the middle of the summer where Cuban farmers wouldn’t normally grow food crops, because of the heat and water needs. With thousands clamoring for anything, they couldn’t afford to not grow.

So they hooked their plants up with parasols.

Okay, not parasols (some balcony growers sure did). They rigged opacity screens from 20% up through even 60% over greenhouse frames and row covers. That gave plants a more spring-like condition and helped keep evaporation from drying out the soil.

If we really want to plan ahead, we have other options for generating shade.

Shade can be generated by large-space sheets or full-sized greenhouses, or individual cloths can be draped over rows or beds. The cloths can be full coverage, or arranged just to break the heat of the worst midday sun. What works best will vary by the materials available, winds in the area, and if insects are also being combated. Access for watering, weeding, pollination, and harvest also has to be factored in.

If we really want to plan ahead, we have other options for generating shade. We can use plants themselves, both annuals and perennials.

Grapes, kiwi, and other vines – to include larger squashes and runner beans – can all be used to create arbors. Some like Chinese yard-long beans and grapes run up for a while before they start leafing out. That allows more light to penetrate from the sides during the cooler morning and evening hours.

Shade can be generated by large-space sheets or full-sized greenhouses, or individual cloths can be draped over rows or beds.

Full-circle shading can really help potato and tuber crops in hot-hot seasons, while corn and beans will likely do better under a flat-roof arbor of grapes or kiwi or shade cloth.

We can also arrange our tall plants to the west instead of north, and plant between rows of trees or shrubs (NOT with a till method) to let those plants shade thirstier crops from the worst of the drying sun and summer winds.

Image: Droughts, loss of irrigation, and other climatic challenges can ravage even experienced growers.
Image: Droughts, loss of irrigation, and other climatic challenges can ravage even experienced growers.

Splitting the Season

There are already growers in Cuba, Arizona and South Florida who pretty much shake their head at standard North American growing guides. It’s so hot and so dry, a March-planted turnip bolts without making a bulb, and tomatoes will drink three gallons a day in July, even pruned to bare stalks.

So they split their seasons around summer’s worst.

We can do the same during a crisis if we know we live in a hot environment and don’t have many backup water options.

It requires a little research. We need to hunt down our monthly average rainfall totals, and see when we’re most likely to hit our droughts. Then we count backwards. Instead of ground sowing squash, we might start them in the middle of winter or early, early in spring with our tomatoes, and up-pot them once or just start with an oatmeal container instead of a toilet paper roll. Then we transfer them, possibly with plastic or a cloth row cover or into a greenhouse we can open up.

Chart – Parts of the U.S. already flip seasons or split seasons to avoid planting in the height of summer heat and drought.
Chart – Parts of the U.S. already flip seasons or split seasons to avoid planting in the height of summer heat and drought.


The goal is to get them out when the heat and sun are less savage, and when nature will handle at least some of the watering for us.

Likewise, we can lay on supplies to heat small and expanding row covers to direct-sow normally hot weather plants like corn and beans. Lower light means they’ll take longer – at least two weeks and sometimes as much as twice the time to harvest – but they’re growing sweet corn and tomatoes in Alaska with minimal heating. We can do it, too. They are sensitive to cold rains and cold mud from spring melt, so we may need to mound up a bed to 4-8” to help them or use raised beds and containers.

When it’s heating up, the plants have massive head starts or are already nearing their harvest dates. Again, that lets rain water them for most of their lives, and then we let the garden go dormant for the most brutal heat.

Then we come back in July and August in hot climates, and we have plenty of time for green beans, summer squashes, and more to grow out before our frosts close in again.

We may need to have a place to start and harden-off plants indoors for a while, or plant dwarf, bantam or compact varieties developed for short-season growers to make the system work, but it gives us harvests we might not otherwise have, not without stripping out our wells and water storage.

Image: Dwarf corn is lower in yield than standard varieties, but since it’s shorter and takes less water and nutrients to develop its yield, it can offer a faster harvest after a late or delayed start to the season, or allow growers to avoid the driest parts of summer.
Image: Dwarf corn is lower in yield than standard varieties, but since it’s shorter and takes less water and nutrients to develop its yield, it can offer a faster harvest after a late or delayed start to the season, or allow growers to avoid the driest parts of summer.

