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What is Dry Farming? Complete Guide

Dry farming, also known as dryland farming, is an agricultural technique that doesn't require irrigation. Here's all you need to know about it
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Dry farming might sound scary. It requires hard work, dedication, and a little bit of luck. After all, the crops might not grow every single season. However, it comes down to one thing – knowledge about the soil. The ground should retain water, so dry farmers usually go for soil that has clay in it. Various plants such as tomatoes, garlic, and sunflowers thrive in these conditions, so they are a terrific choice for beginners.

Farmers opt for dry farming when they don’t have access to water. Some see it as a challenge and make the process fun. People have been using this method for centuries. Overall, dry farming can look like a challenging project, but that is one reason that makes it even more rewarding. You need to be patient, creative and know the soil you are working with.

Dry Farming: An Overview

Dry farming, also known as dryland farming, is an agricultural technique that doesn’t require irrigation. It is favored in various parts of the world. The method itself is popular because it works on both small and large farms. With that said, dry farming requires plenty of planning and organization to be successful.

For instance, your primary goal is to retain as much moisture in the soil as possible. Therefore, picking out the right plants that can survive this environment is the key. Additionally, take good care of the ground. Weeds are one of the largest issues for dry farmers, so removing and preventing their growth should be your top priority.

Reasons to Try Dry Farming

If you live in an area that experiences droughts, but are still determined to grow your crops, dry farming is the answer. You will not depend on the water either from an irrigation system or municipality to have fresh produce on your table every year. Some food experts praise dry farming as the method that produces the best-tasting vegetables out there.

Building an irrigation system is costly. Future farmers who are low on funds could give dry farming a chance and see if it works. Grow crops this way for a couple of seasons and then install the irrigation system (if you want to). You will learn a lot about the plants and soil along the way, making you a better farmer.

The Basics of Dry Farming

Now that you have given this method a go, we have to cover the essentials of dry farming. It can sound quite overwhelming, but start slow and learn as much as you can. Before you go any further, determine the type of soil you have. If the ground is too sandy, dry farming will be almost impossible. There will be no way of retaining moisture in the sandy soil.

On the other hand, clay soil is ideal. There are also silt and loam soil, which are a favorite of many dry farmers. These are fertile, contain clay, and can retain moisture easily.

As you might have guessed, your first goal should be to make the ground absorb as much moisture as possible. Clay soil will get you started, but what you do next will determine how successful your dry farming will be. Crop rotation can help out with that. You can grow one crop for a couple of seasons, and its residue will create a small barrier that should keep the moisture in.

If you are not dry farming on a larger patch of land, try terracing. It can change the layout of your garden and prevent the water from going downhill. Terracing does require a lot of work since you have to plow along the keylines, but it will not be a problem on a smaller patch of land.

Choosing the Crops

It is a common misconception that all fruits and vegetables require a lot of moisture to thrive. If you do your research correctly, you will find out that there are plenty of drought-tolerant plants. These are ideal for dry farming. Vegetables like lettuce have shallow root systems, and they are not a great choice. But you can still try to grow them.

Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants do just fine in dry conditions. Establish the plant first by giving it some moisture and then protect the soil with mulch. It will keep the ground moist for a more extended period. When it comes to lettuce and other greens, you need to get the timing right. So if you are a beginner, study the soil you are working with, and then experiment with more challenging crops.

We have to mention that dry farming doesn’t yield a large number of crops. But you will quickly notice the difference between them and irrigated crops. The flavor is noticeably stronger and somehow more natural. Not to forget that these crops are packed with nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, which makes them more healthy for consumption.

The Best Plants for Dry Farming

As previously mentioned, dry farming is not suitable for all crops. Indeed, you can try growing leafy greens in a low moisture environment, but it is a gamble. However, the following plants will do just fine and are an excellent choice for novices:

Garlic

If you are a dry-farming newbie, garlic is ideal for you. Plant it in fall, and it should grow throughout winter, which means it will thrive in the rain and wetter months. Harvest them in late spring. But if the temperatures get too high earlier in the year, think about adding mulch to preserve the soil’s moisture.

How to Plant & Grow Garlic: Complete Guide
How to Plant & Grow Garlic: Complete Guide

Potatoes

Potatoes are planted at the beginning of the year so they will benefit from the spring rains. These vegetables need fertile soil. Therefore, adding mulch is a must. Also, protect it from weeds because they could be extra damaging to potatoes.

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Sweet Potatoes

It is one of the best crops for dry farmers. Sweet potatoes do need moisture at first but will establish their cover naturally. It means you can add mulch, but there is no urgency about it. These plants enjoy the sunshine and warm weather, and that is a massive plus for dry farmers.

