Gardening in a Drought

Gardens & Landscapes, Water Conservation for Lawn and Landscape, Drought Resources July 24, 2012|Print

Released July 17, 2012

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Even if not officially in drought conditions, many areas in recent summers have had less than normal rainfall or very dry surface conditions.  If one looks at the climate data (weather.gov), many areas have had 2 week periods with no rain, or with very little, or any rain came all at once in one area and none in another nearby.  The rule of thumb for plantings is an inch of water per week.  If you’re faced with dry garden conditions, there are some ways to keep your plants and lawn alive while minimizing water usage.

Cultural Practices
•    If still planting flowers and vegetables, use wider spacing to reduce competition for soil moisture, mulching between plants.
•    Incorporate organic matter into the soil, which will aid in water retention.  Compost also adds nutrients, but breaks down faster than peat moss--another common amendment.  Peat moss lasts longer in the soil, at least a year or more, but adds few nutrients and acidifies the soil (which is easily corrected with liming).
•    Use three to four inches (after settling) of organic mulch (pine or cedar bark, weed-free straw, wood chips, or similar) to prevent soil from drying and losing moisture to the air.  Keep mulch away from trunks and off the top of desirable perennials.  Using plastic mulches or weed fabric around shrubs, in paths, or in vegetable and annual flower gardens in which plants are spaced regularly can help as well.  Or place thick layers of newspapers in rows, covered lightly with mulch as you do with the weed fabric.
•    Fertilize less, both less in amount and less often, and avoid applying too much high nitrogen fertilizer.  Too much nitrogen results in excessive growth and increased need for water by lawns and plants.  Organic fertilizers provide less nitrogen to the soil and usually release it slower over a longer period, as well as help improve soil humus, which helps hold water.
•    Choose and place plants properly.  Don't select plants that prefer moist conditions, and place them in a dry area.  Choose plants more resistant to drought. These include many other plants in addition to cacti and succulents, such as those with deep taproots (baptisia or false lupine), thick storage roots (daylilies), or waxy coated leaves (sedum). Perennial flowers need water when newly planted, but once established require much less water than annual flowers. Native plants may be a good choice as well.
•    Don't apply pesticides that might cause injury to stressed plants, or which in heat need to be watered in.
•    Avoid pruning when plants are stressed and not growing and are thus unable to heal wounds quickly.  Pruning also may stimulate side shoots and more growth, creating the need for more water.
•    For evergreens, use antitranspirant sprays on leaves to help prevent water loss. Or erect windbreaks around such plants, if they're small or new and in a windy area.  Burlap strung between posts is effective.  For routinely windy sites, consider planting a more permanent windbreak of spruces, firs, or other evergreens to screen other plantings.
•    Water slowly, well, and deeply every couple days or even less unless plants wilt or soil is quite poor.  This promotes deeper rooting than light daily watering.
•    When watering, don’t use sprinklers unless on areas of lawn.  They waste water, often in dry conditions with half evaporating.  Rather hand water, using a reduced flow rate.  Especially with dry or crusted soil, a forceful stream of water will simply run away from the desired plants.  There are many inexpensive watering devices that easily control the flow right at the hose end, including shut-offs and “water breakers”.  This way too, you can turn the water off while moving between plants and locations.
•    If you haven’t planted perennials and woody plants yet, wait until the weather moderates and rains return.  I often wait until early fall to plant these, as the days are cooler and less stressful on the plants, there is generally more rain, and there is still time for plants to establish before winter.  Plus I find it is easier to water a group of pots that to drag the hose all over the yard, often forgetting to water some new planting.
•    Use hoeing and soil cultivation of weeds sparingly.  Continually disturbing the soil surface will result in it drying out much faster. You may have to cut weeds off at the soil surface, or use contact or systemic herbicides and save the cultivation until drought conditions ease.  At least the bright side is that under drought, weeds won't grow as fast either! But keep weeds down, as they compete with more desirable plants for water.

Container plantings
•    Move container plants to more shaded areas, so the soil won't dry out as quickly.
•    Use pottery containers that are glazed on the outside, which prevents much water loss.  Or use plastic containers which, if unattractive, can be set into more attractive outer pottery ones.
•    Don't crowd too many plants into containers, or use large containers for large plants.  This will help keep them from drying out as often and requiring watering daily or more often.  Use water absorbing products in containers and hanging baskets.

Lawns
•    If seeding or repairing lawns, use drought resistant grass types such as fine fescues.
•    Leave grass clippings after mowing to act as mulch, and recycle nutrients and moisture.
•    If water is not available, allow grass to go dormant.  Unless there are extreme conditions for a long period, grass usually will begin growing again once conditions improve.
•    If your lawn routinely in summer dries up, such as on poor and sandy soils, consider investing in an in-ground irrigation system if possible and your lawn is a priority.  If too expensive for a whole lawn, consider adding it in stages, or just in certain areas.
•    Consider turning some lawn into a mass planting of groundcovers this fall that won’t need mowing and that will withstand drought.
•    Don't mow grass when it is dormant and not growing.  Even when growing, set the mower height at two to three inches high.  High mown grass develops deeper root systems that are better able to withstand drought.
•    Avoid walking and playing on dry, dormant lawns as much as possible.

If water is restricted or in short supply, give highest priority to the following:
•    Newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials
•    Newly seeded lawns or repaired lawn areas
•    Plants on sandy soils or windy and exposed sites
•    Vegetables when flowering

Current information on drought conditions, with more information and maps, can be found at the National Drought Mitigation Center (drought.unl.edu).  Also see UVM OH Leaflet 72 on this topic (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh72drought.htm).

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