Selecting Varieties

Plant selection for desert species is a really excellent way to build some resiliency, but it can be challenging for those who live in typically cold-winter temperate zones. There are “drought tolerant” varieties available for a lot of annuals and perennials now, but most need to be well established before they’ll suffer from abuse. That can be difficult if it’s a strange spring or if a summer storm wrecked our harvests by battering away flowers or uprooting plants.

As presented by Clemson University – Amador, M.F. 1980. Behavior of three species (corn, beans, squash) in polyculture in Chontalpa, Tabasco, Mexico. CSAT, Cardenas, Tabasco, Mexico.

As with straddling summer for gardening, it’s not a bad idea to maintain a seed stock that gives us some fast-growing options. They can help us whether the problem is a lack of rainfall, or if we’re facing a short season from a freak late snow or ice storm, or if goats got loose and ate the garden we’ve been hauling and pumping water to for three months.

Hybrids serve their purpose there more than anywhere else. Because hybrid seeds won’t breed true to a next generation, we want to be careful that they don’t cross pollinate our seed-saving crops and we have to keep fresh seed stocks going.

There are some short-season crops that can help, though, that are open-pollinated and heirloom stock.

Barley has been bred for so long, seed is now tailored to exactly when we plant it, so we need a selection if that’s our backup. There are a wealth of midget, dwarf and bantam corn, for sweet corn or for popcorn, that take as little as 55-75 days, and even more that fall in the <90-day range. Yukon chief and strawberry popcorn are two, although they have short cobs as well as short seasons. Teff can be a fast, resilient option for livestock hay and grain, although it’s pretty intensive and water-heavy to mill it for human use.

Summer squashes and bush green beans are awesome in that they can be had as OP’s in 55-65 days, and bush dry beans may take only 75-90. Even some autumn or winter squashes like Jester acorn can finish up in 85-95 days. Bush beans and squash can easily be covered to give them some protection from the first couple weeks of chill and frosts.3 sisters lush

By tweaking our Three Sisters mounds to a set of corn, squash and beans that can be ready in 45-55-65-75 days, we can still gain some harvest off a short season. Because they don’t spend as much time and nutrients growing up and out before producing, we save days of watering. We can also get them under some plastic if the air starts cooling before they’re ready, and by planting in combination, we can get some serious benefits in yield and plant health from them, as well as maximize the efficiency of the watering that we do have to do.

There are compact peppers, Egyptian wheat, and alternative crops like oca, millet, African yams, and Jerusalem artichoke that can handle varying conditions like heat, drought, or short seasons. Desert perennials may work for us as well. “Weeds” that are edible also increase our options, although the women I mention above are both foragers and only have about 25-50% of their usual wild harvest stored due to the drought.

Turnips, radish and lettuce aren’t going to work in summer conditions for a lot of the U.S. They’ll bolt before they really produce. Still, they might be something we can start in flats, bread pans, and buckets someplace cooler, and either transfer or grow out quickly enough to merit the space they take up. They can also serve as our backups if the weather stays cold unexpectedly.

Curveballs and Challenges

Mother Nature is always going to throw us some curveballs and there will almost always be a new challenge that arises in gardening, especially if we’re trying to eat off our gardens and crop fields. Happily, history has some examples of ways we can make it work, even in the worst of seasons. We may not be able to get the full, usual yield, but with the right combination of methods and plant selection, we can still positively impact our pantries and tables.

We do need to know our trends ahead of time, so that we can recognize when we’re in trouble early enough to walk away and refocus, or switch gears. Research to keep in our garden binder includes monthly rainfall and temperatures as well as our record first and last frosts and snows.

Hybrids may not be our first pick or the bulk of our stock, but they offer some benefits that make them excellent additions to our OP and heirloom stockpiles.

  1. The heat in South Carolina is deadly. Not any warmer than usual. Just always deadly for 6 months out of the year…

    1. I know, right? A lot of days it’s like somebody out there switches a flip 10-noon and it goes from “this isn’t too bad” to “wow, hot steamed ME!”. Trying to find a balance of second-summer-harvest planting that won’t wilt but WILL germinate has been interesting, but at least we’re getting rain.
      Without it, there’s nooooo way to keep conventional domestics going in this weather.

