18 Water-Saving Gardening Tips For Drought

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. We have 10 short-term and 8 long-term tips to help you use water more efficiently in your yard or commercial landscape. We'll teach your how to protect your plants while reducing water use.

sonoma california garden sonoma california garden
In this Sonoma, California garden, xeric plants and gravel mulch paths replace a traditional grass lawn. This zone 9 garden includes Gaura (Wand Flower)'Trader Joe's', Origanum (Ornamental Oregano) 'Amethyst Falls', Nepeta (Catmint) 'Select Blue', Nepeta (Catmint) 'Walker's Low', and Oenothera (Evening Primrose) macrocarpa
 

10 Tips To Reduce Water Use and Save Your Plants For The Short Term

  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. 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 beesbutterflies and hummingbirds (who still need to eat during droughts). You can't buy back time!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Read your water meter Learn how to read your water meter and check it to monitor the rate of water use.

A xeric (waterwise) garden with Delosperma (Ice Plant) and Veronica (Speedwell)

8 Tips To Reduce Water Use For The Long Term

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 for water conservation.  With thoughtful design, your garden can feature plenty of beautiful and beneficial plants, without using excessive water. 
    See Our Tips for Planning and Design With Water Use Zones
  2. Create practical turf areas. Plant low-water lawn grasses and reduce the square footage of high-maintenance lawn on your property. 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. 
    Explore Our Sustainable Lawn Solutions
  3. Plant waterwise groundcovers. Remove sections of the lawn and replace it with waterwise groundcovers or flower beds with drought resistant perennials. Once established, drought tolerant plants will require less work and water than traditional lawns, with the added benefit of adding beauty to your property, while creating habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.
    Shop Waterwise Groundcovers
  4. Use regionally suitable plants. Replace thirsty lawns or high-maintenance ornamental plants with xeric (low water) plants. We recommend planting a mix of 70-80% native plants and 20-30% Old World (non-native) plants that are suited to your climate, rainfall, soil, and other growing conditions.
    Shop Native Plants
  5. Improve and maintain your soil with organic practices. A healthy, thriving garden starts with healthy soil. Switch to organic gardening techniques will restore your soil's health and increase its water holding capacity. Soils are badly damaged by the long term use of chemical fertilizers; they 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. 
    Shop our top picks for Organic & Natural Soil Amendments
  6. Use mulch to your advantage. Mulching will help to moderate soil temperatures and prevent water from evaporating from your soil.
    See Our Planting Guide For Mulching Tips
  7. Irrigate efficiently. When watering, avoid the hottest times of day, when water will evaporate more quickly, and possibly harm your plants' foliage. Watering using drip lines will provide more direct and consistent application, to avoid evaporation and wasting water. For waterwise plants, it's often best to water deeply and less frequently; allow water to soak deep down to the roots, rather than stay at the ground's surface, to establish resilient, drought tolerant root systems.
  8. Practice water harvesting. 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 include the use of water barrels, pumice wicks, planting in depressions that fill with water from runoff, and terracing sloped landscapes to hold water. These are all "passive" water harvesting techniques that can be created with little expense.
To help protect trees and shrubs during drought, water them monthly and place a 3-4-inch layer of mulch around them to conserve soil moisture. (Chilopsis linearis Lucretia Hamilton)
 

Replacing lawns with gravel, rather than using waterwise plants, amplifies the heat and can actually increase drought intensity on a large scale. The best option for a low-maintenance lawn is to landscape with waterwise plants. 

Shop Waterwise Plants

  1. Blue Spruce Stonecrop, Sedum reflexum 'Blue Spruce'

    'Blue Spruce' Creeping Sedum (Sedum reflexum) is a standout among low-maintenance Sedums. This easy-to-grow and eye-catching features succulent blue-green foliage, much like little s...

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    Blue Spruce Sedum Blue Spruce Stonecrop Sedum reflexum Blue Spruce
    As low as $7.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    'Blue Spruce' Creeping Sedum (Sedum reflexum) is a standout among low-maintenance Sedums. This easy-to-grow and eye-catching features succulent blue-green foliage, much like little spruce needles! A pollinator favorite, it is covered with small star-shaped yellow flowers in summer for over a month. A great evergreen groundcover where low maintenance, drought-tolerant, deer-and-rabbit-resistant plantings are desired.
    Learn More
  2. Angelina Stonecrop, Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'

    Fast-growing, and colorful, 'Angelina' Creeping Sedum (Sedum rupestre) adds a dazzling highlight with colors from chartreuse to golden yellow. Easy to grow, it will spread quickly as...

