How to Decide Which Plants Get Water During a Drought

High heat and drought present home owners with a Sophie’s Choice: Which plants deserve to live, and which should die? Here’s how to choose.

Image: My Little Corner of the World blog

Drought and community-imposed restrictions that limit the amount of water you can use for landscaping and gardening may force you to make tough decisions about which plants to save and which to sacrifice.

Your choices should depend on your priorities and the purpose your plantings serve, says Sandra Dark, author of Weatherproofing Your Landscaping.

“Drought provides a gut check for your landscape,” says Dark.

To set your priorities during a drought and community water shortage, ask yourself the following 6 questions:

1. Is My Lawn Really Worth It?

No! Lawns take lots of water and fertilizer to stay green. In drought, let your grass die and reseed when (and if) the rain returns. Better yet, replace your lawn with native and drought-resistant plants, and low-maintenance turf grasses.

2. How Valuable Is This Plant?

The longer a tree or shrub takes to grow, the more valuable it is. Fast-growing pines, for instance, can quickly replace older pines sacrificed to drought; slow-growing American beeches take years to mature and are more difficult to replace.

3. Does This Plant Anchor My Landscaping Plan?

If a dogwood, for instance, is the focal point of your yard, water it first. Easily replaced foundation plants should fall lower on your watering list.

4. Does This Plant Save or Cost Me Money?

  • Save trees or shrubs that shade your home and save energy costs.
  • Sacrifice annuals that you buy each year anyway.
  • Let go of water-guzzling perennials and replace them with drought-resistant varieties, such as ornamental grasses and lavender.

5. Does This Plant Have Sentimental Value?

Have a tree your kids loved to climb? Water plants and trees that are the stuff of memories.

6. How Healthy Is This Plant?

Sacrifice old and sick plants already close to the end of life. However, newly-planted trees and shrubs require frequent watering. So if water is restricted, you might have to sacrifice them for middle-aged trees that have a fighting chance of survival.

Tips on How to Keep Your Chosen Plants Alive

1. Protect tree feeder roots by watering around the tree’s drip line (from the trunk to the end of the leaf canopy). Dig down 1 ft. to make sure the soil is moist, but not soggy. When the soil dries out, water again with a drip hose.

2. Bulbs are less vulnerable to drought than other perennials, but will die under extreme heat. Cover bulbs with 3-4 inches of an airy mulch, such as cedar, which holds moisture and moderates soil temperature.

3. Water perennials, annuals, and container plants with greywater from your shower, bath, or kitchen sink. Use biodegradable bath and dish soap, which won’t hurt plants. Never water plants with greywater containing bleach.

4. Spread only 2-3 inches of mulch around (but not touching) shrub and tree trunks. If you add too much mulch, roots will grow up and into the mulch, becoming more vulnerable to heat.

5. Move containers into the shade or bring them indoors. Water with greywater.

6. Replace high-maintenance plants with native plants better suited to your climate. Your extension agent can help you choose.