7 Survival Crops You Can Grow Without Irrigation

Did you realize that many vegetables will grow without irrigation?

Like us, most plants thrive when they get plenty of water – but some crops are also very good at mining for the moisture they need and hanging on to whatever falls from heaven.

When it comes to survival gardening, ensuring a good supply of water should be a top priority, yet there are times when it isn’t easy to drag water around or get irrigation to a field. If that’s the case, you might need to think differently about both how you grow and what you grow.

Steve Solomon wrote an excellent book on gardening without irrigation that really nails down some techniques, plus shares the great potential of dryland farming. You can read it for free here. Just a heads-up: typical intensive raised bed production is NOT the way to grow crops without water. Go read Solomon’s book if you’re interested. Seriously.

For now, though – let’s take a look at seven survival crops that are pretty easy to grow without irrigation. Let’s attack them in alphabetical order. Just because.


survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationAmaranth is an ancient “grain.” (It’s not a true grain… it’s actually a “psuedo-cereal,” in case you were wondering). If you’ve read many of my gardening articles, you know I have a love-hate relationship with grains. Grains are generally not the best option for long-term survival for a number of reasons, but a couple of them stand out: amaranth and corn. (We’ll cover corn next, since it comes after amaranth in the alphabet.)

The reason amaranth stands apart as a grain is that it’s also a good leaf vegetable. It also requires minimal processing to be edible. Sure, the yields are low, but it’s easy to grow and it will usually yield abundantly even without being watered by man. I planted some a few years ago and it’s reseeded and come back again and again without any help from me… I just pop out and harvest it when I think about it.


survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationThis last year I conducted my first experiment growing corn without irrigation and was quite happy with the results. It wasn’t quite a fair test since we had a wetter spring than usual, but there were a couple of weeks in a row that went by without rain. Though folks often think of corn as a “needy” crop, some of the old heirlooms are true survivors. They were bred in an era before high-pressure sprinklers blasted water fifty feet into the air. Corn was a big part of Southwestern agriculture before the Spanish arrived… and you can bet the Aztecs weren’t that interested in hauling big clay pots of water around.

Jerusalem Artichokes

survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationI’ve never had to water Jerusalem artichokes, either here in Florida sand or up north in Tennessee clay. They go through long stretches of low rainfall without complaint and always produce more tubers than you can eat. As a bonus, they’re perennial. Hard to beat that.

Nopale Cactus

survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationThis crop is a no-brainer… when you think low water, you think cactus. “Nopale” cactus are basically just prickly pear varieties that are bred for their tasty pads. They’re tasty enough to be eaten as a staple vegetable, though their mucilaginous texture is bound to turn off some folks. Great in chili… not quite so good by themselves without acid to cut the slime. In a pinch, though, you could live on them – and they really don’t need water. Because… they’re a cactus.

Southern Peas

survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationThe first time I saw a big, lush green field of southern bush peas, I looked around for the irrigation system… and it was nowhere to be found. Even in summer, the southern peas (also known as black-eyed peas, zipper peas, cow peas or about 347 other local names) looked great. They’re not the most productive plant in the world, but they do grow in hot summers when nothing else will. They also fix nitrogen, meaning they improve the soil for following crops.

Sweet Potatoes

survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationYou wouldn’t think something as lush and succulent as sweet potato vines would handle low water, but they will. They also shade the ground when they grow, keeping the ravages of the sun from sucking too much moisture from the earth. I water sweet potatoes when I first plant them, the basically leave them alone. If a drought runs on for too long, you’ll likely not get much production… but in normal rainfall years, sweet potatoes are tough, making them one of my favorite survival crops.


survival crops, irrigation crops, grow without irrigationFor something named after water, watermelons are miserly in their water consumption. Here in Florida they’re a common non-irrigated crop that’s planted in the early spring – a time of minimal rainfall, yet the watermelons do fine. I like to give them some extra love, though generally they’ll almost grow wherever you spit the seeds, lots of water or no. You might not be able to live on watermelons in a crisis… but I wouldn’t mind trying.

So, there you go. Amaranth, corn, Jerusalem artichokes, nopale cactus, southern peas, sweet potatoes and watermelon – all good crops you can grow without irrigation, and they’re just the beginning. If you haven’t experimented with “dry” farming, it’s worth trying… particularly if you do get at least a little rain during the growing season.






About David The Good

David The Good is a naturalist, author and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David is the author of four books, writes a regular column for The Ag Mag in North Central Florida, is a Mother Earth News blogger and has also written for outlets including Backwoods Home, Survival Blog and Self-Reliance Magazine. You can find his books on Amazon here. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie who now lives somewhere near the equator on a productive cocoa farm. Visit his daily gardening and survival blog here: The Survival Gardener And for lots more gardening info, click here and subscribe to his often hilarious YouTube channel.

View all posts by David The Good

9 Responses to “7 Survival Crops You Can Grow Without Irrigation”

  1. Gareth Robertson Says:

    I’m sure there are alot of things that will grow in Florida without irrigation. You should be careful not to generalize. I have grown corn and watermelon- if i don’t water they do dry up. Please qualify your statements or you could mislead a lot of your readers.


    • David Goodman Says:

      Hi Gareth,

      You cannot expect these particular crops to grow without irrigation in all climates… that’s the nature of gardening. This is a starting point that will be helpful to many, but the world ranges in climate from the Atacama desert to the north of Chile… to the high tropics of Ecuador… to the temperate shores of the UK. Your mileage may vary. Thanks for stopping by.


  2. Doomsday Says:

    I live in fort Myers, good to know what grows in our sands, thanks for the info :)


  3. Mom2three Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! We are in TN and going to start our vegetable gardens soon. We have similar beliefs as we are Christians too and want to be prepared. We are embarking on a new adventure with this for sure. We are completely out of our element, but we believe God has been speaking to us about this and will give us the grace to do what He has called us to do. I will continue to follow your posts! Thank you and God bless!


  4. balbir Says:

    for india where the summer temperature goes up to 42 cebtigrade & in scanty rainfall areas which crops would u reccomend


  5. Emily Says:

    Watch the Back To Eden film, backtoedenfilm.com, then the follow up on YouTube, “Back to Eden Garden – Complete Tour – L2Survive with Thatnub” (It’s a little under 2 hours.) I’m not affiliated with them, but fascinated with this method of no-irrigation gardening that I aim to try it myself. I am about to put together my own orchard, and have been wondering how on earth we could have a bunch of fruit trees and still stay off-grid for water. I think these videos contain my answer…


  6. jolj Says:

    I like your list, but I like sorghum too.
    Sorghum is a corn so it close to your list.
    Check out “Coral Sorghum” that is grown in the Sudan as a grain.


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