How to Grow Edibles in a Drought

A California chef offers tips for growing hearty vegetables and herbs in dry conditions.

California Garden

California Garden

Photo by: Photo by John Cox. Courtesy of Post Ranch Inn.

Photo by John Cox. Courtesy of Post Ranch Inn.

Executive Chef John Cox from Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn near Big Sur, California sources drought-resistant vegetables and herbs from this hillside garden as part of the inn's gardening program.

Drought can put a damper on recreational gardening, but it also greatly affects how stores, restaurants and farmers work together to provide fresh available produce. In California, where water is always at a premium and dry conditions are the norm in many parts of the state, gardeners and chefs have created partnerships to come up with creative ways to serve delicious food in times of drought – including at restaurants which run their own gardening programs.

John Cox, Executive Chef at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn near Big Sur on the California coast, shares some growing and cooking tips from his garden:

In your own garden, how do you handle drought conditions?

You can never predict how much rain we will get in Big Sur, and The Post Ranch Inn is always looking for ways to conserve water. The way that we have set up our gardening program is based largely on water conservation. We have trenched walkways between rows that catch water and minimize runoff.  The entire garden is set up on a drip irrigation, which is a very efficient method for watering. Another key to handling drought conditions is to embrace what nature throws at you—in the case of a drought year plants will be fighting to survive and will quickly go to flower and seed. These flowers can be both a flavorful and colorful addition to many recipes. Another key to gardening in drought conditions is to embrace plants that have a long history of growing wild in the region. In Big Sur, those include wild fennel, sorrel, wild radish and mustard. 
Which vegetables are best for growing and using in cooking during a drought?              

Dry farm tomatoes, wild fennel, mustard, radish, sunchokes, lavender and rosemary work well.

Can you give us a few tips on how you grow some of your favorite plants in dry conditions?

Fennel: Collect wild fennel seeds and grow in your garden. The wild fennel is proven to be a drought-tolerant species and will flourish in a variety of climates.

Farm tomatoes: If you want to "dry farm" a tomato, it's helpful to use clay soil that retains water. If your soil is too loose, it will not retain as much water. Just because the vines look a little stressed, that doesn’t mean the tomato will be compromised. In fact, the stress may motivate a plant to set deeper roots and result in more concentrated flavor. A great illustration of this is in vineyards, where often the best vintages are also the driest.
Can you share a short recipe using one of the vegetables?
There are few ingredients I enjoy as much as our native variety of fennel. We grow these in our garden and use them in a variety of ways. One of the biggest appeals of this plant is its diversity. Tender young fennel fronds are perfect in salads, the bright yellow pollen can be dusted on cheese or fish to add a hint of licorice scented sweetness, the seeds can be used in sauces, sausages or even in biscotti or other sweets. The dried fennel stalks can be used to smoke meats or as a base for grilling fish. Here is a simple recipe:

Friendly Fennel

Friendly Fennel

Photo by: Photo by John Cox. Courtesy of Post Ranch Inn.

Photo by John Cox. Courtesy of Post Ranch Inn.

Fresh salmon sits atop locally grown fennel in this recipe by John Cox from Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn.

Fennel with Grilled Salmon

  • 2 heads of wild fennel flowers
  • 1 cup wild fennel fronds
  • A handful of partially dried fennel stalks
  • 2 tablespoons course local sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons spicy local olive oil (like arbequina)
  • 4- 5 ounce portions of Wild Monterey king salmon, scaled with skin on
  • 1 Meyer lemon

Put the olive oil in a bowl, using your fingers roll the fennel flowers to release the pollen into the oil.   

Add the sea salt to the oil. Zest the Meyer lemon. Chop the zest and add to oil.  

Squeeze the lemon juice into the oil. Rub the fish with half of the finished oil. Retain the other half. Allow the fish to marinate for up to 8 hours in the refrigerator.  

Get your grill hot. Quickly rinse the fennel stalks in cold water and then put in the middle of the grill. Set the salmon, skin side down, on the now smoldering stalks. Turn the grill onto low and close the lid. Let the fish smoke/cook for approximately 10 minutes. Don’t worry if the skin is a little charred (you can remove it before serving if you like. Remove the salmon from the grill when finished. You can check the fish by inserting a metal skewer or pairing knife into the filet—touch the metal to your forearm and once it feels just warm (not hot or cold) the fish is done.   

Place the salmon on a plate with your desired accompaniments. You could do a nice green salad with dry farmed tomatoes for example. Spoon some of the reserved olive oil on top. Garnish with the fennel fronds.

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