Gardening in a Drought

Gardening in a Drought


By Dr. Leonard Perry  
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist
University of Vermont

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

Cultural Practices

–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 water.

–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

Container plantings

–Move container plants to more shaded
areas, so the soil won’t dry out as quickly.

–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.


–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

–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

If water is restricted or in short supply,
give highest priority to the following:

–Newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials

–Newly seeded lawns or repaired lawn

–Plants on sandy soils or windy and exposed

–Vegetables when flowering

For current information on drought
conditions, log onto the National Drought Mitigation
Center Website at
or the University of Massachusetts’ drought information
Website at

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