      1. I totally agree! I need to plant a second crop but not sure if it will be worth while. We have been getting little rain here in Goose Creek.

        1. It looks like your first frost isn’t until mid-November. Man, you won’t even be starting beets or carrots until darn near October if not Halloween, huh?

          Beans, to include green beans, aren’t too bad on water. They’re strong enough to push through some mulching even on top of the soil.

          If you’re a coffee drinker, throw the next couple of days/week’s worth in the freezer or collect some from McD’s or Starbucks in a non-rush hour. For more efficient water use, think about laying out a 3-4′ wide bed in a square or diagonal grid, put the bean seeds in with just a quarter-inch or half-inch of soil above them, and dump a palmful of coffee grounds on the hole and bean, out to a couple inches around them. Coffee’s like compost – improves water retention and drainage at the same time, and slowly feeds. Then throw some leaves or straw thick around the coffee to shade the soil and keep it moist.

          You can also go in between the seeds in your grid (coffee marks the spot) and do a spot version of trench composting. Post hole digger, couple scoops, drop in more coffee, coffee papers, tea bags, veggie ends, etc. They won’t be so close as to create a N-deficiency for the beans, but they WILL actually generate some liquids as they start breaking down, and they generate it right at the root zones as the plant is getting pretty darn big in August.

          Tough to find on short notice, but you could also look into some teff for hay and-or bird seed or livestock grain.

          If you’ve got any kitty litter buckets, you can stick them somewhere like a porch or car port to block the worst of afternoon dry-out and you’ve still got time for some of the summer squashes to be worth your while. Nothing broad leaf like that is SUPER efficient on water, but they’re a lot of bang for the buck for a liter or less a day. You can mulch pots, too, and limit evaporation with the bottles that were in the garden hacks article I wrote.


  2. I planted some fruit trees so I have apples during summer time. Looking to plant more fruit trees though. it brings the animals onto my property incase I need meat in future!.. rabbits, deer & squirrels. I have planted tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets and have had lots of tomatoes this year. I want to build some bigger planting beds with old pallets. Figure it would be great to refresh my learning after being off farm for a while. I have rain barrels tied to gutters so always have water for whatever i plant( I want a 250gallon resovoir ). I try to keep the seed packages for future reference. wish i had more land but will work with what i have.

    1. Good to get the fruit trees in early while water is guaranteed.

      There are some articles about small spaces and one that touches on efficiency. In your case something to consider might be a trickle-over / overflow series of buckets or other containers under a table that you can build from free pallets, and sticking some of your plants on that. It stacks functions within the space and keeps the needs-provides items right there together.
      Then in autumn, winter and spring, you can potentially drape the table in a dark color and then plastic, and use it as a REALLY big A-frame center pole for clear plastic or row covers.
      That creates even more of a heat sink for young plant starts and keeping a potted acorn or summer squash going a little later in the season, creating a 3rd-4th set of uses for the same few square feet of surface space, and moving the highest-intensity plant care up to a non-stooped level that’s easy to work. In some locations, to keep a rain barrel going over winter, you have to fight the freeze problems, and it can help with that, too.


  3. Link to drought in Canada – for those who have never practiced dryland Ag or dealt with severe drought, especially those interested in growing staples like corn and wheat or supplementing a significant amount of family’s food or livestock feed, it’s a good snapshot of the effects –

    Brazil has the same problem, which is good for U.S. growers at the moment, but those growers are using largely irrigation- and chemical-based farming methods – if we don’t have the same in place, we can’t expect the same results – and

    And on the other side, strange frosts and then refreezes that affect even “reliable” perennials hugely – “most believe that in this region, at least 90 percent of the crop has been lost. A study in April found that viability of the peach blossoms were as low as 22 percent. Worse than that, some of the actual trees didn’t survive.” –


  4. This week I dug into my cottage grounds to plant an equipment box for shtf. Hoping it never gets used. Anyhow I figured out what’s wrong up there. I’ve about five foot of sand and rocks covered by less than an inch of soil. At home I’ve about six feet of great soil. So while swimming and drinking beer it got me thinking. The river has awesome sediment which I can haul up the cliff face to get something like a growing medium. Multiple tarps in the trees directing rain into multiple barrels for the dry periods which in southern Ontario are getting longer and dryer.
    The hybrid thing I’ve avoided except for my pear tree. It’s a combo of four varieties. Each does better or worse depending on the weather. For future fruit trees I’m definitely getting hybrid, combo varieties.

