Nine Water-Saving Garden Tips to Fight Drought

A combination of protective row covers, mulch, and drip hoses will dramatically reduce water loss.

Hot weather drains garden plants dry and reduces productivity, especially when rain is scarce. More and more gardeners have had to change the way they grow because heat and drought limit the season. Rather than getting discouraged, they have learned smarter gardening techniques and how to stretch resources. Approaching the garden season with several lines of defense for drought is essential, especially where summer water restrictions are usually imposed.

US Drought Severity is Growing

The problem is growing. In much of the West and some eastern states, summer brings seasonal drought at different levels of intensity. According to NASA’s Drought Monitor, a third of the United States was faced with drought last season (2020). They stated, “An estimated 53 million people are living in drought-affected areas.” It is a sobering number that shows no sign of decline, and it suggests that water-wise gardening has become a necessity for lots of American gardeners.

This map shows US summer-drought patterns in 2020 (Image thanks to NASA’s Drought Monitor)

Keep Water Grounded

Professional growers opt for drip irrigation because it saves water and money. Home gardeners should do the same. Cover with a little straw, and it will hold water even better!

The first tips for saving water involve keeping it in the soil, while avoiding any aerosol or evaporative water loss from sprinklers or over-exuberant hand watering.

1. Amend soil with water-holding additives. Some soil components naturally hold lots of water and act as water reservoirs that make it more available to plant roots for longer. Organic matter (peat, compost, leaf mold, and coconut coir) is on the front line of holding water in the soil. Aerated organic matter soaks water up like a sponge and easily redistributes it to plant roots, For example, processed coconut coir soaks up 90% of its weight in water. Inorganic soil additives, like water-holding crystals and vermiculite, also hold water but are better suited for container gardening.

2. Use drip irrigation: Drip irrigation, in the form of drip-tubing systems for containers or drip hoses and drip tape for beds, deliver water at soil level where it quickly soaks into the ground, and is not lost by evaporation. Drip systems are the best for delivering garden water. In contrast, sprinklers lose an excessive amount of water to evaporation, and water delivery is not targeted.

3. Apply light mulches or coverings: Straw, compost, leaf mulch, or plastic row coverings hold soil water and stop surface evaporation. Use soil coverings in conjunction with drip irrigation, and soil amendment, and you will be set. (Click here to learn how a high-desert vegetable gardener used straw bales to protect her crops with great results.) (Click here for a full overview of different mulch types.)

Large, light-colored, ceramic pots hold water better and stay cooler.

4. Choose larger pots or containers that are glazed or water-impermeable and light in color. Large planters that are light in color hold more water better. Glazed or other water-impermeable surfaces keep the water in, unlike common unglazed Terracotta, which is porous and quickly loses water from its sides. Lighter pots also reflect heat, which helps keep plant roots cooler and happier.

5. Track Watering and Water Deeply: Keep track of watering time and length to determine the general amount needed to keep your garden happy. Soil moisture meters for pots make it easy to know when it is time to water, which takes the guesswork out, though most planters need daily watering when it is really hot and dry. When it comes to garden beds, water deeply–for at least a couple of hours–to ensure that water penetrates down to the roots. Deep watering also encourages deeper rooting, which helps plants get through tough, dry weather.

Manage Light to Reduce Water Loss

Lightweight floating row cover cloth, like this, or movable hoops covered with lightweight row cloth, can really help some crops withstand high heat and drought.

5. Reduce excess sunlight with light hoop covers. When temperatures are scorching and the sun is hot, floating hoop covers draped with lightweight row-cover cloth can be placed over small beds or low-growing garden vegetables to give them a rest and help conserve water. They will still get the light that they need, but the heat will be reduced a bit. Covers secured at both ends can also be helpful in keeping pests away. Greens, carrots, beets, turnips, and comparable crops appreciate this sort of light protection the most. (Click here for more row cover basics.)

6. Use strategic shading and timing. Plant perennials or pots in locations where they get some shade during the hottest time of the day in summer (between 2 and 4 pm). This will help them hold onto water when the weather is most extreme. Watering in the early morning, before the sun rises, will also help plants make it through hot, dry days. If you live in an area where the drought is bad, feel free to irrigate plants in the evening without fear of encouraging diseases. When it is severely hot and dry, plants need lots of moisture at the root zone to fill up with water and keep cool.

Collecting Water for Reuse

When rain does fall, it is wise to set up ways to collect runoff water–such as rain barrels or cisterns. Before doing so, one must know their roof composition beforehand because two roof types release high concentrations of dangerous heavy metals. These are roofs made of 1) uncoated galvanized metal, which releases high concentrations of zinc, and 2) treated wood shakes that release high concentrations of copper. All other roof types should be fine, according to research. Be sure to keep the tops covered to avoid mosquito breeding and possible animal drownings. Here is a little more information about these water collecting reservoirs.

