Drought Sensitive Gardening

Drought Sensitive Gardening

For gardeners, drought or near-drought conditions are a special challenge. What can you do when starting a new garden during a drought? How can you add plantings while saving water. Even better, no matter what the weather conditions, these ideas will ensure that your garden stays healthy for years to come.

Although some times of year might be better for planting, the time to start a garden is when you’re ready. The decision to forgo water-intensive features and thirsty planting will have a much greater long-term impact.

If you do wait until later in the year to remodel an existing garden, consider keeping what you have in place rather than tearing it out. This will help keep the ground covered, keep the dust down and keep the area more weed-free when you are able to seed or plant new plants.

Start With Your Soil

Try to create soil that’s as healthy as possible for your plants. The first step is understanding your native soil and what it needs. Your soil is a living thing, and it needs updating and ongoing care. Choosing organic fertilizers and using compost and compost teas will help keep your soil active with microbes.

Organic soil amendments also will improve soil conditions, but whether to use them or not will depend on the plants you’re adding. While some plants might welcome the boost, amendments might not work as well for others.

Lengthen Your Planting Schedule

Install your garden in stages over a couple of seasons or even years. Focus first on your top ornamental priorities for foundation plants, perennials and shrubs and trees. Choose what you feel is necessary to add now and what can wait until later in the year or even a year or two down the road.

In areas with warm-winter climates that get little to no summer rain, hold off planting trees until later in the year. Gardeners can also plant trees in late winter or early spring.


Choose The Right Plants

Native plants should be your first choice. These plants already are adapted to the local conditions, are usually very hardy and are able to handle local climate conditions, including a lack of summer rain. An added benefit is that they attract local wildlife. So many birds and butterflies are attracted to native-plant gardens.

Natives can be hard to find and are often in very small sizes. The smaller plants will take more time to grow to their final size, but their small size can be an advantage. A large native can have a hard time adjusting.

Also look for drought-tolerant plants that are well-adapted to your climate. They’ll often be marked as low-water-use plants, but check before you purchase. Some plants that look drought-tolerant may have higher water needs.

If you want to add a vegetable garden, consider varieties that don’t require as much water, such as herbs and vegetables that thrive in Mediterranean climates. Also prioritize bushy, lower-growing vegetables, such as bush beans and varieties that have been bred for lower-water use.

Plant Strategically

Group plants that share water requirements, an approach often called hydrozoning. Separate shade plants from sun plants; and higher-water plants, such as vegetable gardens, from lower-water plants.

Take the same approach with a vegetable garden. You also can plant vegetables closer together than typically recommended so they can share water and crowd out weeds.

Find A Lawn Substitute

One of the most water-saving things you can do in your yard is not add a lawn. Most lawns are true water guzzlers. It also makes sense to put limited water resources toward plants like existing trees and large shrubs, which are hard to replace.

For a lawn substitute, seed with a native grass blend. The grass can be mowed or not mowed, depending on the look desired. 

Fine-Tune Your Watering

Take the time to create a watering system that will deliver the most water to your plants and won’t be lost to evaporation, hard surfaces or unplanted areas. Drip irrigation systems are the best choice for most plants. These systems concentrate water at the roots of the plantings, so you’ll need to water less. Watering basins and mounds also direct water to the roots.

Very often, gardens are overwatered. Rather than just checking the soil’s surface, dig down and see if the soil is dry 2 to 3 inches beneath the surface before watering, especially if you have clay soil. If it’s not dry there, the water will just run off rather than sinking in.

Mornings and evenings are the best times to water plants, as less water is lost to evaporation. Also watch the weather conditions and shut down an automated watering system if rain is likely.

Mulch Generously and Weed Often

Adding a thick layer of organic mulch around your plants will help the soil retain moisture and help suppress weeds. Mulching is key. Do not remove all the fallen leaves, they help condition the soil. Replenish your mulch throughout the growing season to keep it fresh.

Don’t use gravel as a mulch, as it absorbs too much heat. The goal is to keep things cool. Plants low-water ground covers; they keep the soil cooler, provide organic matter for the surrounding soil, and also help suppress weeds.

Even with mulch, you’ll need to be diligent about weeding. One approach: Stroll through your garden with a digger and a bucket every day or so to pull out weeds when you see them, rather than waiting to do a marathon session. The bonus is that you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your garden.

Capture Water

Find ways to reuse water from both your yard and your home. Rain barrels are a classic approach to gathering water, so install one or more under downspouts. They’re readily available, and many are quite attractive.

Tip: Before you purchase or install a rain barrel, be sure to check local bylaws. 

A more advanced approach is to create swales, streambeds and rain gardens. These take some time to set up but can help you capture and use more water. They also will direct rainfall into your soil rather than out to the street, helping the underground water table. A variation on this is underground cache areas, which some municipalities in drought-prone areas are requiring for landscape projects.

If you want to step up your use of captured water, check locally for sources that provide recycled water for your garden. These businesses are becoming more common in dry-summer locations.


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