A favorite aphorism among gardeners is that rainy days exist so we’ll have time to do housework. But while most of us much prefer a sunshiny afternoon in the garden to being stuck indoors with the vacuum, we also know that we need the rain. Most garden plants require 1 – 2 inches of rain a week to thrive. Many plants can muddle along with less, although they may not flower as profusely or grow as tall. But what about when the rain seems to stop altogether, for weeks or months? Gardening in a drought presents challenges, but thoughtful gardeners can make good use of the water available to them.
Defining a Drought
The National Weather Service defines drought as “a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals, and/or people… Drought is different than aridity, which is a permanent feature of climate in regions where low precipitation is the norm, as in a desert.”
The tips I’m providing here are mostly for getting your garden through a temporary drought. If you live in an arid climate, try xeriscaping (drought-tolerant gardening) for the long term rather than just making short-term changes.
Be Water Wise
The first weeks of gardening in a drought will likely just find you turning on your sprinklers more often. But as time goes by, this may become impossible. Many areas restrict this type of watering during drought-conditions. Good gardeners should monitor the watering restrictions in their area, and follow them to the letter.
If sprinklers are still permitted, check your system for leaks or broken heads. Calibrate the sprinklers so you know just much water is being provided during the time that they’re on. Ensure all sprinkler heads are aimed toward vegetation, and not running down your driveway.
If you don’t have a sprinkler system, or their use is restricted, you’ll probably turn to hand watering with a hose or watering can. This allows you to focus on the areas that need the water the most. Try to water in the early morning, and avoid watering in the heat of the day when you’ll lost most of it to evaporation. A soaker hose or drip irrigation will allow you to get the water right to the roots of the plants, where it can do the most good.
Making Tough Choices
As a drought progresses, you’ll have more difficult choices to make. Gardening in a drought may mean that you just might not be able to save every plant. Here are a few tips on what to fight for and what to let go.
- Let the annuals go. These plants are only intended to be in your garden for a season, anyway. So yes, you may have spent good money putting them in during the spring. But if you haven’t seen rain in weeks, they’ll probably have to go. Pull them out and put a fresh layer of mulch down in their place.
- Perennials can often take care of themselves in a drought. They may not flower as much, but they’ll likely return next year. Save your watering for any exceptions, like cardinal flower or irises. Be sure these areas are well-mulched to conserve every possible drop.
- Save the nectar plants. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds still rely n your garden during a drought. Find out which plants are most valuable to them, and give them water priority.
- Move containers into the shade. Where possible, pull your container plants into shady areas. Place saucers beneath pots to ensure water isn’t just draining straight through.
Save Every Drop
As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. When every last drop of water counts, try these tips for getting a little extra watering when gardening in a drought.
- Don’t pour usable water down the drain. When you’re changing out the pet water bowls, empty the old water into a bucket. The same goes for mostly empty water bottles, or the water you used to boil vegetables for dinner. At the end of the day, use the water in the bucket in your garden.
- Keep another bucket in the bathroom to catch water in the shower while it’s heating up. You’ll be surprised how much water goes down the drain in the minute before you step in.
- Dumping old ice trays? Defrosting the freezer? Emptying the cooler? Pour the ice around the base of your plants.