Q&A with Maureen Gilmer, Author of Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert & Dry Times

By Shelley Pierce | June 19, 2016
Image by Sasquatch Books
by Shelley Pierce
June 19, 2016

Maureen Gilmer is a syndicated gardening columnist and author of eighteen books on gardening and landscaping design; she lives in Palm Springs, California, in the heart of the desert.  Her latest book, Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert & Dry Times, is the definitive guide to growing healthy organic vegetables without wasting our precious water resources!  Read more about this book below and enter to win one of five copies, courtesy of Sasquatch Books!

1. You live in the heart of the desert in Palm Springs, California so obviously some years of experience went into writing this book. In the course of your trials and tribulations what was the most important, and perhaps the hardest, lesson you had to learn about growing vegetables in drought, desert & dry times? And, does your garden still continue to teach you lessons and confront you with new challenges after all these years?

Growing in the desert is a huge challenge but once I discovered how the row cover system is used by organic farmers, I knew this was a great solution for everyone. No, it’s not pretty or ornamental in the landscape but it’s highly productive in some of the most ferocious climatic conditions from extreme +110 summer daily temps in the low desert summer to snow in the high desert winter. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is our granular soils that lack organic matter and thus have very low microbe populations. Water moves right through before plants take it up unless slow drip irrigation is used to wet the root zone thoroughly. However, the challenge to plants is our winds which are very dry, almost negligible humidity so it literally draws moisture out of plants like vegetables. What I continue to realize over and over is that growing vegetables for water conservation means that location is everything to help minimize the negatives and ensure all the positive influences possible.

2. What are the most common pitfalls and mistakes that people make when gardening in drought, desert and dry times and how does your book help them course correct?

The book is geared for novice gardeners because those who grow food aren’t always dedicated but more often families seeking safe, fresh organic food. For that reason we make sure they understand the word desiccation, which is the process of drawing moisture out of a plant through its foliage. It happens in many ways and if there isn’t moisture enough in the roots the plant wilts temporarily, then if not watered permanent wilt occurs. I want my readers to learn how to spot the subtle sag of growing tips for the first signs of water need or a signal to increase protection from desiccating influences.

Another issue of great importance to desert gardeners is selecting crops suited for the season. Too many think everything grows in summer, but that’s not true in milder winter regions. The crops typically grown in spring and fall are cool season, and those planted after the last frost are warm season. When cool season crops are planted in late spring they often fail because they are adapted to cooler temperatures. I stress the differences because when you’re growing on the edge of epic drought, no matter how much water you apply, the cool crops will not perform well in hot summer regions like California.

3. Gardening can be an expensive endeavor and your book discusses many of the purchases, such as rain barrels and drip system kits, that one can make. What should those with a modest budget be investing their money in first and foremost? And, does your book offer those who wish to pursue gardening more frugally some options on how to do so?

I wrote The Budget Gardener because I am very frugal by nature and most of the good ideas for water use on the cheap began with that effort in the 1990s. What I learned long ago was that growing vegetables is one of the most affordable of all gardening endeavors, but advertisers like us to buy lots of specialized stuff we don’t really need. The items we use in the book are actually geared for a DIY novice to find success by sticking with the basics and offering the home grown recyclable ideas used by generations past. After all, everyone had a garden during the Great Depression and so can we, it’s just that we need to do some things differently due to water conservation.

4. How does your book help the reader choose the right plants for their droughty or desert garden? And, for first time gardeners or for those trying to assure themselves some modicum of success, what are considered to be some of the most drought-tolerant vegetables that you can grow?

An heirloom tomato from Germany is adapted to a short cool growing season so it won’t make a suitable variety for a hot, droughty garden. A tomato developed in the Middle Eastern desert countries may be perfectly adapted to minimal humidity and extreme heat. This is why just selecting heirlooms is not a great idea unless you study their origins first. I went through my best seed catalogs and selected those vegetable varieties that come from hot, desert or drought ridden parts of the world. These will be best able to stand summer heat waves, resist sun cracking and stand up to winds without excessive wilt. My readers will be able to find these varieties in their seed catalogs to quickly get started growing these age old desert varieties and their arid zone relatives from Australia, Persia, Mexico and the American desert Southwest.