    Anyhow what’s a good crop for soil rotation? Is alfalfa the best to give an area a rest for a year and plot back in or should I use small pea varieties? Not planning on using fertilizer other than compost. Human in shtf after festering for a couple of years in garbage bags!

    Figured I’d ask R Ann as waiting for your book to come out!

    1. Mike and I deal with sand-brick mixes even in rivers and layers just 2-6″ and some in paths. I dealt with a particularly charming sand-clay mix in the northern MidAtlantic.
      The problem is that sand won’t hold nutrients (or water). Instead of tilling in, you may find it easiest to just go up. You might want to hit liquor stores or appliance stores to grab cardboard to lay out as a first layer, and then start from that and go up.

      You can also start with a low hugel bed mound, and every year, add a few more logs and layers of that river silt (that is FANTASTIC stuff, any kind of lake, pond or river loam, clay or sand; it’s just a matter of whether it’s crumbly enough to use as a soil base or if it needs to go on in shallow layers as an amendment). Usually you start seeing serious returns in year 2-3. Starting at 2′ it’ll take a while to get to 5-6′ and get the biggest non-watering returns, but it’s worth it.
      Lasagna beds are another you might want to consider. It’s another “up, not down” soil fix, and while you can get fancy with the layers and ingredients, it’s not necessary to do so.

      Up can be done even while you work traditional till in other locations.

      Covers all do different things. Covers in mixes are also commonly used for best results.

      N-fixing covers work. You need to get innoculated seed unless you have established bacteria of the type that creates the excess N. However, you do need some preexisting N in the soil to get decent returns.

      You also have to rotate covers. We have grain fungal diseases and pests, bean/pea fungal diseases and pests, and just like crop plants, non-harvest covers can repeatedly take one thing out of the soil. Even though they’re going right back, it can create negative cycles if you only use one thing, especially in the soil-building cycle.
      By rotating what you grow, you’re rotating not just plant classes, but the stem and foliage type. They break down at differing rates, which is where you get really nice soil that is constantly offering feed and that has water retention but also good drainage quality.

      In your case, what you’re going to want to do is let a copious but controllable weed (say, stellaria/chickweed) do its thing. Then start controlling (eating/feeding) it, and go with NATIVE wildflowers in seed form. The things that started in your native soil will do best in your native soil. They’ll create a diverse enough, rich enough soil to get into some of the other types of conventional covers.

      Then you’re going to want covers and-or crops that produce biomass in similar low-soil-quality situations.

      You might consider the teff I mention for Mike, as well as something like sea oats, quinoa (or amaranth, whichever fits your climate better or a sampling of both – quinoa grows in thin soils left by eons of rain in the upper Andes), and once you start getting some biomass breakdown, some buckwheat.
      Fertilize with free coffee from anywhere and used tea bags, right there on the surface where every dew and rain will “water” them in toward the roots.

      Field or crowder peas are another that will produce a domestic or forager’s crop for you and also be producing large amounts of biomass.
      Other N-fixers with soft stems include lower, smaller clovers, lupine, then the larger clovers with bigger stem sections and that don’t *look* like clover.
      Buckwheat falls into the non-N-fixing but fast, soft foliage category. Alfalfa is a N-fixer, but it’s grass-type in the way its soil-building performs. (Good and bad.)
      New Zealand tillage radish really needs irrigated, but if you have enough moisture for it, WOW, HUGE impacts on tirth.

      You also kind of have to look at how much water you want to provide, and there’s still a mix of opinions and methods to cardboard as a water suck both surface and subsurface, and people who continue to try to say lasagna gardening doesn’t work.
      Another consideration with covers is whether you want something to have to cut, till, or just crimp, and how persistent you want (I would not personally plant vetch because it’s apt to go prone even grown with stubble-planted oats, is hard to kill of when prone, and is persistent, but you’re cold enough, it might be TOTALLY worth it).

