of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard P. Perry, Extension Professor
You may see the term "xeriscaping", referring to dry climate gardening.
Many often think just of deserts, and cacti and succulent plants, with
this term. But with dry climates periodically in much of the country now,
this term means much more and definitely does not mean "zero-scaping".
Following some drought-wise garden water tips, you can have your water,
and your garden too.
Collecting, Saving Water
If you have water restrictions in your area or town, find out just water
they cover. If not too severe, they may just cover lawn sprinklers and
not watering of gardens.
Water in the early morning, when there is less heat and wind, and so less
water lost to evaporation. Timers on automatic watering systems make very
early watering much easier.
Donít use overhead sprinklers, which may lose over half the water on a
hot day to evaporation. Instead use manual watering, soaker hoses or drip
systems. Soaker hoses are merely permeable hoses, often of recycled materials,
that allow water to soak through them slowly. Placed on beds near plants,
they allow water to slowly soak into the root zone. Cover these with mulch,
and they lose even less water to the air, and are invisible.
Water deeply and less often rather than for shorter periods more often.
This allows water to penetrate deeper, and so encourages deeper roots which
are more resistant to drought. Lawns and bedding plants should be watered
to at least 6 inches deep. Perennials, shrubs and trees should be watered
to at least 12 inches deep. Check your sprinkler or rainfall with a rain
gauge, available from garden and hardware stores. One inch of water will
wet a sandy soil to a depth of about 12 inches.
Water established plants only if "really" needed and once they begin to
wilt. Many perennials and woody plants may wilt, and not perform best if
dry, but will survive. This is especially true if they were healthy and
well-watered prior to drought conditions. Only a few perennials such as
false spirea (Astilbe) have leaves that turn brown and donít recover
if dry, but have to generate new leaves.
Repair leaks in hoses and fittings. This may be as simple as replacing
the washers in hose fittings. A slow leak of one drip per second can lose
9 gallons of water a day, 260 gallons a month. A faster leak, filling an
8 ounce cup in 8 seconds, wastes 675 gallons a day, or 20,000 gallons a
Collect wasted and "gray" water from the household. The latter is rinse
water from washers, and from washing dishes. When adjusting the hot and
cold in baths and showers, collect in a bucket the water that would normally
go down the drain before the temperature is adjusted. Also collect and
use water from dehumidifiers or window air conditioners.
Collect water from downspouts of gutters, or divert these into flower beds.
For flowers and vegetables, use wider spacing to reduce competition for
soil moisture, mulching in between plants.
Use 3 to 4 inches (after settling) of organic mulch (pine bark, straw or
similar) to prevent soil from drying and losing moisture to the air. Keep
such mulch away from trunks, and off the top of desirable perennials. Plastic
mulches in vegetable and annual flower gardens in which plants are spaced
regularly, or around shrubs, can help as well. Or use thick layers of newspapers
in rows, covered lightly with mulch.
Incorporate organic matter into the soil, which will aid in water retention.
Compost also adds nutrients, but breaks down faster than peat mossóanother
common amendment. Peat moss lasts longer in the soil, at least a year or
more, but adds few nutrients and acidifies the soil. Water absorbent materials
(hydrogels) can help dry sandy soils.
Fertilize less, both less in amount and less often, and avoid too much
high nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen results in excessive growth,
and need for water by plants. Organic fertilizers provide less, and over
a longer period usually, and they help soil humus which helps hold water.
Choose and place plants properly. Donít choose plants that prefer moist,
and place them in a dry area. And choose plants more resistant to drought.
As mentioned at the beginning, there are many other plants other than cacti
and succulents such as those with deep tap roots (baptisia or false lupine),
thick storage roots (daylilies), or those with waxy coated leaves (sedum).
Perennial flowers need water when newly planted, but once established require
much less water than annual flowers. Native plants may be a good choice
as well. See OH Leaflet
73 on drought resistant plants.
Donít apply pesticides that might cause injury to stressed plants, or in
heat, or that need to be watered in.
Avoid pruning when plants are stressed and not growing, and so unable to
heal wounds quickly. Pruning also may stimulate side shoots and more growth,
and so more need for water.
For evergreens, use antitranspirant sprays on leaves that help prevent
water loss. Or erect windbreaks around such plants, if theyíre small or
new, and a windy area. Burlap strung between posts is effective. For routinely
windy sites, consider planting a more permanent windbreak of spruces, firs
or other evergreens to screen other plantings.
Use hoeing and soil cultivation of weeds sparingly. Continually disturbing
the soil surface will result in it drying out much faster. You may have
to merely cut weeds off at the soil surface, or use contact or systemic
herbicides, and save the cultivation until drought conditions ease. At
least the bright side is that under drought, weeds wont grow as fast either!
But keep weeds down, as they compete with more desirable plants for water.
Move container plants to more shaded areas.
Use pottery containers that are glazed on the outside, which prevents much
water loss. Or use plastic containers, or set plastic containers if unattractive
into more attractive outer pottery ones.
Donít crowd too many plants into containers, or use large containers for
large plants. This will help keep them from drying out so often, and requiring
watering daily or more often.
If water is restricted or in short supply, give highest priority to the
Leave grass clippings to act as mulch and recycle nutrients and some moisture.
If seeding lawn areas, or repairing areas, use drought resistant grass
types such as fine fescues.
If water is not available, allow grass to go dormant. Unless extreme conditions
for a long period, it will usually begin growing again once conditions
Donít mow grass when it is dormant and not growing. Even when growing,
set the mower height at 2 to 3 inches high. High mown grass develops deeper
root systems that are better able to withstand drought.
See also OH Leaflet
73 on drought resistant plants.
Newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials
Newly seeded lawns or repaired lawn areas
Plants on sandy soils or windy and exposed sites
Vegetables when flowering
Return to Perry's Perennial Consumer Page
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts
of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department
of Agriculture. Lawrence Forcier, Director, UVM Extension System, Burlington,
Vermont. University of Vermont Extension System and U.S. Department of
Agriculture cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone, without
regard to race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability,
political beliefs, and marital or familial status.
Last reviewed 5/02