7. Collecting water in Rain Barrels or Cisterns: Rain barrels are quite inexpensive and easy to install for rainwater collection. They connect to gutter downspouts to capture roof rainwater. Not only does this reduce watering costs, but many plants prefer rainwater over tap water. I recommend placing barrels up on cinder blocks to improve water flow from the release valve at the base. It makes it easier to fill watering cans or hook up hosing for garden irrigation. Be sure to empty your rain barrel at the end of the season if you live in an area with cold winters.

Cisterns are water collectors that store more water, and they may be kept above- or below-ground. They may be designed to collect rainwater, air-conditioning condensate, or even reserves of well-water. Unlike rain barrels, they are more costly to install but recommended for areas where water is limited and restricted. If you live in a place with annual seasonal rainfall of 15-inches/year or more (click here to see US annual rainfall averages), then consider installing a rainwater cistern.

Grow Drought-Tolerant Plants

Western hyssops (Agastache spp.) are some of the most beautiful, drought-tolerant garden flowers for pollinators that you can grow,

Some plants use water more efficiently or hold onto it better when the rain stops falling.

8. Grow Drought Tolerant Plants. Plants from the Mediterranean and arid West, as well as succulents, tend to shine in heat and drought. Those naturally adapted to more severe drought are often labeled as Xeric or Waterwise plants, and many specialty nurseries carry them. High Country Gardens is one great commercial online seller and Xera Plants is another. Most garden retailers these days also carry lots of drought-tolerant plants. Specialty succulent nurseries, especially those with lists of hardy plants, are also worth looking into. I like Mountain Crest Gardens.  Their plants always arrive in great shape and perform beautifully. There are many more out there! Click on the links below for more drought tolerant plant resources.

Dealing With Pacific Northwest Drought

Mike Darcy’s garden in happier days.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have had a summer with some of the highest temperatures and least rainfall on record. I believe that we have had more days with temperatures over 90 degrees F since weather temperatures have been recorded. While gardeners here often say we are in a zone of “winter wet and summer dry”, we certainly do not expect the summers to be this dry. Furthermore, not only were the days hot, the night temperatures did not cool down as usually occurs in the summer.

By August, many plants had leaves that had been scorched.

Garden Drought Stress

As a result of the heat and drought, many plants suffered. Plants were wilting even though the soil was wet as it was so hot for certain plants that their roots could not take in moisture to supply the leaves and the leaves wilted as though they did not have adequate moisture. In my own garden, I would water plants in the morning and see them wilting by noon. I would check the soil and it was moist. As plants stressed and leaves wilted, the leaves would often scorch or become sunburned. It became a constant effort to keep the garden looking good and with garden tour groups coming for a visit, I felt it was imperative to keep my plants looking as good as possible.

Since we do not usually have summers like this, many gardeners including myself had planted many plants that require more cool and moist conditions. Hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and azaleas are mainstay plants in many gardens and these are all prone to heat stress. By August, many plants had leaves that had been scorched,

Coir naturally holds water at the root zone, so it proved to be a good amendment for the unusually dry season.

Garden Drought Stress Solutions

In my garden, I also have many plants in containers and having used Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil proved to be a huge benefit. As the summer heat continued, I used Black Gold Just Coir as a top mulch in some of my pots and this was an excellent mulch to help the soil retain moisture. I have learned that coir, which is coconut pith, has amazing water retaining capabilities. In several of my hanging baskets, I had used Black Gold Cocoblend Potting Soil at the time of planting and this was a tremendous asset in keeping these containers from drying out with the summer sun, heat and sometimes dry wind. Black Gold Cocoblend Potting Soil was particularly effective with the fuchsias and begonias which need plenty of moisture and even in September, these plants were full of flowers and looking great.

Mulching our plants is something we can often forget but the benefits of mulch can be enormous. Mulching helps to conserve water and we are all learning that water is not the unlimited resource that it has been. As an added benefit to mulching, when I am planting new plants in the soil, I regularly use Black Gold Soil Conditioner. I mix it in the soil around the root zone and always work some into the top 1-2 inches of soil.

Rhododendrons have suffered badly in the unusual heat and drought of the season.

This was the summer when gardeners began to think about what plants they were planting and what location they were in. I learned that my hydrangeas need a little more shade to look their best and I will be doing some transplanting this fall. There is also a trend to use more plants that have low water requirements like Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), Ceanothus, Mahonia, and many others that have good garden appeal.

We need to remember that in nature, plants get mulched naturally by their leaves, flowers, and stems. In many home gardens, the area under plants is constantly being raked to keep it clean and ‘looking neat’, but we should not forget the role mulch plays in the health of a plant. Learn to know your plants, observe them, and my guess is they will ‘tell’ you if they need a mulch.

