10 Tips for Gardening in Drought Conditions

10 Tips for Gardening in Drought Conditions

Last year was the hottest on record in Southern California. Last month (January) was the driest on record with even San Francisco receiving zero rainfall for the first time ever. The California drought is still with us, though local water authorities are reporting that residents are doing a good job of minimizing water waste. It’s not enough, however.

Mandatory water use restrictions are in effect statewide. These permit homeowners to water only at certain times for short durations among other limitations. Depending on where you live, the amount of water allowed may not be enough to keep a lawn green or tropical garden lush. These rough conditions will only intensify as spring and summer approach.

Gardening in drought conditions isn’t just about swapping thirsty plants out for a succulents and other water-wise options. Knowing when to plant them, how to water and fertilize properly, and where to focus your efforts will help keep your existing plants in tip-top shape. Here is a short list of easy thing any gardener can do.


1. Install a Smart Controller


Sure, you may have an irrigation timer that waters each zone of your yard at certain times each week for a pre-determined amount of time. However, a smart controller has sensors that determine optimal watering based on weather. For example, if it rains, the system automatically shuts off. It is estimated that these controllers can cut watering by 30-70%. Right now, SoCal WaterSmart is offering rebates for these controllers.


2. Water Deeply and Closer to Roots


Deliver water most effectively to plants by watering as close to the root system as possible. Make sure that drip irrigation lines are the right length and haven’t been kicked out of place by pets, kids, gardeners and the elements. This strategy should allow for less frequent watering, especially if it is also deeper watering. Deep watering refers to the fact that it’s better to water deeply once or twice a week than to water shallowly daily. Shallow watering often doesn’t reach the roots


3. Prioritize Existing Plants


easy succulents california

When cutting back the amount of water used in the yard, prioritize which plants to give it to. Vegetables and fruits that feed your family should come first along with mature trees that provide shade and would be difficult to replace. When stressed by drought, mature trees may also succumb to disease and pests, possibly creating an even larger problem for your landscape. But if mature trees can be watered deeply to the root system, most can go weeks between watering.  A master gardener can help you identify the necessary depth should you have questions.

Second on the list for water should be existing water-wise plants. The last on the totem pole include thirsty plants and the lawn. Keep in mind that a lawn can be removed and replaced with artificial turf at any time of the year, peak drought or not, to reduce your home’s overall water needs. Right now is an excellent time to take advantage of this option as a $2.00 per square foot rebate for turf removal is available while resources last.

This exercise also helps identify which plants to consider swapping for water-wise options.


4. Limit Fertilizer


Fertilizers encourage plant growth which is typically desirable, however, a growing plant also requires more water. Not to mention that fertilizer requires adequate water to transport nutrients into the soil. Without it, excess fertilizer salts left in the soil can burn root systems and plant leaves. If you’re going to use fertilizer, make sure that it’s an exact match for the nutritional requirements of your plants.


5. Plant Shade Trees or Shrubs


While winter (albeit a warm one) is still with us, consider planting water-wise shrubs or trees that can shade existing plants. Shade helps prohibit evaporation of water while keeping nearby plants cool. A number of tall California native shrubs can do the trick ranging from manzanita to coyote bush. But, keep in mind number six below first.


6. Don’t Plant During Peak Drought 


Even California native plants aren’t water-wise until they are fully established. Therefore, installing a water-wise landscape in late spring or summer won’t reduce your water needs at all. In fact, it may increase them. Don’t introduce any new plants into the yard during times of peak drought.

The most efficient time of the year to introduce new water-wise plants is in the fall when they can be watered by winter rain. Vegetable planting is best done on the early side of spring before temperatures peak and also on the late side of fall, in order to benefit from seasonal rain.


7. Deadhead Flowers


Cutting away dead flowers and leaves from plants helps conserve much-needed energy in drought (or any) conditions. This way, plants won’t need to waste energy on transitioning dead flowers into seeds or keeping sick leaves alive.


8. Weed Consistently


While pulling weeds isn’t fun under most circumstances, the job is an even more important one during droughts. Weeds consume a surprising amount of moisture and nutrients from the ground that could otherwise be enjoyed by nearby plants.


9. Use Adequate Mulch


Add Mulch to Garden Beds

A 3-4″ layer of mulch applied across the yard is a very inexpensive way to keep the the ground cool and moisture locked in. Mulch also prevents weeds from seeding into the ground which has the added benefit of reducing the amount of labor spent pulling them out. If you have access to a truck, drive on over to Miramar Greenery to pick up recycled mulch at a steep discount. Otherwise, bags of varying sizes are available at big retailers like Home Depot for a reasonable price. It’s estimated that mulch can reduce water needs by up to 50% so the investment is a worthwhile one.


10. Recycle Water


Every drop counts so don’t forget that indoor water can be repurposed outdoors. Keep a jug of water near the sink and dump the excess from water glasses into it for later use in the yard. Extra ice cubes from a party and cooled-down cooking water are sources of water, too. Give the dog a bath over ground cover (provided the soap is non-toxic) and dump excess water in pet bowls on to dry areas. The list goes on.

Rebates for rain barrels are still in effect for those who are able to harvest rain water off their rooftops and direct it to places of need.


Your Turn…


How do you drought-proof your yard?


Photo credits: Succulents, top, Flickr/[email protected]