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Garden Experiences: Gardening During a Drought

Copyright © 2009-2011 by David E. Ross

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
(1863 edition)


drop of water

Southern California (where I live) is naturally semi-desert. We import our water from northern California. A series of northern dams capture snow-melt and slowly release it into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers (and into tributaries of those two), which meet in a delta that empties into San Pablo Bay (a northern extension of San Francisco Bay). Pumps in the delta collect the runoff and divert it into the California Aqueduct, which delivers water to farms and urban areas in the San Joaquin Valley and in southern California.

When this was first written (August 2009), California was in another of its periodic droughts. Of the eight largest reservoirs in the state, one was filled to 80% of capacity (the Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River). The other seven were at or below 51% of capacity. The state's entire system of 12 reservoirs were only half full at the beginning of August. Since the springtime melting of mountain snows ended only about two or three months before and would not resume for another seven or eight months, half-full reservoirs were a major concern.

Compounding the drought was the decree of a federal court that limited the operation of the pumps in the delta. The pumps were killing too many small fish that are vital parts of the food chain for the Pacific Ocean fisheries.

The result was a permanent reduction of 15% in water deliveries to southern California water systems (private water companies and government water agencies).

While new gardens should thus be planned and planted for drought tolerance, existing gardens can indeed thrive with less water. This merely requires some gardening practices that should be used even if there were no drought. While the following is oriented towards the soils and climates of southern California, these suggestions can be adapted to other areas.

In the year after this page was first written, California experienced above-average rainfall. At the beginning of August 2010, the Don Pedro Reservoir was at 94% of capacity. The San Luis Reservoir, which receives its storage by pumping, was at 44% of capacity; the other six large reservoirs were each at or above 57%. The state's entire system of 12 reservoirs were at 73% of capacity at the beginning of August.

A year later (2011), all major California reservoirs were at or above 90% of capacity. Two were almost completely full.

Although this is a significant improvement in California's water supply, the federal court decree that limits pumping in the delta remains in effect. Thus, the restrictions imposed in 2009 on water use in southern California remain in effect; and it remains necessary to consider the suggestions given below.

23 July 2011

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden.

Genesis 2:10

Wise Watering

Even thirsty plants — such as grass lawns and rose bushes — tend to be over-watered. Wise watering involves using the correct amount of water with the correct frequency at the correct time.

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Setting specific times and days of the week to water gardens — as has been decreed in some local jurisdictions — is bureaucratic foolishness. If everyone is running their sprinkler systems on Wednesday before sunrise, there will not be enough pressure in the water mains at that time for the fire department.

Requirements that all watering be done at night or early in the morning fail to allow for sufficient light for homeowners to observe the operation of their sprinklers, to make sure they are not broken and are not watering the street. Such requirements also ignore those who water their gardens with hose-end sprinklers and thus need to see what they are doing.

Where I live, the water agency is considering an ordinance that allows homeowners to run their sprinkler systems daily for not more than 15 minutes per valve. That amounts to 45 minutes in three days or 210 minutes in two weeks. But the ordinance does not provide for running a sprinkler system for not more than 30 minutes per valve once in three days, one-third less than 15 minutes per valve daily. It definitely does not provide for running a system for 90 minutes per valve once in three weeks.

Instead of telling us how to use water or (worse) when to use water, water agencies should merely tell us how much water we can use. Bureaucrats should not attempt to micro-manage our water use.

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The first principle of wise watering is to water deeply and infrequently. This promotes deep roots for most plants. (See mulch regarding plants that are naturally shallow rooted.) Plants with deep roots can survive a temporary moratorium on all watering while plants that are watered daily will suffer or even die if watering stops for even few days in the heat of summer.

However, deep watering does not mean irrigating all in one session. To reduce runoff and make efficient use of water, I water a short period and then stop for 15-20 minutes. Then, I water again for another short period and stop for another 15-20 minutes. Finally, I water a third short period. In the hottest part of summer (95°F or more), I might run my sprinkler system 8 minutes at a time for a total of 24 minutes for each of seven valves; but I do this only once in three days. When the weather is cooler, I reduce the duration of each cycle or even eliminate the third cycle. I use less water than a neighbor who waters her garden daily 10 minutes per valve.

The drip irrigation system for my roses in front delivers water much more slowly than my garden sprinklers. I run the drip system every other day with three cycles of 30 minutes each. My Hill is quite a different situation. I water it every third weekend, running the sprinklers there in the morning on a Saturday and then again on Sunday. In the summer, the sprinklers run 45 minutes for each of four valves on each of those days. This provides deep watering for an area containing drought-tolerant plants; it also allows the surface to dry to a depth of 2-3 inches or more, inhibiting seedling weeds.

Not only do annuals, perennials, and shrubs benefit from deep watering; trees benefit, too. In fact, trees might benefit more than other plants. With deep watering, a tree will have fewer surface roots to break up sidewalks and driveways or to make lawns lumpy, and it will have sufficient deep roots to anchor the tree against a strong wind. Properly watered, some trees will send their roots down 20 feet or more.