      Start now.
      If you have tree leaves, bag them for leaf mold – it’s a type of compost. The general consensus is not to use fruit leaves, since so many of our varieties now have diseases that they pass back and forth.
      My opinion on that, especially early and for deep inside either a hugel or on lower levels of a surface-up bed is “meh”.
      Most people’s yards and culture methods (tool washing, boot washing) are small or poor enough, you’re getting cross contamination and are going to need to either stock curatives, or grow in guilds that boost health and prevent diseases or their vectors.

      Native and biomimicry “wild” or exotics with low disease burdens in your areas will be safe.

      You might also look into pottager gardens and keyhole beds (with or without the keyhole used for full access or a worm/compost tower), especially somewhere that you can lay your hands on invasive bamboo or young stands of woods with supple saplings. Pottager designs have been used places with rocky and played-out soils since before the Irish were starved, and keyholes are making enormous impacts in places like Africa and the former Fertile Crescent.

      You can combine the space-saving and raised-bed aspects of a wattle or stone pottager and-or keyholes/mandella with soil-building and -developing hugel and lasagna principles, and cover crop on top, using layers of river/lake silt and developing your own compost, and work out by inches as you can reclaim from your lupine-buckwheat-wildflower strips and patches. Basically when you start small and work outward, you’re creating a fertility island that will make it faster and easier to expand in stages because nearby soil has already started to benefit from the roots that have gone down as well as the extra surface moisture.

      1. *Some of those covers are better for maintaining soil and biomass production than for developing it (looking at you and shaking my head, corn) but it’s a handy water, type x3 and plant form guide.
        That said, I disagree with some of what they consider low and medium water use.

        Somewhere there’s a similar table wth planting temp and best-season rotation key.

    2. Something else to consider (and now you have a full novella all your own) re. the fruit trees:

      There’s a method with genetic dwarfs and minis or grafted varieties where you dig a big hole, and plant 3-4 species in there while they’re super small. You prune off the limbs closest to the center a few times (years) and you can get some of the same benefits of a multi-variety or multi-species graft, but with somewhat regularly healthier trees.
      Too, should one die or end up diseased (happens all the time with those branch-grafted types, especially in eitehr damp or super windy or pop-in-freeze areas), the remaining trees aren’t impacted by any loss of roots or trunk health and aren’t opened to disease.

      Sometimes they’re planted 12-24″ apart, and sometimes they’re bought super small and supple and are planted as close as the root balls allow, then the pleaching or fuse grafting used on decoratives and money trees is used to braid them into a single trunk.

      You typically spend more getting multiple trees, but in the long run, sometimes to regularly it’s a good investment, and even if somebody’s limited on space, dwarfs and minis make a hip-high and head-high and eaves-high bush-diameter tree (or 3-5 of them in a 10′ spread) a very real possibility.

      (I so wuvvvv the fruit trees and their needy yet versatile little selves.)

      No more graphics on this one, Pat, promise!

      1. As ever WOW and thank you. Next spring I’ll start a cottage garden using these tips and the river soil. Year after I’ll see what I can grow. I’m thinking potatoes and squash. Definitely I will go up and use cardboard there. I’ve amaranth and quinoa growing at home and they are well seeded. Going to harvest, eat some, and try replanting next year from seed.

        1. : )
          I love quinoa and amaranth. Edible, tasty leaves, fab-o grains (quinoa all teh way up to “to die for” tasty), and it’s just a GORGEOUS plant. I cheat it into designs for HOA dodgers in mounds and curves and islands, to border fences and houses, and hear tons of complements passed on fro neighbors.

          If it competed with grasses a little better and if the Peruvians had ever developed a <90 day or <100 day variety, I'd have no complaint at all!


  5. If you ignore the typos (it’s easy enough to read through them) this is a good look at what severe drought does, from the tiny little perspective of pastures for livestock –

    Since a number of people pasture livestock and are looking to build pasture and systems to feed from the bags and bales less, it’s eye-opening. She does have some solutions and band-aid fixes she’s looking at planting, although I think it’ll be next-season for her.
    Worth reading, thinking about, and adding to the “disaster buffer” pile.

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