Cutting back on watering doesn’t mean letting everything die. Here’s how to enjoy an attractive garden responsibly.

11 Ways to Cut Back on Water Consumption in Your Garden
photography by George Olson

A severely dry year has a lot of us wondering what more we can do to save water, especially outdoors. And how can we get our gardens through severe drought? Here’s a strategy.

photography by Thomas J. Story

Save established trees first 

They’re costly to replace and have the greatest impact on your landscape. (Ash, birch, poplar, coast redwood, magnolia, and Japanese maple are often the first trees to show signs of drought stress). Give the trees a deep irrigation within the next two months so they’ll be better equipped to withstand drought. Coil soaker hoses around the plants at and inside the drip line; let them moisten the soil 18 to 24 inches down.

Monitor shallow-rooted shrubs 

On azaleas, rhododendrons, and young camellias, watch for wilting or drooping new growth. Build basins around them (make sure the water won’t pool against the trunks), and give them a deep soak this month.

Stop watering the lawn

When it turns brown, just keep it mown and tidy. If your grass is Bermuda, it will green up again in fall (assuming we get rain). If it’s another type of grass, it’s easy (and relatively inexpensive) to replace in fall.  

photography by Thomas J. Story


Put down a layer of mulch about 2 inches thick around plants, to help keep moisture in the soil. Ground bark is a good all-purpose type. (Watch: How to mulch)

Check your irrigation system

A leaky irrigation system wastes water fast. Watch yours run, then adjust sprinkler heads so they won’t wet sidewalks or driveways. Be sure your drip emitters put water into the soil near plant roots.

Water carefully

Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation to put water where it’s needed most: directly over plant roots. Irrigate plants in the early morning when air is still and cool.

Rain Bird (photo by E. Spencer Toy)

Try hi-tech watering

Consider installing a smart irrigation controller, if you don’t already have one, to program and manage your watering. The best ones now use Wi-Fi connections or in-ground sensors that will adjust watering according to the weather.

photography by Thomas J. Story

In the veggie garden

Snake soaker hoses through rows of veggies such as beans and tomatoes. Water cane berries sparingly after harvest. (In coastal climates, established blackberry plants can get through the summer on no water, raspberry plants on very little). Shade strawberries by propping row covers or shade cloth over beds; allow good ventilation. Space citrus waterings every four to six weeks; irrigate plants to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. The season’s fruit may suffer, but the trees should survive. Let deciduous fruit trees go dry after harvest, and irrigate only if trees wilt. 

Group containers

That way, they’ll help shade and help cool one another. Limit your plant choices to unthirsty succulents, yuccas, and more. Irrigate the plants as needed, using clean shower water you’ve saved in buckets while waiting for the water to warm up.

Cover the pool

Covering an unused swimming pool stops 90 percent of water evaporation waste. For a 400-square- foot pool, that’s almost 1,000 gallons a month. The safest covers are track mounted.

photography by Thomas J. Story

Plan ahead

Watersmart gardens are the new normal in California. Rethink your yard. When fall planting time comes around, replace the lawn with permeable paving (watch our video!), or with unthirsty plants. In this front yard a grid of deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and blue agaves carries the show. Or surround a small meadow of low-water red fescue, with yellow-tinged Aeonium ‘Kiwi’, orange-flowered aloes, and red kangaroo paw.