5. Will this book also benefit those that do not currently live in a droughty or desert area – and how?

The way we grow crops is changing from flooded rows to the Israeli method of spot irrigation using low pressure irrigation. My experience has shown that even where it’s not dry, plants just grow better on drip because of the way it is applied. There is no evaporative losses so every drop is put to good use. No runoff either. And when you can put the drip on a battery operated timer, everyone can reduce their chores and keep plants evenly hydrated so they grow evenly instead of fits and starts after dates with the garden hose. This is crucial for a book aimed at young families, often with both parents working full time who don’t have a lot of time for gardening, but can, through our system, grow amazing crops and expect great yields.

WIN A COPY OF Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert & Dry Times!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Thursday, June 23, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Have you ever gardened during times of drought and, if so, how did you overcome the obstacles and challenges you encountered?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See Rules for more information.)

UPDATE 7/16/16: Congratulations to Laura Sproull, Brandon Johnson, W Brown, Linda Lee & [TBD]!

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  • Jan
    Comment added June 24, 2017Reply

    I've cut the top 6 inches off large plastic plant containers. Placed the ring into the soil buried 4 inches. Then planted my tomatoes or (whatever veg. plant) in the the center. Directs the water to the plant very well!

  • Linda
    Comment added June 22, 2016Reply

    We collect water from the shower/faucet while we're waiting for it to get hot and use that water to water the plants.

  • Cindy Vincent
    Comment added June 21, 2016Reply

    We always have a rain barrel to catch what rain we get, and also go to nearby springs to collect water for the garden

  • Renee
    Comment added June 20, 2016Reply

    We keep a bucket in the kitchen sink to catch all clean, usable water, which we carry out and put on our poor, thirsty plants.

  • Richard Vance
    Comment added June 20, 2016Reply

    I have had a lot of failure in planting trees at high elevations in Utah deserts. From reading your blog, I think that the wind was sucking the moisture out when root moisture was low. Thanks for the insight. Hopefully with more water, more trees will survive.

  • Laura ~ Raise Your Garden
    Comment added June 20, 2016Reply

    I live in Buffalo, NY where typically we get tons of rain. And guess what. It's been the driest year in about 20 here!!! NO RAIN! Our lawns are brittle, brown patches. Unreal. So we utilize our rain barrel (Very handy) and conserve water any way we can.

  • Wanda
    Comment added June 20, 2016Reply

    I live in Fla where it is very hot most of the year. I actually have tried soaker hoses that seemed to split quickly. I also have mostly sand which dries out quickly. I plant veggies that need lots of water in 5 gallon buckets with a piece of PVC pipe inserted vertically to put the water in to get to the roots. It takes more effort this way, but I have better control and my tomatoes don't get wilt this way. One year I had to pull all my tomato plants out of my raised bed because there was something in the soil that gave them all "wilt".

  • Glenda Lloren
    Comment added June 20, 2016Reply

    I installed drip irrigation on timer and I planted my salad greens under my mulberry tree.

  • Brandon
    Comment added June 20, 2016Reply

    In Gilbert AZ I move the family trampoline over the garden to add some needed shade.

  • Nancy Finley
    Comment added June 19, 2016Reply

    I would like to know if I can transplant my potted potatoes starts. This is the first time I have tried to grow potatoes, so have lots to learn.

    Right now I have 5 6 plants in a large (plastic) terra cotta pot. The have grown to stems with leaves on them coming through the dirt. I was told to hill them, which I am taking to mean put dirt on top of them to cover. Now I am nervious that they will outgrowth the pot.

    Can I carefully dig up the baby and put into my small garden? If this is possible, how deep would I need to plant them? How big do they grow (the potatoe plants will be in front of my tomatoes.

    I am thanking you in advance.

  • Wendy Schuck
    Comment added June 19, 2016Reply

    I used lots of mulch, and still do to this day. I used to use straw, but have switched to hay as I find it has more nutrients for the plants. I do not rototill, dig or disturb the earth, I just keep adding more mulch. I lay soaker hoses beneath the mulch and everything holds the moisture in beautifully. The secret with mulch is using enough. More is better, up to 8 inches deep. This creates a beautiful rich loamy soil in time, crumbly & filled with earthworms. What so many modern gardeners don't realize - without using chemicals and commercial fertilizers you need to "feed" your garden. Mulch does this. For home gardeners this is the absolute best for a low weed, little water and less work garden.

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