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. Munro's Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea)

    Orange Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea munroana) brings a blast of bright orange to the mid-summer garden. A xeric perennial native to the Great Basin of the Western US, this rugged plant...

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    Munro's Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea) Munro's Globe Mallow Sphaeralcea munroana
    As low as $10.99 Sale $9.89
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Orange Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea munroana) brings a blast of bright orange to the mid-summer garden. A xeric perennial native to the Great Basin of the Western US, this rugged plant thrives in the most challenging hot, sunny dry garden conditions. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
    Learn More
  2. Yellow Hymenoxys scaposa, Hymenoxys scaposa, Thrift-leaf Perky Sue

    Hymenoxys scaposa (Thrift-Leaf Perky Sue) is one of our very best native wildflowers. Drought tolerant, the tidy mound of evergreen foliage is covered with bright yellow daisies in l...

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    Thrift-Leaf Perky Sue (Hymenoxys) Thrift-Leaf Perky Sue Hymenoxys scaposa
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $7.49 Sale $6.74
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Hymenoxys scaposa (Thrift-Leaf Perky Sue) is one of our very best native wildflowers. Drought tolerant, the tidy mound of evergreen foliage is covered with bright yellow daisies in late spring. Perky Sue often re-blooms after summer rains. Drought resistant/drought tolerant perennial plant (xeric).
    Learn More
  3. Prunus besseyi ‘PS’ (Pawnee Buttes) Photo Courtesy of Plant Select

    An outstanding selection of our western native sand cherry, Pawnee Buttes® is a low growing, groundcover shrub with a profusion of fragrant white flowers in early spring and show...

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    Pawnee Buttes® Sand Cherry (Prunus) Pawnee Buttes® Sand Cherry Prunus besseyi P011S
    As low as $11.99 Sale $11.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    An outstanding selection of our western native sand cherry, Pawnee Buttes® is a low growing, groundcover shrub with a profusion of fragrant white flowers in early spring and showy mahogany-red foliage in the fall. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant. Prunus besseyi P011S is a 2000 Plant Select® introduction. 12-18" tall x 4-6' wide.
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  4. Jewel of Desert® Peridot Ice Plant (Delosperma) with lemon-yellow open blooms

    A gorgeous ground-covering solution for your driest, sunniest spots, Jewel of Desert Peridot Ice Plant (Delosperma) is a long-blooming perennial that shines in two-toned color from l...

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    Jewel of Desert® Peridot Ice Plant Jewel of Desert® Peridot Ice Plant Delosperma Jewel of Desert® Peridot
    As low as $8.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    A gorgeous ground-covering solution for your driest, sunniest spots, Jewel of Desert Peridot Ice Plant (Delosperma) is a long-blooming perennial that shines in two-toned color from late spring until early fall. Bright yellow blossoms with white centers cover the succulent green foliage. This plant will thrive as long as conditions are dry. Peridot is great for waterwise rock gardens, green roofs, and attractive erosion control. (Delosperma)
    Learn More
  5. 'Prince's Plume' with bold yellow blooms in front of canyon, Stanleya Pinnata 'Prince's Plume'

    'Prince's Plume' (Stanleya pinnata) has striking presence in the open landscape, bearing bright yellow flower spikes over feathery silver foliage. A native of the North American West...

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    Prince's Plume Prince's Plume Stanleya pinnata
    $11.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    'Prince's Plume' (Stanleya pinnata) has striking presence in the open landscape, bearing bright yellow flower spikes over feathery silver foliage. A native of the North American West and Southwest, its hardy, long-lasting flowers that can last for weeks, or months in the right conditions, serving as a beacon for attracting pollinators. 'Prince's Plume' is a fascinating and deer-resistant addition to xeriscapes in arid, semi-desert conditions. (Stanleya pinnata)
    Learn More
  6. Hooker’s Sandwort, Arenaria hookeri v. desertii

    Hookers Sandwort (Arenaria hookeri v. desertii), also called Desert Sandwort, has soft moss-like foliage that is covered with a spray of petite white flowers in late spring. Native t...

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    Hooker's Sandwort (Arenaria) Hooker's Sandwort Arenaria hookeri v. desertii
    As low as $8.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Hookers Sandwort (Arenaria hookeri v. desertii), also called Desert Sandwort, has soft moss-like foliage that is covered with a spray of petite white flowers in late spring. Native to Utah, this semi-evergreen plant grows just a couple of inches tall and provides year-round interest and texture for rock gardens or walkways. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
    Learn More
  7. Mahonia haematocarpa, Red Berry Mahonia

    Red Berry Mahonia is valued for its fragrant yellow late-spring flowers and profusion of large red fruit that ripen in late summer. Mahonia haematocarpa one of our toughest and most ...

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    Red Barberry (Mahonia) Red Barberry, Red Oregon Grape Mahonia haematocarpa
    $12.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Red Berry Mahonia is valued for its fragrant yellow late-spring flowers and profusion of large red fruit that ripen in late summer. Mahonia haematocarpa one of our toughest and most ornamental native, broadleaf evergreen shrubs. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric). 6-12 ft. tall x 6-12 ft. wide.
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  8. Nolina texana with delosperm nubigenum

    30-36" tall x 36-48" wide. Beargrass has attractive evergreen foliage and provides a graceful grass-like form in the landscape. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric)....

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    Green's Beargrass (Nolina) Green's Beargrass Nolina greenei
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    30-36" tall x 36-48" wide. Beargrass has attractive evergreen foliage and provides a graceful grass-like form in the landscape. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
    Learn More

Text and Photos By Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman

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