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 & Design For Water Use. See our Tips for Planning and Design With Water Use Zones
  2. Create Practical Turf Areas. 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. Plant Waterwise Groundcovers. Remove sections of the lawn and replace it with waterwise groundcovers or flower beds of drought resistant perennials and smaller growing woody plants.
  4. Use Regionally Suitable Plants. Replace thirsty plants with xeric (low water) native and Old World plants that are suitable for your climate.
  5. Improve & Maintain the Soil Organically. 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.
  6. Use Mulches. Mulching will help to moderate soil temperatures and prevent water from evaporating from your soil.
  7. Irrigate Efficiently. When watering, avoid the hottest times of day, when water will evaporate more quickly. Watering using drip lines will provide more direct application, to avoid evaporation and wasting water. For waterwise plants, it's often best to water deeply and less frequently, to allow water to soak deep down to the roots, rather than stay at the ground's surface.
  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 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.
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)

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. Penstemon palmeri Wild Snapdragon

    Palmer's Beardtongue blooms in early summer with tall spikes of fragrant, light pink flowers in early summer. Very xeric and heat tolerant, it is a willing reseeder for use in coloni...

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    Palmer's Penstemon Palmer's Beardtongue Penstemon palmeri
    As low as $8.99 Sale $7.19
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Palmer's Beardtongue blooms in early summer with tall spikes of fragrant, light pink flowers in early summer. Very xeric and heat tolerant, it is a willing reseeder for use in colonizing harsh sites. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  2. Chrysothamnus nauseosus La Plata, Silver Leaf Rabbit Brush

    Silver Leaf Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus La Plata) is a showy native shrub that stands out in the landscape with its attractive, finely textured silver-gray foliage and eye-c...

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    La Plata Silver Leaf Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) La Plata Silver Leaf Rabbitbrush Chrysothamnus nauseosus La Plata
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Silver Leaf Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus La Plata) is a showy native shrub that stands out in the landscape with its attractive, finely textured silver-gray foliage and eye-catching display of golden-yellow flowers beginning in late summer-early fall.
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  3. Zinnia grandiflora Gold on Blue photo courtesy of Plant Select

    Plant Select 2014. 4" tall x 15" wide. A superb native groundcover plant, Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’ (Gold On Blue Prairie Zinnia) is an unusually large form of Prairie ...

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    Gold On Blue Prairie Zinnia Gold On Blue Prairie Zinnia Zinnia grandiflora Gold on Blue
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $8.99 Sale $7.19
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Plant Select 2014. 4" tall x 15" wide. A superb native groundcover plant, Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’ (Gold On Blue Prairie Zinnia) is an unusually large form of Prairie Zinnia that blooms in summer with golden-yellow daisies. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  4. Hymenoxys hoopesii, Owl's Claws, Orange Sneezeweed, close up of  huge golden-yellow flowers

    Owl's Claw (Hymenoxys hoopesii) is a fabulous native mountain wildflower with huge golden-yellow flowers in summer. With its long, downward curving golden-yellow flower petals and ce...

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    Owl's Claws (Hymenoxys) Owl's Claws, Orange Sneezeweed Hymenoxys hoopesii
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $9.99 Sale $7.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Owl's Claw (Hymenoxys hoopesii) is a fabulous native mountain wildflower with huge golden-yellow flowers in summer. With its long, downward curving golden-yellow flower petals and center cone, the graceful flowers are eye-catching. Highly attractive to many types of butterflies and bees, this durable perennial likes average to wet soil moisture and cool growing conditions, not for hot climates.
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  5. Cardinal Penstemon Close Up of Red Tubular Blooms

    Cardinal Penstemon (Penstemon cardinalis) is a rare, cold hardy wildflower from the southern mountains of New Mexico. Tall, impressive spikes of dark red flowers bloom in mid-summer,...

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    Cardinal Penstemon Cardinal Beardtongue Penstemon cardinalis
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Cardinal Penstemon (Penstemon cardinalis) is a rare, cold hardy wildflower from the southern mountains of New Mexico. Tall, impressive spikes of dark red flowers bloom in mid-summer, making this favorite source of natural nectar for hummingbirds. A must-have for your pollinator garden. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  6. New Snow Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea New Snow, Small white flowers on tall upright stems

    New Snow Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) has attractive silver-gray wooly foliage and clusters of tiny white flowers held on top of tall, upright stems. This native plant...

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    New Snow Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis) New Snow Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea New Snow
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    New Snow Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) has attractive silver-gray wooly foliage and clusters of tiny white flowers held on top of tall, upright stems. This native plant is highly attractive to butterflies. Resilient and easy to grow, it’s excellent for use in meadows and perennial pollinator-friendly gardens with dry, poor soil. Drought tolerant.
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  7. Star Frost Echinops frosty white circular blooms, Echinops 'Star Frost', Echinops bannaticus

    ‘Star Frost’ Echinops (Echinops bannaticus), also called Globe Thistle, is an eye-popping beauty in frosty white with spherical flowers on sturdy stems. Rising from thistle-like ...

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    Star Frost Echinops Star Frost Globe Thistle Echinops bannaticus Star Frost
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    ‘Star Frost’ Echinops (Echinops bannaticus), also called Globe Thistle, is an eye-popping beauty in frosty white with spherical flowers on sturdy stems. Rising from thistle-like deep green leaves with silvery undersides, ‘Star Frost’ will bloom from mid-summer to early fall. Plant them in a sweep for dramatic effect. At 3-4 feet tall they are just right for a perennial bed, cutting garden, or pollinator garden - bees and butterflies love them too.
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  8. Sideoats Grama Grass,  Bouteloua curtipendula

    Sideoats Grama Grass (Bouteloua curtipendula) is a superb native grama grass that thrives in hot, dry gardens, where its showy summer flower spikes add grace and texture. Our strain ...

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    Sideoats Grama Grass Sideoats Grama Grass Bouteloua curtipendula
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Sideoats Grama Grass (Bouteloua curtipendula) is a superb native grama grass that thrives in hot, dry gardens, where its showy summer flower spikes add grace and texture. Our strain has blue foliage that contrasts nicely with the mid-summer tan flowers, which mature to off-white seed heads in early fall. It's a very attractive winter grass with finely tapered, light-catching flower stems.
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Text and Photos By Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman

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