Pictures in the plant catalogues entice eager gardeners with their vibrantly colored, healthy vegetables and fruits. Gardeners dream of growing the same juicy tomatoes and bushels of beans as advertised in the catalogues. However, last year’s gardens across the Midwest fell victim to an unseasonably cool spring shadowed by severe drought conditions or worse.
Winter moisture may help alleviate some of the drought stress, but water levels will not be completely replenished. Should you cut back on how much you plant? Are certain vegetables more drought-resistant than others? Looking ahead to the 2023 gardening season, it can be hard to choose what to plant.
With mindful plant selection and proper management strategies, you can stress less about gardening this year.
“I wouldn’t limit the vegetable offerings because of the drought, but rather select those vegetables that are more drought-tolerant,” advised Elizabeth Exstrom, Hall County extension educator with a focus in horticulture.
Also, pay attention to how the plants grow, which influences the amount of water they will use. For example, choose seeds that are early-maturing or have a short growing season to use less water overall.
Vining plants tend to sprawl out and require more moisture, whereas bush-type plants are more compact. They can provide better shade to hold moisture in the soil. A bush-type bean may be a better option than a pole bean this year.
Tomato plants that are determinate reach a specific height and set fruit at one time. Indeterminate tomato varieties, on the other hand, continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the season.
“Indeterminate tomatoes will use more water because they get taller, more viny and leggy,” said Exstrom.
Once established, deep-rooted plants such as tomatoes, squash and melons can suck moisture from deep within the subsoil long after the surface has dried, as found at Oregon State University. They may even produce more flavorful fruit under dry conditions.
Shallow-rooted vegetables may not fare well. Lettuce and sweetcorn may need extra watering to survive in dry conditions. Also, root crops such as carrots, turnips and potatoes generally need consistent moisture.
Generally, cool-season crops are not bred to be drought-resistant, according to the University of California Master Gardener Program in Alameda County. Cool-season crops include legumes (peas, lentils) and cruciferous vegetables (Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli).
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How you take care of your garden is a more important factor than what is planted. Management strategies will be key to retain moisture in the soil.
Exstrom outlined important considerations for each step of gardening:
1. Tilling: Till only the strips / area where the crop will be planted. Working up the ground dries out the soil.
2. Seeding: Most seeds need a constant, moist environment to germinate. Start your seeds indoors or purchase started plants to conserve overall water use.
3. Planting: Containers dry out more quickly than in-ground gardening. Also, rather than planting in low rows, use a block pattern and space plants closely within the block. This will better shade the ground and block out weeds.
4. Mulching: Add a layer of organic mulch around plants to keep the ground cooler and hold in moisture.
5. Weeding: Do not let weeds rob your vegetable plants of precious moisture. Mulch should help keep weeds under control, but make sure to pull any stragglers.
6. Watering: Lower the probability of disease by avoiding overhead watering; use soaker hoses and water earlier in the day so plants can absorb moisture but not remain wet by nightfall. Water deeply to encourage roots to grow downward.
To use the least amount of water possible, know when plants need the most moisture during their growth stages.
“The most critical time for vegetable crops is not only early in establishment but also at the flowering and fruiting stage,” said Exstrom.
This rule of thumb applies to cucumbers, squash, melons, eggplant, peppers and beans. Tomatoes can do well with reduced water after the fruit sets, according to the University of California. Peas need the most water when the pods are filling. Sweetcorn will yield best when watered during tasseling, sinking and ear development.
As you flip through the plant catalogues or are drawn in by the rows of seeds at the store, go ahead and buy the vegetables you want. As Exstrom said, every year is a different struggle in Nebraska. We may be blessed with timely rains or could be hailed out right before harvest. For the 2023 gardening season, the important actions will be controlling weeds, watering wisely and enjoying the fruits of your labor.
“The main thing is to grow whatever vegetable you and your family will eat,” Exstrom said.
Reporter Kristen Sindelar has loved agriculture her entire life, coming from a diversified farm with three generations working side-by-side in northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at Kristen.Sindelar@midwestmessenger.com.