You Can Dig It

Tips to garden well in a drought

By Jim Janke | Feb 06, 2017
Photo by: Jim Janke Use drip irrigation during a drought.

Gardening in last year’s drought was challenging, especially between Labor Day and Thanksgiving when less than 20 percent of normal rainfall fell at my place. When it gets this dry, you obviously want your plants to survive, but probably don’t enjoy spending every waking hour with a hose in your hand.

Here are some ideas to increase your chances for success in a drought.

Water thoroughly, not frequently.

Established shrubs and trees shouldn’t need watering unless we’ve been without rain for a couple of months or more. Newer shrubs and trees should be watered deeply once per month for the first couple of years. Annuals, perennials and vegetables need about an inch of precipitation each week, so get a rain gauge and record the rainfall so you know when additional watering is needed.

Water the roots; don’t humidify the air.

Install a drip irrigation system for frequently watered areas. This puts the water at the base of each plant. Using a sprinkler for flower and vegetable beds doesn’t make sense, because on a hot day a good portion of the water evaporates before it hits the ground. Overhead watering also spreads diseases on plants like roses and tomatoes.

Water uphill of plants on slopes.

Get about two thirds of the water on the uphill side of a plant on a slope. Gravity will equalize the water distribution as it works its way into the root zone.

Know the watering restrictions in your community.

Plan your watering activities around these rules. Or install a rain-water collection system that doesn’t use your community or well water supply. If you are connected to a sewer system, find out if you can install a separate meter for water used in the garden. Most sewer bills are based on total water consumption, and they can be extremely inflated if you are watering extensively, because sewer rates are much higher than water rates.

Let the lawn go brown. Here in the mountains we have cool season grasses that want to go dormant in summer. Watering the lawn to keep it green might do more harm than good.

Don’t fertilize. Drought stressed plants don’t need food, they need water. Adding fertilizer will induce a growth spurt that could kill the plant.

Mulch. Most evaporation occurs from the top couple of inches of soil, where sun and air dry it out. Covering the soil with mulch will reduce evaporation significantly and minimize your watering requirements.

Weed mercilessly. Keeping the weeds down maximizes the water and nutrients available for plants you are trying to protect.


Select plants that are drought resistant. Visit for links to lists of drought resistant perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees.

A great source for native plants that are drought resistant (and attract pollinators) is the current Master Gardener plant sale, where these perennials (and selected edibles) are available at exceptional prices. Call 456-3575 or email for an order form.

Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 456-3575. © 2017 NC State University.