Prepare Vegetable Gardens for Dry Summer Conditions

By Nicole Stoner, UNL Extension Educator

When the weather starts to warm up in spring or when getting ready to plant a fall garden, one of the first things to do is to begin preparing your vegetable garden site for planting. It is always best to prepare your gardens when you plant them for best growth and to enable the plants to withstand reduced water growing conditions. The weather changes so rapidly, especially in Nebraska, that we should always prepare our gardens for tough growing conditions, to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at us.  

Soil Preparation
Soil preparation improves root development and helps your plants survive better with less water since they can draw water from a larger area of soil. First, add compost to your gardens. When amending the soil in a vegetable garden, make sure the compost does not contain fresh manure to avoid potential bacterial contamination of your produce. Fresh manure should be added in fall after harvest.

Manure can be added to the garden in the spring, as long as it has been fully composted. Compost contains organic matter that increases the water holding capacity of sandy soil, holding water in the soil for the plants to use, while soil with less organic matter might run out. Compost also improves the soil structure of heavier clay soil, which improves root development.

Planting the Early Season Garden
After preparing the soil and adding organic matter, it's time to begin planting our vegetables. Be sure to wait until the threat of frost has passed for heat-loving vegetables, which is around the last week of beginning of May for most of Southeast Nebraska and the end of May for the Western portion of Nebraska.

Be sure to water your vegetables thoroughly immediately after planting. If you are worried about possible summer drought and are concerned about vegetable production, you may want to avoid beans. According to Colorado State University, beans have the highest water use of any common vegetable crop.

Drip Irrigation
After planting, weave a soaker hose through your garden or set up drip irrigation. A soaker hose should be set at the base of every plant to ensure that they all get plenty of water. Soaker hoses are better than an overhead sprinkler system, which can splash disease-causing organisms from the soil onto the leaves of plants or from one infected plant to another. Soaker hoses also do not lose much of their water to evaporation, which occurs when using an overhead sprinkler.

Soaker hoses should be allowed to run for a longer period of time than a sprinkler because they are not putting out water as quickly. The best time to water your garden is in the morning if at all possible. Consider using a timer to turn the water on and off while you are at work or away from home.

Finally, after planting your vegetables add a layer of mulch around the plants to help conserve soil moisture, and reduce weeds in your garden. Weeds compete with vegetable plants for water and nutrients. Limiting weed growth is always important, but especially in drought years when it's critical to retain soil moisture for our desired crops.

There are many different types of mulch for use in the garden, such as wood chips, shredded hardwood or straw, and any of the organic mulches will benefit your vegetables. Grass clippings can be used, but don't apply deep layers of green grass at one time. Instead, make shallow layers of 1-2 inches, and allow the grass clippings to dry out before applying more on top. If herbicides have been sprayed on your lawn, do not use those clippings on your vegetables. Any organic mulch used in the garden will break down and add organic matter to the soil.

Vegetables growing in good soil, that have developed nice root systems, will do fine through dry summer conditions even if your community is put water restrictions. Watering twice a week is normal for a vegetable garden. Commonly, water restrictions dictate homeowners to water only every-other day, which should not be a problem. If gardeners take the time to prepare the soil, and water wisely, their vegetables will be able to withstand dry conditions much better.