But how much water is enough? On the day before watering, dig down about 2 inches. If the soil is slightly damp at 2 inches, you are watering enough. If the soil is quite moist, you are watering too much. Too much water not only promotes shallow roots; it also promotes root-rot and other fungus.

When should you water? A better question is: When should you not water?

All day I've faced a barren waste
Without the taste of water, cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry
And souls that cry for water
Cool, clear, water

Keep a-movin, Dan, dontcha listen to him, Dan
He's a devil, not a man
He spreads the burning sand with water
Dan, can ya see that big, green tree?
Where the water's runnin' free
And it's waitin' there for me and you?

Bob Nolan, Cool Water, 1936


Watering wisely is not enough. The soil must also be protected from the drying effects of sun and wind. Generally, a mulch should be thick enough to hide completely any bare soil. Mulches can be dead leaves, partially composted vegetation, gravel, small stones, shredded newspapers, plastic sheets, bark chips, nut shells, or wood shavings.

In some of my beds, I use a mulch of leaves from my various trees. This includes the east and circular beds in back. I also use this mulch around my oak (Quercus lobata) in front. Since that location is exposed to winds, I anchor the mulch with poultry wire. Under my guava (Feijoa sellowiana) in back, the mulch is chopped up prunings from that bush. My camellia bed is mulched with the output of my office shredder. I have even used the tiny dead needles from my neighbor's Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) as a mulch for newly planted ground cover.

An alternative to mulch is a dense ground cover. Choose a ground cover that is not thirsty. The west bed in my back yard has cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana), and the rose bed has pink clover (Persicaria capitata). Both ground covers are less thirsty than ivy.

Although grass can be considered a ground cover, it tends to be very thirsty. My grass lawn in back — red fescue (Festuca rubra) — is quite small. My "lawn" in front is pink clover with cinquefoil in the parkway.

Besides preventing the loss of moisture from sun and wind, a good mulch will conserve water in other ways:

A note of warning: With a thick mulch, it is very important to allow the surface of the soil under the mulch to become somewhat dry between watering. Otherwise, surface roots will indeed be at the very surface and even grow up into the mulch. This can defeat the water-conserving purpose of the mulch.


Weeds are water thieves! Many weeds have tap roots and consume the results of deep watering. Other weeds — especially grasses — have aggressive surface roots that prevent deep watering.

Do your best to keep weeds out of your garden. Combine both mulching to prevent many weeds and weed-pulling to eliminate those that are not stopped by mulch. Not only is a weed-free garden more efficient in the use of water, but it also looks better. Further, since weeds also steal nutrients and sunlight from other plants, might attract harmful insects, and can be hosts to plant diseases, a well-weeded garden is healthy.

In a dry year, farmers complain of starvation. In wet years, farmers starve.

Folk proverb


During a drought, be conservative about feeding your garden. Excess nitrogen promotes more foliage, and each extra leaf requires extra water.

Feed your garden in the late winter or early spring, when new growth is just starting. Most plants in the ground will survive quite well without any additional fertilizer later in the year. Grass lawns might not look as nice with only one feeding a year, but they will not require as much water — or as much mowing — as a lawn fed throughout the growing season.

Of course, some plants — such as roses — will not do well without repeated feeding. Containers with a potting mix that drains well will quickly lose nutrients; plants in containers may require frequent feeding.


A definition:

the physical condition of cultivated or tilled soil

Of course, the best time to till your garden is before planting. Once shrubs and trees are established, digging to improve the structure of your soil around and under them becomes impossible. After a garden has been planted, however, it is still possible to improve tilth and thus reduce runoff and increase the penetration of water.


In southern California, most deciduous shrubs and trees are pruned in the winter. Other plants are pruned just after flowering. Very often, this annual pruning can be quite severe; but the plants seem to respond very positively.

However, grooming plants throughout the growing season (e.g., removing dead flowers) is also a form of pruning. Such grooming removes not only dead flowers or other dead growth but also some live foliage.

During a drought, grooming should be more aggressive for many plants. The more leaves removed from a plant, the less water it requires. Even without a drought, I am constantly trimming the growth on my potted dwarf citrus so that the remaining foliage will not place an excessive demand for moisture on constrained roots. When grooming Penstemon, I remove not only the dead flowers but most of the shoot. Not only does this reduce the plant's need for water, but it also causes the plant to grow more sturdy.

All during the growing season, I'm removing stray shoots from many plants. I'm opening the centers of rose bushes to allow better air circulation and prevent mildew. I'm giving the dwarf ivy (Hedera helix 'Hahn's') on my mailbox "hair cuts". I'm cutting the pink clover and cinquefoil away from the walkways in back. While the real purpose of this trimming is to improve the health and appearance of the plants, it also reduces the demand for water.

30 August 2009
Updated 23 July 2011

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