These water-wise tips will keep your plants looking beautiful, even during extended dry spells.

By Timothy Skeers
Updated July 21, 2020
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After you've spent hours planning and planting your garden, a drought in the middle of the summer can feel like a disaster. But even if you're not getting much rain, there are plenty of different ways to keep your plants hydrated without wasting water. Using drought-tolerant plants is one way to use less water in your garden, but a few simple adjustments will also help make the most of any rain you do get, and lessen the number of trips you need to make with a watering can. Even if you live in an area that doesn’t usually experience droughts, it can still be helpful to make your landscape a little more drought-resistant and conserve water in your garden.

Credit: Marty Baldwin

1. Cut Back on Garden Maintenance

During dry spells, cut back on fertilizing. In dry conditions, fertilizer salts can dehydrate plant roots. Plus, your plants don't need the extra stimulus to put on growth that requires even more water. For your lawn, make sure you're mowing to the best height for your type of grass; for most varieties, it'll be between 2 and 4 inches tall. Mowing too short makes it harder for the grass to soak up the sun it needs to survive and strengthen the roots, so rather than saving water, it could end up damaging or killing your grass.

2. Put Rocks to Work

Strategically placed rocks look great and help direct water, slowing it down so it soaks into the ground and is more available for plants. Over time, rock installations will catch small amounts of soil and organic matter and create niches for plants to grow. Watch where the water runs when it rains, and place a small outcropping of various size rocks in its path. Bury up to a third of the rocks' surface for a more natural look.

3. Use Gray Water

Gray water is "gently used" household water, not sewage. Collect it by saving dishwater, filling a bucket while waiting for the shower to warm up, running a drain hose from your washing machine to trees outside the house, or even by installing a complete wastewater capture system. Check local codes for restrictions on using gray water.

Credit: Helen Norman

4. Water Wisely

Water your garden in the early morning, if possible. Temperatures are usually cooler then, meaning you'll lose less moisture to evaporation. The way you water plants is important, too. Watering by hand can lead to runoff, and using an overhead sprinkler means more water is lost to evaporation. A drip irrigation system or soaker hose is best, and both are efficient and easy to use.

5. Wait to Plant Until Autumn

Especially with permanent plants such as trees, shrubs, and perennials, plant in the fall. Temperatures are generally cooler, meaning the new plants won't need as much water to survive transplanting. While top growth slows, roots will be developing and getting established until the coldest weather comes.

6. Amend Soil and Add Mulch

Dig compost into your soil to help hold moisture and encourage healthy root growth, then mulch the beds with organic material such as wood chips. Mulch slows the evaporation of ground moisture and helps keep soil temperatures lower, reducing stress on plants. Also, natural mulches break down slowly over time, adding valuable organic matter to the soil. A layer of mulch also makes it harder for weeds to grow, and fewer weeds means less competition in your garden for available water.

7. Collect Rainwater

One inch of rain falling on a 1,200-square-foot roof adds up to more than 748 gallons of fresh water! Instead of letting it run down the driveway and into the street, keep it for your thirsty plants. Use downspout attachments that direct the water into your flowerbeds. Or collect the water in a rain barrel, aboveground tank, or buried cistern for later use.

Credit: Bob Stefko

8. Choose Heat-Loving Plants

Look for plants that enjoy hot and sunny conditions. Cacti and succulents are good choices, especially for containers, because they'll require significantly less watering. They take up water when it's available and do their growing and blooming then. When it's dry, they grow more slowly and conserve water in their own tissues. Many other shrubs and perennials have adapted to environments with prolonged dry spells, so double-check the plant tag when you're shopping to see each plant's water needs.

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