Drought Tolerant Garden: 10 Ways to Save Water

A beautiful, drought tolerant garden can be had by following these 10 easy tips to save water in your own landscape.


Water is vital to a garden.  However, areas throughout the entire United States has been affected at one time or another with periods of drought.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your garden could weather dry periods with little impact to your plants?  It isn’t just possible, it is part of a movement toward more sustainable gardening, which includes strategies for conserving water while still having a beautiful, drought tolerant garden.

As a native Californian who now lives and gardens in the desert Southwest, periods of drought are not unknown and I have learned some helpful tips that have allowed me to enjoy a beautiful garden by following these helpful hints:

1. Water in the early morning.  Believe it or not, the time of day you water can make a difference in conserving water.  By watering in the cooler period of morning, there is less evaporation occurring.  Avoid watering in the afternoon, when much of the water can be lost to evaporation.  It is also wise to avoid watering in the evening when the moisture can foster fungal diseases.


2. Mulch around your plants.  Once you water plants, water begins to immediately evaporate from the soil’s surface.  By adding a layer of mulch, you help to limit the amount of water lost to the atmosphere.  In addition, mulching helps to keep the soil moister longer while keeping soil temperatures down in summer and warmer in winter.  Organic mulch such as shredded bark, leaf mulch and pine needles also adds nutrients to the soil over time.

3.  Use native plants when possible.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a garden filled with plants that needed little to no supplemental water?  Native plants are specially adapted to survive on natural rainfall amounts.  In times of drought, they may need some supplemental water, but not as much as those that are not adapted to your local climate.  Another bonus is that native plants are generally more pest resistant, need little to no fertilizer and are lower-maintenance then those that aren’t native.  If you decide to plant some non-natives in your landscape, be sure that they are well-adapted to your climate without needing excess amounts of water.

For a list of native plants for your area, click here.

A bed of drought tolerant aloe vera.
A bed of succulent, drought tolerant aloe vera.

4. Group plants with similar watering requirements together.  A drought tolerant garden will have higher water use plants grouped together toward the house where they can be watered easily.  Toward the outer areas of the landscape, more drought tolerant plants are planted next to each other.  For a list of drought tolerant plants, check out “40+ Drought Resistant Flowers and Plants”.

5. Use compost when adding new plants.  In the planting hole, mix 1 part compost to 1 part native soil.  The compost will help the soil to hold onto water for a longer length of time while not allowing it to become waterlogged.  Compost also adds nutrients to the soil.

Making your own compost is easy to do or you can purchase it at your local nursery.  Here is a great resource to get you started, “DIY Compost Bin”.

6. Allow grass to grow longer.  By letting your grass grow to a height of 3 inches, it will shade the roots thereby decreasing the amount of evaporation.  In addition, a higher mowing height will also help keep weeds from growing.


7. Decrease the amount of grass in your landscape.  A lawn uses a large amount of water – an average of 55 inches a year.  Beds filled with perennials will use much less water and provide a welcome spot of color in the landscape.  If you opt to take out your entire lawn, there are countless ways to create a beautiful garden that needs little to no supplemental water.  I recommend the book, “Lawn Gone” by Pam Penick, which is filled with landscapes that will inspire you along with guidelines on how to get rid of your lawn.

8. Use porous materials in your landscape such as gravel or sand-set step stones instead of concrete.  Rain water is able to seep through these porous materials, thereby watering nearby plants.

Drip irrigation
Drip irrigation

9. Install a ‘smart’ irrigation controller and/or drip irrigation system for plants that require supplemental water.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your landscape received supplemental water only when it needed it?  ‘Smart’ irrigation controllers uses real time weather data and only waters your plants only when they need it, which can save 30 – 70% of water used for supplemental watering.  The Irrigation Association has more information about smart controllers and where to purchase one for your garden, which you can find here.

In addition to a ‘smart’ irrigation controller, a drip system is the most efficient way to get water to the root zone of plants right where they need it without wasting water.  Small drips of water permeate the soil without any water lost to runoff.  This is also the best way to water plants deeply, which is best for plant growth.  The roots of plants that have been watered deeply grow down deep into the soil where it is moister and cooler.  Hand-watering can be inefficient because water can runoff before it can penetrate the soil deeply.  If you don’t have a drip-irrigation system, you can water individual plants via drip by creating your own drip irrigation system using an empty milk jug.

10. Harvest rainwater.  When rain does fall, it is important to harvest and direct it toward our garden instead of allowing it to runoff.  There are a variety of ways to harvest rainwater including creating rain gardens and using cisterns or rain barrels.  On Friday, we will look at different methods for harvesting rainwater for our gardens.

Question: How do you save water in the garden?

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.