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Okra

Okra is drought-tolerant and sometimes doesn’t even need a cover. It can thrive in warmer months, but keep a close eye on the plant. Discolorations are a warning that something is going on with your okra. Add a cover to the ground and protect your crop if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

Eggplants

There are various species of eggplants, including drought-tolerant varieties. They grow in summer, so eggplants do require some extra attention. Make sure they have enough moisture and that you cover the ground in the mulch. It is essential to mention that eggplants are attractive to pests, so look out for those too.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes love the sun but still need some extra water in the first couple of weeks. Mulch is necessary if you are set on growing tomatoes as it helps retain moisture. With that said, tomatoes don’t mind dry weather when they establish the roots. You might get a smaller number of crops, but these tomatoes will taste great.

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When to Plant the Crops

When it comes to dry farming, timing is everything. Plants need water to grow healthy roots, so they need to be in the ground in early spring. It is the best way to ensure your fruits and vegetables will make use of spring rain. You can use a couple of methods to plant healthy crops that can withstand the summer heat.

It would be best to avoid frost and freezing temperatures, so think about planting the seeds in containers at the end of the winter season. Keep the plants indoors away from harsh weather, and provide them with water. Once spring rolls in and you are sure that the cold temperatures are over, plant the vegetables in the soil and watch them thrive.

Planting the seeds outside without containers is perfectly fine as long as you are confident that the temperatures will not drop anymore. If you want to make sure your crops will do well in summer, protect them with covers until the rainy season. They need to get as much moisture as possible, so the plants have to be in the ground in early spring.

If you plant the seeds in late spring, the crops will miss out on all the water and won’t have healthy root systems. It can completely ruin the crops by making them prone to root diseases. Additionally, make sure you plant your crops deep enough. They need to have full access to the accumulated moisture from the ground.

Also, learn as much as you can about the crops you want to plant. It can help you a lot when it comes to proper timing. For instance, tomatoes can survive long periods without water, but the trick is to plant them at the right moment. So if you have planted your tomatoes in a container, they need at least a couple of weeks of moisture when you transfer them into the ground.

How To Preserve the Moisture

Planting crops in a dry climate could be challenging, but one thing is essential – preserving the moisture. Most dry climates see rainfall in spring and fall even though summers are entirely cloudless. So to prepare for a successful growing season, retaining moisture in the soil is crucial.

Weeds could become a massive problem if you let them grow wild in your garden. These plants will steal all the moisture from your plants, so you have to remove them quickly. Think about tilling your yard to prevent weed growth. This process could also help you keep the water in the ground and eliminate unwanted vegetation.

Therefore, regular tilling or cultivation should prepare the soil for summer. If you skip this step, the moisture will evaporate from the ground faster. While you can use only tilling for retaining moisture in the soil, dry farming sometimes requires more tricks. If you live in an arid area, you have to combine tilling with other moisture preservation methods.

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One of them is covering the soil with mulch. Organic mulch consists of leaves, straws, wood chips, etc. It creates a layer that protects the ground from heat and other elements while retaining the much-needed moisture. Mulch should be organic because it breaks down and fertilizes the ground. Soil that contains organic matter holds moisture longer, and that is precisely what dry farmers need.

You can create organic mulch yourself by sowing grass and other plants that grow around your crops. All you need to do is mow the grass regularly and leave the clippings where they are. Clovers are an excellent choice for this type of ground cover because they add plenty of nutrients to the soil.

Of course, there is terracing. The method is popular among farmers who own smaller patches of land. Terracing is a great way to control the moisture in the ground, but it requires some physical work. All you need to do is plow along the contours to stop the water from flowing downhill. Terracing will prevent erosion too, which can also come in handy.

Final thoughts

Dry farming is a technique that can open a world of possibilities. Contrary to popular belief, farmers can make almost any soil work for them as long as they understand the way it works. Dry farming is not easy, but it is doable if you dedicate your time to it. Remember that the weather conditions might not always be on your side. So be patient and don’t give up.

If you ever dreamed of growing your crops but weren’t sure if the soil could produce any, now might be the time to try dry farming. You can enjoy various vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, squash, and many more. Plus, growing the plants this way proves that they can adapt to anything. If you think that the climate you live in will work well with traditional farming, give this method a go.

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Ana is an experienced writer and an urban gardener, making use of limited space on her balcony to grow vegetables every season. She got into gardening thanks to her grandmother, who introduced her to the wonderful world of succulents. Two of them still collect succulents as well as cacti together, and Ana is always on the lookout for rare (and colorful) varieties. She is currently occupied with growing avocado trees indoors.

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