University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
GARDENING IN A DROUGHT
By Dr. Leonard Perry
With a drought affecting much of the north country, smart gardeners
are finding ways to garden using less water. In addition to using
proper watering practices, or collecting and recycling water, there are
also some cultural tips you can follow for water-wise gardening.
For flowers and vegetables, use wider spacing to reduce competition for
soil moisture, mulching in between plants.
Use three to four inches (after settling) of organic mulch (pine bark,
straw, or similar) to prevent soil from drying and losing moisture to the
air. Keep mulch away from trunks and off the top of desirable perennials.
Using plastic mulches around shrubs or in vegetable and annual flower gardens
in which plants are spaced regularly can help as well. Or place 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 moss--another
common amendment. Peat moss lasts longer in the soil, at least a
year or more, but adds few nutrients and acidifies the soil (which is easily
corrected with liming).
Fertilize less, both less in amount and less often, and avoid applying
too much high nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen results in excessive
growth and increased need for water by lawns and plants. Organic
fertilizers provide less nitrogen to the soil and usually release it slower
over a longer period, as well as help improve soil humus, which helps hold
Choose and place plants properly. Don't select plants that prefer
moist conditions, and place them in a dry area. Choose plants more
resistant to drought. These include many other plants in addition to cacti
and succulents, such as those with deep taproots (baptisia or false lupine),
thick storage roots (daylilies), or 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.
Don't apply pesticides that might cause injury to stressed plants, or which
in heat need to be watered in.
Avoid pruning when plants are stressed and not growing and are thus unable
to heal wounds quickly. Pruning also may stimulate side shoots and
more growth, creating the need for more water.
For evergreens, use antitranspirant sprays on leaves to help prevent water
loss. Or erect windbreaks around such plants, if they're small or new and
in 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 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 won't grow as fast either!
But keep weeds down, as they compete with more desirable plants for water.
Move container plants to more shaded areas, so the soil won't dry out as
Use pottery containers that are glazed on the outside, which prevents much
water loss. Or use plastic containers, which, if unattractive can
be set into more attractive outer pottery ones.
Don't crowd too many plants into containers, or use large containers for
large plants. This will help keep them from drying out as often and
requiring watering daily or more often.
If water is restricted or in short supply, give highest priority
to the following:
Leave grass clippings after mowing 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 there
are extreme conditions for a long period, grass usually will begin growing
again once conditions improve.
Don't mow grass when it is dormant and not growing. Even when growing,
set the mower height at two to three inches high. High mown grass
develops deeper root systems that are better able to withstand drought.
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
For current information on drought conditions, log onto the National
Drought Mitigation Center Website at www.enso.unl.edu/ndmc/watch/watch.htm
or the University of Massachusetts' drought information Website at www.UmassDroughtInfo.org.
Or see UVM OH Leaflet
Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles