Water Saving Gardening Tips For Dealing With Drought

How to Protect Your Plants While Reducing Water Use

When dealing with drought conditions or mandatory water restrictions, don't feel that reducing water use means you need to let your beautiful landscape plants die. Here are tips to help you use water more efficiently in your yard or commercial landscape.

This Year:

Short Term Dos and Don'ts That will Reduce Water Use and Save Your Plants

In this Senoma California garden, xeric plants and gravel mulch paths replace a traditional grass lawn. This zone 9 garden includes Gaura 'Trader Joe's', Origanum 'Amethyst Falls', Nepeta 'Select Blue', Nepeta 'Walker's Low', Oenothera macrocarpa, Oenothera 'Shimmer' and Penstemon eatoni (our best bright-scarlet species). We don't carry a few of the common, non-cold hardy plants featured in this garden (tall Teucrium. purple Verbena, pale Diascia). We would suggest Scutellaria as a cold hardy replacement for the Verbena as it has a similar, deep violet colored flower, and Diascia 'Coral Canyon' in place of the pale Diascia.
  1. Water less. It's a fact that we over-water our landscapes. Water weekly, not daily. Over a growing season, you can train your yard to be less thirsty by watering less frequently but more deeply, to encourage deeper root penetration into the soil. Shallow roots need much more frequent irrigation. Yes, plants will wilt, leaves will drop, but the plants will survive.

  2. Don't rip out your lawn and replace it with gravel. This knee-jerk reaction amplifies the "urban heat island" effect that increases the day and night temperatures in our urban and suburban areas. And this increased heat actually decreases rain/snowfall and increases drought intensity. On a more personal level, big patches of gravel makes your house too hot and increases your need for air conditioning. This simply moves the water use from your home to the electrical generating stations where huge amounts of water are used for cooling the generating equipment.

  3. Chilopsis trees and shrubs. To help protect trees and shrubs during drought, water them monthly and place a three- to four-inch-
    deep layer of mulch around them to conserve soil moisture. (Tree: Chilopsis linearis Lucretia Hamilton)

  4. Focus your water use on trees and shrubs. Lawns, annuals and perennials can be replaced. Let your lawn go brown, but deep water the lawn area monthly to protect valuable trees and shrubs whose roots are growing under the lawn and depend on the water from irrigating the lawn. A large, twenty year old tree is worth a lot in terms of the cooling effects of its shade and the food value of its flowers to pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds (who still need to eat during droughts). You can't buy back time!

  5. Use wetting agents to improve the soil's ability to absorb water. These surfactants are sprayed over the ground every couple of months to makes water "wetter" and help the water to penetrate dry soils more evenly and deeply.

  6. Don't use any chemical fertilizers, only organic and natural formulations. Use of chemical fertilizers only increases plant growth and makes the plants thirstier as they have more leaves and stems. Instead, feed the soil with organic fertilizers to improve the soil's ability to absorb and store water.

  7. Inoculate the soil. Inoculate the soil with beneficial mycorrhizal root inoculants to increase plant's ability to absorb water from the soil. Many plants depend on the symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship between plant roots and root fungus to greatly improve the extraction of water and nutrients from the soil. These inoculants are inexpensive and will make a huge difference in plant health and resilience during drought.

  8. Mulch to protect the soil's moisture from the drying effects of the sun and wind. Use an inch or two of mulch on top of the soil around smaller flowering plants and a three to four inch deep layer around trees and shrubs.

  9. Check your sprinkler and drip systems for leaks and over-spray. Understand how to use your irrigation controller and check how often and for how long the water comes on. Don't water for 15 minutes twice daily, as this actually causes shallow root growth and reduces a plant's ability to withstand dry conditions. Water for longer periods but much less frequently. You'll use less water and make what you do use more beneficial to your landscape.

  10. Re-use shower/bath water. Local regulations regarding the use of "gray water" will vary. Find out if you can re-use water from your home and apply it to your landscape.

  11. Read your water meter Learn how to read your water meter and check it to monitor the rate of water use.

Treeless gravel lawn.
Replacing lawns with gravel amplifies the heat and can actually increase drought intensity on a large scale.

Over the next few years…

Medium Term "To Do" Solutions to Reduce Water Use

  1. Switch to organic gardening techniques. Switch to organic gardening techniques that restore the soil's health and increases its water holding capacity. Soils are badly damaged by the long term use of chemical fertilizers. These are nutrient salts that harm and eventually kill the soil's complex underground network of earthworms, bacteria and fungi. By feeding the soil's microorganisms with organic and natural fertilizers, the soil's ability to absorb and hold water increases dramatically.

  2. Harvest Water. Water harvesting is a great way to use water from your home's roof and direct it onto the landscape, where the soil becomes your "holding tank." Simple techniques such as the use of water barrels, pumice wicks, planting in depressions that fill with water from the roof runoff and terracing of sloped landscapes to hold water so it can be absorbed by the soil are call "passive" water harvesting techniques that can be created with little expense.

Xeric garden with Ice Plant and Speedwell

When the Drought has Broken

Long Term Solutions

  1. Understand and use the Principles of Xeriscaping (Waterwise Landscaping). There are eight principles that can be used to increase the beauty and comfort that our landscapes provide while reducing the use of water, energy and resources:

    1. Plan and Design
    2. Create Practical Turf Areas
    3. Use Regionally Suitable Plants
    4. Improve and Maintain the Soil Organically
    5. Use Mulches
    6. Irrigate Efficiently
    7. Practice Water Harvesting
    8. Practice Appropriate Maintenance
  2. Plant low-water lawn grasses and reduce lawn square footage. There are many excellent low water native and adapted (non-native) turf grasses that can provide a green lawn with greatly reduced needs for irrigation.

  3. Remove sections of lawn. Remove sections of the lawn and replace it with waterwise groundcovers or flower beds of drought resistant perennials and smaller growing woody plants.

  4. Replace plants.Replace high water need plants with xeric (low water) native and Old World Mediterranean plants.

Text and Photos By Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman

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