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    Angelina Sedum Angelina Stonecrop Sedum rupestre Angelina
    As low as $7.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Fast-growing, and colorful, 'Angelina' Creeping Sedum (Sedum rupestre) adds a dazzling highlight with colors from chartreuse to golden yellow. Easy to grow, it will spread quickly as a drought-tolerant groundcover. Bright yellow star-like flowers bloom in summer and foliage turns golden-orange in autumn. A great pick for rock gardens, dry borders, and large expanses of ground that need planting.
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  3. Manzano Mountains Strain Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus triglochidiatus Manzano Mts., growing in rock garden with red flowers

    Our Manzano Mountains Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) has stout stems with fewer spines than are typical for the species, for an unusual appearance that cold hardy cac...

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    Manzano Mountains Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus) Manzano Mountains Strain Hedgehog Cactus Echinocereus triglochidiatus Manzano Mts.
    $12.99
    Per Plant - 2" Pot
    Our Manzano Mountains Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) has stout stems with fewer spines than are typical for the species, for an unusual appearance that cold hardy cacti growers will appreciate. Deep red mid-spring flowers are a hummingbird favorite. Tough and very cold hardy, this native cactus is a great rock garden specimen or addition to the xeric landscape. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
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  4. Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Beard Tongue, Penstemon strictus ‘WWG06’

    Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar ...

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    Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Penstemon Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Beardtongue Penstemon strictus 'WWG06'
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar source for bumblebees. Plant this easy-to-grow beardtongue for a sturdy, long-lived late-spring bloomer in your xeriscape. This beauty thrives in most well-drained soil with full sun exposure. A 2021 Plant Select® Winner. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
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  5. SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Beard Tongue, Penstemon pinifolius ‘P019S', orange flowers

    A soft orange-flowered selection of pineleaf beardtongue, SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) is a native cultivar that starts flowering in late spring and attr...

    Learn More
    SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Beardtongue Penstemon pinifolius 'P019S'
    $8.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    A soft orange-flowered selection of pineleaf beardtongue, SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) is a native cultivar that starts flowering in late spring and attracts numerous pollinators and hummingbirds. Reminiscent of Colorado summer sunsets, its long-lasting blooms add a warm glow to dry area gardens. Finely textured evergreen foliage forms a compact mound for year-round interest.
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  6. SunSparkler® Dazzleberry Stonecrop, Sedum 'Razzleberry'

    Bold and beautiful, SunSparkler® 'Dazzleberry' Sedum sports smoky blue-grey foliage in 6-inch-tall mounds. Come late summer, raspberry flower clusters cover the plant for long-lasti...

    Learn More
    SunSparkler® Dazzleberry Sedum SunSparkler® Dazzleberry Stonecrop PP#22457 Sedum Dazzleberry PP#22457
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Bold and beautiful, SunSparkler® 'Dazzleberry' Sedum sports smoky blue-grey foliage in 6-inch-tall mounds. Come late summer, raspberry flower clusters cover the plant for long-lasting color. Easy-to-grow and pollinator-friendly, it’s a great low maintenance perennial for groundcovers, rock gardens, borders, and containers in sunny, dry areas. 'Dazzleberry' will naturalize and spread creating a carpet of easy-care color.
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  7. SunSparkler® Wildfire Stonecrop, Sedum 'Wildfire'

    SunSparkler® 'Wildfire' Sedum blazes with ruby red petals edged in hot pink. Late summer brings clusters of long-blooming pink flowers. It’s an attention-worthy groundcover that w...

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    SunSparkler® Wildfire Sedum SunSparkler® Wildfire Stonecrop PP#28621 Sedum Wildfire PP#28621
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    SunSparkler® 'Wildfire' Sedum blazes with ruby red petals edged in hot pink. Late summer brings clusters of long-blooming pink flowers. It’s an attention-worthy groundcover that will naturalize to fill a sunny, dry area. In fact, the more sun, the brighter the color. A perfect easy-to-grow addition to a rock garden, container, or any sunny spot that needs a water-thrifty color boost. Deer and rabbit resistant.
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  8. Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus intricatus

    A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat....

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    Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus) Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany Cercocarpus intricatus
    $12.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat. Its compact size and outstanding durability make it an excellent choice for hedging and xeric landscaping. In mid-spring, the shrub is covered in plumes of tiny pale flowers, which are pollinated by small native bees to create feathery seed tails that catch the afternoon light.
    Learn More

Text and Photos By Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman

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