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Monday, July 13, 2015

Surviving the Drought

Surviving the Drought: water-wise front yard, Redondo Beach CA

What a stressful time for California gardens and gardeners!  We’re into the fourth year of the worst drought on record.  Many gardeners must decrease water consumption by 25% or more; and even water-wise gardens are beginning to show the long-term effects.  So, what’s a gardener to do to survive the drought?

Those who installed water-wise gardens well before the drought are fortunate; an established water-wise garden has the best potential to survive until the next rainy season.  This is particularly true if last winter’s meager rains were supplemented with winter/spring irrigation. 

Some readers installed water-wise gardens more recently – or not at all.   Your challenge is greater, but not insurmountable. You’ll need to water a little smarter, and revise your expectations; some plants won’t make it, given current restrictions.  In the wilds and in our gardens, four years of drought are difficult for young plants to survive.  

Remember that young plants – even those that are water-wise – need extra water for the first summer (grasses; smaller shrubs) or up to the first 3-4 years (large shrubs and trees).  A good rule of thumb for California native plants is twice the recommended (mature) water for the first summer; 1 ½ times for the second summer and 1 ¼ times the third summer.

Much has been written on ways to reduce water consumption.  Some of the tips  below are nothing new; you’ve heard them before from your water company or other sources.  But any idea merits consideration these days, and a few may be new to you.   Hopefully, these tips will help save water and permit your garden to survive in the best shape possible.

  1. Conserve as much water indoors as possible.   Short showers, sponge baths if feasible, low-flow toilets, doing full washer loads, etc. Water saved in the home can be used to water your garden.
  2. Use ‘clean’ house water to provide extra water to vulnerable plants.  When you heat shower water, wash hands and rinse dishes, collect the water in a bucket or dish pan.  Use it on plants that need a little extra water.  You’ll be surprised how much water you collect every day.  If your local codes  allow it, consider the pros and cons of using gray water (more on this in a future post).
  3. Check for water leaks, indoors and out.  Are there leaks in irrigation valves, pipes, hose bibs, hoses, drip irrigation tubes?  Even a slow leak can waste significant amounts of water.  Do a quick check of irrigation systems every couple of weeks.  Fix leaks - or at least collect the water and use it.  Listen for toilets running when they shouldn’t be (you have to get close to the toilet or the pipes to hear it).  Toilets with slow leaks are a common home water waster.

Surviving the Drought: let dry conditions hasten lawn removal

  1. Turn off the water to your lawn if you plan to replace it.  Now is a great time to let Mother Nature help remove the old lawn.  Put up a sign informing your neighbors that you’re replacing the lawn with a water-wise alternative; make it colorful and/or humorous.  Remind passersby that ‘Gold is the New Green’ and that California has always been both green and golden.  

Removing a lawn is the patriotic thing to do in Southern California and other dry regions.  And waiting to replant until next winter is the smart way to go.

  1. Withhold water from plants you want to remove.  Most gardens contain  plants that are old, unsightly, too big, sickly, etc.   Why waste water on them?  If feasible, let Mother Nature hasten their demise; the job of removal will be easier as well.   Once again, a well-placed sign will help allay neighbor’s fears that you are abandoning your yard.
  2. Prioritize your plants.   Big and/or important plants should get first priority in terms of water.   Shade trees, arbor vines, fruit trees, vegetable crops – any plant that provides important services to your family – those are the plants that deserve the water.   Smaller plants and those that grow quickly – including ornamental grasses and bedding plants – can be replaced when conditions improve.

Surviving the Drought: group plants by water needs (Water Zones)

  1. Review your Water Zones (hydrozones): If you planted a ‘New California Garden’ (see http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/07/designing-your-new-california-garden-1.html ) your plants are grouped based on water needs (Water Zones).  Review the Water Zone concept (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/04/water-wise-gardening-tip-save-water.html ).  Plants that are Water Zone 2 need only be watered when the ground is dry at a depth of 3-4 inches.  Check the soil before you water; established Zone 2 plants may require water only once a month.

Surviving the Drought: mature citrus trees are water-wise.

  1. Review the water needs of trees and shrubs. Trees/shrubs from dry climates do best with occasional deep water.  If you have mature trees/shrubs from dry climates – including citrus trees, olives, eucalyptus, mediterranean herbs and others from S. Africa, Australia or the Mediterranean region – water them monthly or less.  Slowly water with a hose to deeply water.  The plants will likely be more healthy and productive.
  2. Water early/late in the day and on cooler days.   If you garden with water-wise native plants, the weather report is your best ally.  Wait for a period of cooler weather (with more clouds or the marine layer) to water your native plants.  For optimal plant health, summer water at times that are followed by several days of relatively cooler weather.   Hot, moist soils promote root fungi and other plant diseases.
  3.  Conserve soil moisture with mulch.  We’ve written before about the use of mulches (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/07/understanding-mulches_23.html ).  Some local native plants normally need only a thin layer of mulch.  In the current drought we recommend adding an additional 1-2 inches to the recommended mulch depths.  If next winter brings lots of precipitation, simply rake away the excess mulch.  Remember to leave a 6-12 inch mulch-free zone around tree/shrub trunks.

