Watering Wisely: Growing a bountiful garden in the face of drought

California’s drought has gardeners across the West rethinking their use of water, and rightfully so. Even in the most thoughtfully cared-for gardens, there are areas where water may be wasted or used frivolously, and a minor change to our gardening habits can yield big benefits in our monthly water use. By taking just a little time and effort to examine how we water and what our plants truly need, we can make sure our landscapes are using this resource as efficiently and effectively as possible – without losing out on the beauty, wildlife benefits, and sheer joy our gardens contribute.

Purple flowers bloom on tall, green stems, surrounded by lush foliage in a garden setting.

Water deeply, less often. If you’ve ever watched a neighbor go out every single day to water the lawn or garden, you know that even experienced gardeners can get this part wrong. Watering daily encourages a shallow root system, which dries out more quickly and has trouble reaching the stores of moisture that may already be in your soil. By contrast, watering more thoroughly, but less often, encourages your plants to sink deep roots that can search out water in the cooling depths of the soil. To ensure you are watering deeply enough, come back and check a few hours after you water. The soil should be moist, cool and crumbly to a depth of 4 inches. To find out how often your plants actually need water, stretch out the frequency of your watering a little more each time until your plants start showing minor signs of stress. This will indicate you how much water your plants need to continue looking as healthy and fresh as they do today.

A large, spiky plant with dark red leaves in a blue pot surrounded by various green plants.

Reconsider the hose. Though many people find meditative enjoyment in watering by hand with a hose, the fact is, this is the least efficient way of delivering water to your plants. Though in theory hand watering gives you the opportunity to learn the needs of your plants and provide only the water they need, the more likely scenario is that water ends up sprinkled across the pathways, in between plants, and on foliage where it’s lost due to evaporation. If you are going to water with a hose, use a long watering wand with a push button or easy shutoff lever so that you can carefully water each plant at ground level without waste.

A top view of spiky blue-green ornamental grass and variegated green shrubs growing in a garden bed.

Do an irrigation audit. Kudos to you if you are already using a drip irrigation system, because that is the most effective way of getting water to the plants’ root systems without waste. However, if your irrigation system was installed more than a few years ago, you may have emitters watering plants that are no longer there, or watering mature shrubs and trees which may no longer need it. Even capping a few 1-gallon-per-hour emitters will save a great deal of water over the course of a hot summer. Also check and adjust sprinkler heads to avoid runoff down the driveway, and consider replacing any heads with an overly fine spray with one that uses larger droplets, as you will be less likely to lose water due to evaporation.

Dense growth of tall leafy green and white variegated plants filling the entire frame.

Replace thirsty plants. If there are a few plants in your landscape that just can’t get with the program (I’m looking at you, hydrangea!), consider replacing them with a more appropriate pick. Though there is a stereotype that drought-tolerant gardens look dry, that absolutely needn’t be the case. Lush, fresh-looking ornamental sages such as ‘Love and Wishes’ Salvia and ‘Amistad’ Salvia offer nonstop blooms from spring through fall atop a verdant bed of abundant green foliage. Ornamental grasses such as ‘Design-A-Line’ Cordyline and ‘Beyond Blue’ Festuca offer bountiful foliage color year-round. And Mediterranean favorites such as variegated ‘Meerlo’ Lavender and Chef’s Choice® Rosemary add both flowers and fragrance to the landscape.

A dense patch of green rosemary shrubs with needle-like leaves next to a gravel-filled area.

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Your zip code 50307 is in Zone: 5b with a temperature range of: -15 to -10 °F.

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