“Weed” is a Four-Letter Word


Reusing cardboard can add new life to the garden, if properly applied.

Ever notice how many challenges in the garden are four-letter words? Wind, hail, rust, mold, cold, vole, mole, deer, bugs, ouch, and weed conjure up stressful garden situations, which must be immediately addressed, leading to even more work (another four-letter word). How we deal with the cursed weed that pops up here and there in our little corner of Eden usually involves back-breaking hoeing, tugging, digging, or spraying. What if there were easier, more organic ways to eliminate weeds before they even sprout? This is where using effective mulches can help clean up both your garden and your vocabulary.

Continue reading ““Weed” is a Four-Letter Word”

Garden Mulch To Reduce Summer Watering

July in my garden means lots of color, and flowers that attract hummingbirds are an added bonus. I always like to have some large planters and several years ago purchased some wrought iron plant stands that were specially made for a large nursery pot to sit in the top. I planted the pots in late April with 4” pot size plants and am now reaping the rewards.

Begonia Bonfire Bacopa - Mike Darcy

My plants of choice for the past few summers, and I always have at least one pot with this combination, is Begonia ‘Bonfire’ and white bacopa (Sutera cordata). I place the begonia plants in the center of the pot and the bacopa around the rim. The begonias tend to grow upward and then flop while the bacopa trails over the sides and by mid July has covered the outside of the pot with a mass of white flowers. The begonias have been in bloom since the time they were planted and are hummingbird magnets.

Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil is ideal to use in pots like these that are exposed to the elements, as the coconut fibers have great water holding capabilities and this makes the pots less likely to dry out on a hot day. It also reduces the amount of water needed in each pot and I have found that what once was a daily water requirement, I can often go two or three days between watering.

In earlier articles, I have mentioned the importance of a garden mulch and that I used Black Gold Soil Conditioner when planting new plants. The positive effect of using this product earlier in the season is paying benefits now. As summer has arrived and we are having warmer weather and few rainy days, the soil is beginning to become dry and many plants need supplemental water. The use of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend has helped retain moisture in the soil and less water is required than if it had not been used.

Even though it is July, it is not too late to apply Black Gold Soil Conditioner to the soil around established plants. I like to mix it in with the existing soil and I will gently cultivate it into the first 2-3 inches of soil and then water. Some plants tend to need more water than others and here is where Black Gold Just Coir can be used. This product is actually coconut coir pith and its’ water holding capacities are amazing. Working Black Gold Just Coir into the top few inches around plants that like some extra moisture can be a huge benefit.

Three plants I have found that will greatly benefit from the use of Black Gold Just Coir mulch are Gunnera, Hosta, and Hydrangea. My experience has been that all three of these plants tend to like a moist soil environment. Gardeners grow hosta primarily for their foliage and having sun burned crisp foliage tends to ruin the appearance of the plant. While there are some hostas that will tolerate more sun than others, I have found that regardless of their exposure, they tend to benefit from a moist, well drained soil.

Hydragea Lime Light - Mike Darcy

Gunnera, some garden centers will label this as “Dinosaur Food” since it is a plant left over from pre-historic times, can be a wonderful focal feature in a garden. Gunnera is known for its huge leaves that often measure over three feet across appearing on long stalks that can be eight feet in height and with features like this it is definitely a conversation plant. Gunnera likes moisture and fertilizer and plants are often seen growing near ponds and on banks of streams. The plants do not like to be in standing water but like their roots to be moist. Using Black Gold Just Coir can help to hold moisture and Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix is a good natural fertilizer which I apply three times a year on my Gunnera.

Hydrangeas are such magnificent summer blooming shrubs that I cannot imagine my garden without some.  One of my favorites is “Limelight” and now in mid-July my plants are just coming into flower. While I have seen Hydrangeas planted in full sun, I have found they do much better with some protection from the hot afternoon sun. They also like moisture around the base and Black Gold Just Coir is ideal.

Summer is here and we should enjoy it and our garden and the less maintenance we have, the better.  Watering plants on hot days can be time consuming and with the addition of some soil mulch amendments around plants, we can spend less time in maintaining and more time enjoying.

Start Spreading the News: Recycle Newspaper In the Garden

Pam Beck - Start Spreading the News
Preferred newsprint for your garden will have used nontoxic soy-based ink.

Layering yesterday’s news onto your garden is a great way to recycle newspaper in the garden while building wonderful soil. Simply take a section of the paper running at least 8-10 pages thick, and apply it to either a new or existing bed. Be sure to overlap these sections in order to help prevent any future weeds. Wet the paper to help hold it in place, and then add a 2-4 inch deep cover of quality mulch, such as Black Gold’s Garden Compost Blend or Garden Soil.