Act: Inspiration

What Survives a Drought?

December 5, 2019

The entire east coast of the U.S. is suffering drought conditions this year, and my North Carolina garden had it bad.

This growing season started with a spring flood that hit the hundred year line. I stood there and watched swirling brown water submerge nearly an acre of streamside pasture, eerily quiet as it covered the downed trees and curving banks. It came within a foot of the bottom of my new pasture fence. I was partly patting myself on the back for guessing the perfect fence line, and partly worried that I will someday see a higher flood. A hundred years isn’t as long as it used to be.

Since that wet day, though, it has hardly rained at all. My area of the country is projected to get even wetter as the climate changes, but projections also call for more variability; more flood years and more drought years, and many fewer nice mild Goldilocks years perfect for growing my own food.

This year, my summer favorites like tomatoes, bell peppers, winter squash and cucumbers failed badly. This begs the question: What survives a drought? What thrives when the pasture grasses are baking and the thermometer sits at a hundred day after day?

Chili peppers thriving in drought

Very happy chilies

Hot peppers thrive. We have tiny chilies and giant chilies. We have red jalapenos and orange ones and black ones. We have my absolute favorite hot variety, Russians, which are nice to eat pickled like a pepperoncini when they are still blond, and very hot when they’re allowed to get red. This year I’m testing them as a dry flaked pepper, using my new solar dehydrator. We have a paprika pepper I do not remember planting. Even the poblanos, delayed by mistimed planting, are coming on hard.

Another excellent producer has been okra. I got some Clemson spineless started on time, and they grew to eight feet and produced into October. We eat it fried, in stir fries, with beans and tomatoes, with shrimp creole, with sweet chili eggplant over coconut rice. Even so, there’s gallons in the freezer now, and jars upon jars pickled in my sun oven and sitting on the shelf. I also have a variety specifically for pickling, and a red one too, which got started late and came into production in September.

Pro tip: most members of the Malvaceae family (which includes okra, hibiscus, cotton, and some edible flowers like malva) seem to prefer you soak their seed before you plant it. Much better germination that way. We grow an annual hibiscus called roselle which dies back at the frost, rather than going dormant like a woody rose of Sharon. It has also totally owned the drought. I have never seen such excellent production in the four years we’ve planted it.

Roselle, an annual, drought-tolerant hibiscus for tea

Roselle makes beautiful hibiscus flowers

Even if you don’t know what Roselle is, I bet you’ve consumed it. The rubbery calyx at the base of their beautiful flowers lends the tart flavor and red color to teas like the popular Celestial Seasonings zingers. The leaves are also pleasantly sour, and make a nice pile of garlicy cooked greens when paired with sweet potato leaves and Malabar spinach.

We let the roselle flowers drop off, then clip the seed pods from the plants, calyx included. I cut the butt off the pod with a sharp knife, and my little people squeeze the green pod out. It’s a super kid-friendly garden activity because it’s easy and satisfying for little fingers. Yesterday I shouted: “Come process roselle!” and my children appeared like magic out of the trees, no dragging necessary. The only thing they like better is shucking corn with their dad.

Preparing drought-tolerant roselle for drying by removing the calyx from the seed pod

First mom does the chopping…

Children help process drought-tolerant roselle because it's fun

…then the little fingers get the seed pod out.

Speaking of corn, our dent corn also did very well. Last year we planted Floriani red flint, which has a beautiful deep red kernel and a strong corn flavor. I made polenta and tamales with it, and it was yummy, but the seed coats are so hard on a flint that a few bits always came through the grinding process.

This year we tried a dent called blue Claradge, which seems to grind a little easier in my hand-crank grinder with no hard seed coats in the end product. I watered it regularly until it was about six inches in height, then let it go, and boy did it go to eleven feet tall! It got a gooey substance around the tiers of adventitious (that is, air-bound) roots, like these amazing symbiotic nitrogen-fixing corns. I don’t know if it fixed any of its own nitrogen, but it did surprise me after harvest: the light blue corn flour makes a purple polenta! It looks more like dessert than dinner, and it has a distinctly popcorn-like flavor. That’s a win.