Surviving the Drought: add a little extra mulch

  1. Keep irrigation water at ground level.  Evaporation is a problem with all overhead irrigation (even the new, water-wise sprinklers).   The more irrigation you do at ground level, the more water actually gets into the soil.

If you currently water shrubs, trees and perennials with overhead sprinklers, consider purchasing some inexpensive soaker hoses to get you through the summer.  The porous ones made from recycled tires are great; they’re inexpensive, readily available and come in several lengths. Soaker hoses can be positioned where water is needed, covered with mulch, and attached to a garden hose when watering.    Even if you return to other irrigation methods in the future, soaker hoses can help get your plants through the drought.

  1. Insure that irrigation water goes where it’s needed.  Check the placement of soaker hoses and drip irrigation – are they really watering the plant root tips (often near the drip line) or do they need to be moved?  

Surviving the Drought: use hose-sprinklers

  1. Consider using a sprinkler attached to a hose rather than conventional irrigation systems this summer.   Hand irrigation allows more flexibility in the placement and amount of water.   Many of the old-fashioned (and inexpensive) oscillating, whirling or stationary hose sprinklers lose less water to evaporation than conventional sprinklers.  They can be positioned and adjusted to water precisely as needed.    If feasible, consider using them – in at least some areas of the garden - this summer.
  2. Direct the water precisely when watering new or vulnerable plants. When providing additional water to individual plants, be sure that the water goes just where it’s needed.  Trickle-watering with a hose is one idea.

Surviving the Drought: make a trickle-water bucket

We also use 5-gallon plastic paint or utility buckets for directed slow-watering.  Just drill a 1/8 inch hole in the side of the bucket, 1 ½ inches up from the bottom.  Place the bucket near the plant, fill it with water, direct the flow and let the watering bucket do the rest.

Surviving the Drought: trickle-water buckets in action

This is an extremely efficient ways to water individual plants (we use these buckets in restoration projects as well as in the garden). For larger plants, place several buckets, as needed, around the drip line.   Watering buckets are easily filled with the water saved in Tip #2, above.

  1. Move potted plants to slightly cooler/shadier positions.  Potted plants need more water than those in the ground.  Consider moving potted plants to a slightly shadier position (for example, a place with afternoon shade) during the summer.  Plants will likely thrive, and water requirements will decrease.  

Another trick is to double-pot.  In this method, the plant is planted in an inner pot (clay is best for water-wise plants) with a diameter 2-6 inches less than that of the decorative outer pot.  A 2-4 inch layer of gravel is placed in the bottom of the outer pot; the inner pot is then placed inside the outer pot. The layer of air between the two pots helps keep the plant roots cool and decreases evaporation.

Surviving the Drought: move pots to shadier places

  1. Provide some afternoon shade where feasible.  Many water-wise plants – even those that like sun – will do fine with a little afternoon shade.  If you can figure a way to provide some shade, do so.
  2. Learn from Mother Nature. While the current drought is historic, it’s likely a good indicator of things to come.  Climate predictions suggest that Southern California will experience more extreme weather in the future; some years will be dry (like this one) and others will bring excess precipitation.

 The past four years have provided excellent lessons about which water-wise plants are ‘super-survivors’; we’ll discuss our conclusions in a coming post. But keep good notes on plants in your own garden.  You may conclude that some plants are just too difficult to maintain during drought conditions.  What you learn today will help you plan for a water-wise, life-friendly future.  

  1. Taper off water to S. California native plants in late summer.  Remember that many California native plants need a dry ‘rest period’ in fall. Plants that normally experience summer monsoons (Sonoran Desert and some Baja California plants;  Chaparral shrubs, especially those from San Diego County) usually need some water in August.  Decrease water to the rest, beginning in mid- to late August.

Surviving the Drought: provide water for birds & insects

  1. Provide a little drinking water for birds, butterflies and pollinators. Drought is tough on all living things.  Provide water for birds and insects; it takes just a little water to keep these garden visitors alive.
  2. Be realistic: some plants will not make it.   It’s really hard to lose a plant, particularly one that you love or have lavished time/energy on.  But the harsh reality is that some plants will not survive the drought, no matter what you do.  That’s bitter medicine that we’re all having to swallow. 

In Mother Nature’s Backyard and other gardens we’ve already lost several large shrubs; we’re keeping a wary eye on our Bigberry manzanita and hope it survives.  So you’re not alone – or a poor gardener – if you lose some plants this summer.  If it’s any consolation, Mother Nature herself (the ultimate Master Gardener) is having a tough time this year!



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



  1. Conserving water is an overwhelming task. What do you think about ollas for water conservation?

    1. I think that anything that promotes optimal use of water is a good idea. We store some water in rain barrels at Mother Nature's Backyard. Storing water makes sense in our climate, where rains are sporadic and a given storm may produce up to an inch of rain.

  2. These are some great tips on how to keep that garden looking fresh even with this drought! There's a lot of things that can help you conserve water. Thanks for sharing!