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5 Tips for Prioritizing What Gets Watered During Drought

By Heather Blackmore for Proven Winners
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners

Not all plants can handle the same stresses in the garden. Some are more durable than others, and that becomes all-the-more obvious when drought strikes. As I write this, water restrictions are popping up throughout the Chicagoland area and we’re in the midst of the worst drought in a decade. The signs of drought stress are everywhere.

Landscapes have the look of late August right now, certainly not of early July. Our lawns resemble straw, and leaves of established trees are yellowing and dropping. Under drought stress, young plant roots are weakened and their ability to take up water is diminished. As a result, the plants’ health is compromised, making them more susceptible to disease, pest infestation, and even death.

When landscape plants don’t receive adequate rainfall, the effects can be devastating. If you are able, it’s important to provide supplemental water. Prioritization is key since some plants do better than others under drought conditions. Here’s what you need to know to give your garden the support it needs, while using resources wisely, when Mother Nature withholds rain.

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Allow Your Lawn to Go Dormant

If you walk through my neighborhood, you’ll find a few lawns that just don’t fit in with the rest. While the majority are dry and yellowed, a handful are green, lush and inviting. It’s obvious who’s watering.

Under drought conditions, cool-season turfgrasses like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass go dormant for the summer. Active growth stops and they often look more like straw than grass. Not to worry! They’ll green up again once conditions improve, which means you can pour your watering efforts into less drought-tolerant plants.

Once the lawn goes dormant, resist the urge to water it. Breaking dormancy drains turfgrass of its reserves, making it unlikely to recover without consistent supplemental watering if conditions remain dry and hot. The downside to dormancy is the appearance of the lawn and its susceptibility to weed invasions.

To help your lawn retain water, set your mower a little higher for the summer. Taller grass shades the soil, conserving what moisture remains in it.

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Prioritize New Perennial Plantings

It is crucial to water new plants as they work to establish their roots into their new surroundings. On average, it takes at least a month for newly planted perennials to begin to settle in. Factor in prolonged drought and it may take even longer. Depending on the type of plant, some may need more water than others as they get established. Rather than watering weekly on a set schedule, you may have to water every few days for the first month. The best way to determine who’s in need is at your fingertips—literally.

Forget the manicure. Your plants need you! To check the moisture level of the soil around new plantings, pull the mulch away from the base of the plant and stick your finger in the soil as far as it will go. If it feels moist, repeat the finger test in a day or two. If your finger is dry when you pull it out of the soil, it’s time to water. If the finger test method doesn’t appeal to you, try a moisture meter instead. They are available at most garden centers and hardware stores.

As you water, don’t be too hasty. It takes time for the water to permeate through dry soil. While it may seem like a lot of water is being delivered down to the roots, the only way to know for sure is to do another finger test or use your moisture meter.

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Many silver plants with small leaves, like ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ Russian sage (Perovskia), are drought tolerant. Pollinators love this plant!  

Grow Drought-Tolerant Plants

If your garden is well-established and you’re experiencing prolonged drought, look around. Which plants are looking good despite the lack of rain? Make a list of these plants so you’ll remember which ones to buy more of next time you shop. While it’s not always the case, you’ll often find that plants with fuzzy or silvery grey foliage, thick or fleshy leaves, and plants with a tap root are often more drought tolerant.

Since their fleshy leaves are full of water, sedum is one example of a stalwart perennial during times of drought. Check out the Rock ‘N Grow®, Rock ‘N Round® and Rock ‘N Low® sedum collections for more drought-tolerant varieties.

Incorporating drought-tolerant plants into your garden is a great way to conserve water resources as well as your time. Do a little research before selecting new plants so you’ll be sure to buy durable plants that can handle your growing conditions. Remember that just because a plant may be drought tolerant, it will still need adequate water in those early weeks after planting to get established. Few new plantings can survive without any moisture.

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These AquaPots® containers are so much more than a pretty face. They’re self-watering and use up to 75% less water than drip irrigation.  

Non-Self-Watering Containers and Raised Beds Need More Water

Because of the reduced soil volume in containers and raised beds, and the fact that they tend to drain more quickly if they are not self-watering, they require more water. Depending on their location in the garden, some containers may have to be watered more than once a day even if there is no drought. If they’re in full sun, you can count on daily watering.

That’s one of the things that makes self-watering AquaPots containers so convenient. Fill up their reservoir and they’ll do the watering for you. If you don’t have time to be out in the yard watering every day, or if you travel during the summertime, self-watering pots save you time and worry—plus, your plants will flourish with the consistent, even supply of moisture.

If you don’t have self-watering containers and you are worried about your plants drying out, go big. The bigger the container is, the slower the soil will dry out because of the greater soil volume. Plant them up with drought-tolerant annuals like Ladybird® Sunglow Texas primroses, Luscious® lantanas and Superbena® verbenas.

If you’ve incorporated annuals into your garden beds, you’ll need to water them more often compared to your perennial plantings. Annual roots are shallower, making them more susceptible to drought stress. The best way to determine soil moisture is—you guessed it—the good ‘ole finger test, or by using a moisture meter.

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Newly-planted conifers like these North Pole® arborvitaes turn brown quickly if they don’t receive adequate moisture during a drought. Be sure to monitor the soil regularly throughout the growing season to ensure they get the moisture they need.

Prioritize Watering Your New Trees and Shrubs

Unlike perennials that may take a month to settle in, newly-planted trees and shrubs can take two to three years depending on their size at planting time. The bigger the tree, the longer it takes. When drought is an issue, it’s important to be super vigilant with these bigger investments.

Without enough water, new trees and shrubs can decline quickly. Young conifers are especially susceptible to drought stress. For all new tree and shrub plantings, I water weekly using a slow trickle from the hose positioned directly over the root ball. I divide my garden into quadrants, watering each section for 15 minutes before repositioning the hose on the next section. Installing drip irrigation would be a good way to automate this process.

If your tree or shrub is in its second year in the garden, water around its dripline. That’s the area directly below the widest branches of your tree or shrub. A tree’s feeder roots occupy this space and they are what deliver moisture to the rest of the plant. You might need to pull the mulch away from the plants’ root zone a bit to do the finger or moisture meter test to determine if more frequent waterings are required. Watering slow and deep is always better than watering fast and shallow when watering any landscape plants.

Learn more about creating a drought tolerant landscape:

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Patent Information: ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ Russian sage Perovskia atriplicifolia USPP28445 Can5568; North Pole® Thuja occidentalis USPP22174, Can3912

Heather Blackmore is a Chicago-area gardener, writer and speaker who hopes her passion will inspire others to find their way to a happier, healthier life in the garden. 

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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