Despite all of our best efforts, summer can put a lot of stress on a garden. Extreme heat and long periods without rain can take their toll on our plants and lawns. But there are steps you can take to create a water-wise garden—one that can ease the burden on our water supply, while still having plants that will bloom throughout the growing season. In this article, I’ll share some tips on reducing the reliance on water in the garden, especially during times of extreme heat and drought.
Why create a water-wise garden?
The main answer to the question of why one should have a water-wise garden is simple: to conserve water. According to the EPA, about 30 percent of an average American household’s potable water is used to water private property.
During hot, dry summer days, I feel frustrated when I see people watering their lawn in the middle of the day (or even at dawn or dusk), especially during periods when I know the water table is low.
Back in the day, owning land that was used for nothing but aesthetics and not farming became something of a status symbol of wealth. Having a perfectly tended green lawn was the goal. But perfect green lawns require a lot of maintenance—and a lot of water.
Luckily attitudes are shifting as people realize it’s more important to conserve water than to make sure they have green grass. Sprinklers should only be used when you need to cool off and jump through one, not for watering the lawn! There are water-wise landscape options, which I’ll explain below.
It’s okay if your grass looks dead
Let’s address the grass part first. I’m definitely not anti-lawn. I think it has its place, especially if you need a soft spot for pets and kids, or want a nice place to spread out a blanket or set up a lounger. It’s great for playgrounds and sports fields. And it does remove carbon dioxide from the air.
I still have a great deal of grass in my front and backyard—I’m not yet prepared for the project of eliminating most of it. However, I have been chipping away at my front lawn, gradually increasing the garden space it over time.
I started by creating a path from the street when I was writing my book, Gardening Your Front Yard. And in 2022, we took out a huge chunk in a sunny spot to build two galvanized raised beds surrounded by mulch.
If you want to keep your lawn, there are a couple of things you can do: let it go dormant during dry spells or plant drought-tolerant seed. For the former suggestion, your grass may look dead for a time, but dormancy is a survival mechanism during periods of extreme heat and drought. The grass will cease to grow during that time and look quite poorly. But it will come back. I should add the caveat it will come back “most of the time.” I can’t say for sure that your grass won’t die at all. But we need to stop worrying about keeping it green when there is no rain in the forecast.
Overseed your lawn with eco-friendlier options
If you are keen to keep some lawn, there are some great drought-tolerant grass seeds or blends on the market that you can use to overseed your current lawn. I have overseeded my property in the spring or fall with two types of seed. The first is clover, which will still look green during a drought. And the second is a product called Eco-Lawn, which is a mix of five drought-resistant fescues. They are also slower growing, which means less mowing and don’t really require fertilizing! The key is to choose something that works for your growing region. Your local garden center should be able to help you.
Mulch your gardens
Adding a layer of mulch to your veggie and ornamental gardens has a few benefits. Mulches help to conserve moisture in the soil, minimizing runoff from watering, and they can have a cooling effect on the soil in hot weather. Organic mulches can also provide plant nutrients and it helps to suppress weeds, which I think is a common goal of most gardeners!
For ornamental gardens, where I have shrubs and perennials, I use a heavier bark mulch, like shredded cedar. In my vegetable gardens, I use a more lightweight mulch of organic matter, like compost and straw. Grass clippings (as long as there are no seed heads) can also be used.
Divert rain and collect water
During the long, hot days of summer, the only plants that are getting water in my garden are the vegetables, and maybe a new shrub or perennial if it’s not yet super established and is looking wilted. A rain barrel can come in handy, diverting every inch of rain and storing it (usually about 50 to 90 gallons of water) until you need it for the garden.
Rain barrels are pretty easy to install. You just need to figure out the part where you divert the water that comes down your drain pipe.
In the absence of a rain barrel, you can also leave out buckets. One day, as I was dumping out my dehumidifier water, I wondered if it should be poured into a watering can instead. A little research revealed that I can use it on my houseplants and perennials, but it’s best to not use it on the vegetable garden to avoid inadvertently introducing bacteria or mold.
Drip irrigation with a timer is another option that can help to ensure your vegetables get the deep watering they need, while conserving water.
Note: There are some parts of the U.S. where there are rules around rainwater collection. Do look into the laws for your area so know what you’re allowed to do.
Create a rain garden
A water-wise garden isn’t just for times of drought, it can also help to handle periods of extreme rain. Every summer there is at least one good deluge that makes it into the news because of the flooding it causes. A rain garden has a couple of key functions. It diverts water away from your home, helping to avoid a basement flood, while filtering it on your property, so it doesn’t overburden the sewer system.
As rainwater flows down streets and sidewalks, it collects all the pollutants it encounters along the way, eventually ending up in our lakes and rivers and creeks. I explain how a rain garden works and some of the principles of rain garden landscape design in this article.
Plant drought-tolerant perennials
There are many plants that will survive hot, dry conditions. Native plants, especially, have adapted over time to the climate in which they’re found. I have a very hot, dry front yard garden that gets a ton of sun. But I have a whole host of plants that don’t mind those conditions. It provides wildlife habitat and attracts pollinators, from bees and butterflies to birds. And, it’s low maintenance!
Drought-tolerant plants in my collection include:
- Prairie Smoke
- Shasta daisies
- Black-eyed Susans
- Russian sage
While you can plant in the summer, even the hardiest of perennials have water requirements until they become established. If that is a concern, the best time to plant is in the spring and fall (as long as the roots have time to become established before winter in cold climates). Head to your local garden center to see which types of plants they have that will thrive in your growing zone.
More water-wise garden tips and eco-friendly gardening advice
- Climate change gardening
- A regenerative gardening primer
- Ideas for front yard vegetable gardens
- Alternatives to front lawns
- Fusion gardening