Should We Still Grow Backyard Veggies in the Drought?

April 13, 2015 | By | Comments (13)
Summer harvest basket

Photography: Tom Story

It’s no secret that summer fruits and veggies take a fair amount of water to grow and produce a crop. With California’s mandatory 25% water cut backs, does it still make sense to plant our favorite backyard tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers?

We ran this question by water experts who attended Sunset’s water summit and they gave us the green light to plant. They cited two reasons to grow-your-own:

1) We are less likely to waste food we plant ourselves (if we grow the right amount, that is).

2) It takes far less water and energy to grow a tomato in your own backyard than to produce the same tomato elsewhere and transport it to market.

But this year—more than ever—it’s time to get smart about choosing what to plant and allocating water.


5 tips for growing fruits and veggies in dry times


Photography: Rachel Weill

1. Only grow what you’ll eat

Limit the number of crops you plant to your favorite varieties and ones that are highly prolific. Our curved bed in the Sunset Test Garden measures 16 feet long by 4 feet wide and we’ve planted eggplant, peppers, green beans, peppers, basil, sage, thyme, compact zucchini, and an artichoke. Adding blooming chamomile, coreopsis, and sunflowers brings pollinators to the garden to ensure a good harvest from the relatively small area.


Photography: Tom Story

2. Reduce planting space

Keep summer edibles that require more water to a limited space. In a single galvanized trough, we grew everything needed for a few summer standbys: pasta with tomatoes and basil, gazpacho, and Bloody Marys. The tomatoes, basil, garlic chives, and jalapeño chills all require regular water but keeping them planted in a single container allows efficient, targeted watering. A bucket of water saved from the shower twice a week, for example, could easily be used to water this container.

3. Amend the soil

Adding amendments improves the soil texture and water retention—ensuring that any water given to the bed can be used by plants rather than draining too quickly.  Before planting, spread a layer of compost over garden beds at least 4-inches thick. Turn over the soil with shovel to work the compost into the existing soil. Watch below to see how we amend veggie beds in the Sunset Test Garden.


4. Be smart about your water usage

Target water to hit as close to the plant roots as possible. Set up a drip irrigation system for edible beds or snake soaker hoses through rows of veggies. Set timers to run early in the morning and only for as long as needed to keep the soil moist. After harvesting from deciduous fruit trees and cane berries, dial down the irrigation and water only if plants begin to wilt. If a heat wave is predicted, water deeply early in the morning and prop up shade cloths to help protect tender edible plants like raspberries and alpine strawberries during the day.

5. Mulch, mulch, mulch

Cover beds with a thick layer of wood chips, leaves, or straw and you can cut water use in half by reducing evaporation. In the Sunset Test Garden, we spread a 3-inch layer of small bark chips over all of our edible beds. The mulch does double duty through the growing season by saving water and keeping weeds down.

Do you have any techniques to grow veggies in dry times?  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. Brady Zelek

    Considerably, your posts is inside reality the best during this valuable issue. I harmonies with your conclusions and will thirstily assume your drawing near up-dates.

    June 2, 2016 at 10:37 am
  2. Lauren

    Easy to use drip irrigation that is similar to soaker hoses can be found at

    June 23, 2015 at 12:40 pm
  3. Gale

    Good advice in this article! I think that when drip irrigation is used underneath mulch you can have even better water savings.

    June 23, 2015 at 12:38 pm
  4. How to attract pollinators to your veggie garden | A blog by Sunset

    […] you have our blessing to keep growing veggies through the drought. Be sure to hook it up to drip irrigation (you’ll actually have more vegetables with less […]

    May 20, 2015 at 9:45 am
  5. Unexpected Onion Blossoms | A blog by Sunset

    […] Rather than tossing out the ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ onions that had started sprouting in her fridge last spring, Test Garden design assistant Lauren Dunec Hoang planted them in a corner of the Test Garden veggie bed. […]

    April 30, 2015 at 9:00 am
  6. Polly Lankford Smith

    We’ve found at SMARTS Farm in San Diego (urban community garden in downtown San Diego) that the use of Ollas is very helpful.

    April 23, 2015 at 9:29 am
  7. Earth Day 2015 – Gardening in a Drought |

    […] week, Sunset magazine posed the question, “Should We Still Grow Backyard Veggies in the Drought?” It’s an excellent question, but I’ll let you read the article to see what conclusion they […]

    April 22, 2015 at 7:01 pm
  8. Earth Day 2015 | Grab and Keel
    April 22, 2015 at 6:56 pm
  9. Linda Parker

    You might want to try Tower Garden, an aeroponic growing system that uses 10% of the water and space of an in ground garden and produces 30% larger and faster. A very sustainable way to grow.

    April 21, 2015 at 11:51 pm
  10. katelyn

    i love this site and why did that dude say that?

    April 21, 2015 at 11:47 am
  11. Trish Watlington

    That word was supposed to be ratio, not ration. Sorry.

    April 17, 2015 at 11:24 am
  12. Trish Watlington

    Wood chip mulch is great for between rows but can have really detrimental effects on soil bacteria and the carbon to nitrogen ration. Save wood chips for walkways in between rows.

    April 17, 2015 at 11:23 am
  13. Drought update/manifesto | The Lawn Goodbye

    […] Now, about the drought. The LA Times has embraced this issue since the governor announced that we’re going to have to cut back. And anecdotally, a lot more people seem interested in killing their lawns, perhaps because of the increasingly lucrative turf replacement rebates being offered. I have lots of opinions about that. If you want to replace your lawn, your options are: 1) some kind of groundcover, possibly including low-water grass. (I’ve read that this is a real thing but have no expertise on it; it could be a lawn industry trick or it could be real.) Other groundcovers I like are phyla nodiflora and dymondia margaritae. 2) Fake grass, which apparently has improved dramatically over the past few decades. People don’t like how much heat it reflects and some people are concerned about plastics entering the environment, but it doesn’t require any watering at all and some people like the look. 3) Painting your lawn. Yes, apparently that’s a thing. Seems like the same pros and cons as fake grass would apply, although you might have to redo it periodically. 4) Xeriscaping with drought-tolerant plants. Within this category, you have California natives only, drought-tolerant plants from other parts of the world (typically the Mediterranean, parts of Africa and maybe Australia), or some combination of both. 5) Poured concrete or another “hardscape” that water doesn’t penetrate, like paving stones set together in concrete. Someone on the LA side of the city border around here has a yard done completely in mosaic. It is very pretty but probably very hot in summer. 6) Some kind of permeable or semi-permeable mulch, including wood chips, river rocks, decomposed granite, etc. 7) To some extent, “edible landscaping.” I saw some beautiful edible landscaping near the Westchester YMCA, and I have been trying to get mint to work as a groundcover, but not very successfully. You can make this drought-tolerant if you use drought-tolerant edibles like thyme and artichokes, but if you want Serious Tomatoes, you probably need to commit to watering. We’re currently working on watering our edibles (which live in the back) with greywater or rainwater as much as possible. Sunset magazine just did a little blog post on watering your edibles during the drought. […]

    April 14, 2015 at 1:30 pm

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