Malabar spinach climbed some of that very tall corn and pulled it over. If you’re not familiar with malabar, it’s a beautiful red vine that thrives in the heat. The leaves are good a few at a time in a smoothie, and it subs well for spinach in cooked recipes like soups. Most people I know find it too mucilaginous to enjoy raw. I saved seed from mine last year, which is easy. You just pick the berries after they darken and leave them out to dry. I never planted that seed because volunteers were so numerous in last year’s patch. I just transplanted them to a better spot. I love a plant that starts itself.

Malabar spinach is a hearty, heat- and drought-tolerant green

Both humans and goats think malabar is yummy

It looks like sweet potatoes also tolerate the dry. I grabbled the first few last week, and they are once again enormous. (“Grabbling” is the technical term for reaching under an Irish potato and pulling out a few spuds for supper without uprooting the entire plant. I’m not sure if it applies to sweet potatoes.) Last year I couldn’t tell where the first tubers had formed, and by the time I dug them they were bigger than my head.

This year I marked the centers of the plants with sticks when they were small because once they send out their vines they become an indistinguishable sweet potato mass. But this year’s first tubers are still giant. No polite single-serving grocery store tubers here. I planted more plants and harvested fewer tubers this year compared to wetter years, but it still yielded fairly well.

Another good producer was the yard-long bean (also called asparagus bean). If you’re not familiar with these, they’re an Asian variety with pretty purple flowers. They require cooking just a little longer than a regular snap bean, but they make up for it by being easier to process, with a nice mild flavor that pickles or fries well. At over a foot long it’s a cinch to pick a giant pile, and they don’t need snapped or strung, just chopped.

Asparagus beans, usually eaten as green beans, are drought-tolerant and also produce dry beans

These amazing beans are almost ready to go in the dehydrator

I keep failing at dry beans year after year. In researching drought-tolerant additions for next year’s garden just in case we get a weather repeat, I hit on cowpeas. Then I realized my beloved yard-long is a cowpea! I’d ruled them out because they’re such a pain to get out of their hulls when dry. Turns out that’s because I’m doing it wrong. Those hulls must be extra super dry, which is another application for the solar dehydrator. I have no idea how to cook them, but I suspect garlic will be involved.

These are the sort of mental contortions that occur when humans lose their natural heritage. We’re ignorant of the varieties and techniques that support a subsistence life, those essential pearls of knowledge that used to be passed from one generation to the next. I end up having to figure out every variety and every method one at a time, using fragmented advice (only occasionally available from local old-timers) and trial and error for my plot and my climate, because every niche is different. It takes so much Googling, and there’s only so much that Googling can do for you.

It reminds me of a conversation I read about on a favorite site of mine. The proprietors of are smart fellows who have been working for years to help others clue in to the issues we face as a civilization. If you think you understand the ecological hurdles we’re up against, you should check out their free Crash Course to learn about the economic problems. Those guys don’t just talk the talk. They have also done great work on their own personal resilience. One of them was talking to a wise old gardener, and asked:

“How long will it take me to get really good at gardening?”

Wise old man said, “Ten years.”

“But no, listen, I’m really a clever person. Research is what I do.” Or something like that.

“Okay then. Ten years.”

The reason? You have to see a flood year, when everything rots. You have to see a dry year, when everything turns brown and blows away. You have to cope with a late spring and an early one, a bad squash bug year, a bad bean beetle year. A year when you’ve mined out your soil, and nutrient deficiencies you’ve never seen before suddenly appear, so you try to get back on the right fertility track. Then you might be a good gardener.

I’ve got a ways to go.

So hey gardeners, help us all out. What are the varieties that do well in your area? How do you cope with a dry year? Tell me below.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming policy, drought, drought mitigation strategies, environmental effects of climate change