Easy ways to conserve water in the garden during a dry year

Sunflower (Photo by Lynn Ketchum)
Sunflowers are drought-tolerant plants that make a good choice for a water-efficient landscape. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)
Last Updated: 
May 31, 2013

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In a dry year, use water wisely, the Oregon State University Extension Service advises.

"We're in the midpoint of one of the driest years from January to this point that we've had in 50 to 60 years," said Steve Renquist, a horticulturist with the OSU Extension Service who is based in Roseburg. 

An average of seven inches of rain has fallen so far this year in the Umpqua Valley, when a typical year's average rainfall is closer to 17 inches, Renquist said.

Still, Master Gardeners are already harvesting full heads of cabbage, lettuce and radishes from the Victory Garden in Douglas County's demonstration garden – nearly a month ahead of schedule because of the early warm season.

Renquist offers the following tips to conserve water in gardens and yards this summer.

  • Water your lawn more deeply and less frequently. "I call it survival watering," Renquist said. If you typically water three to four times per week, it's OK to cut that to one to two times per week.
  • Plant drought-tolerant turfgrass. Tall fescue is hardy, wide-bladed and deep-rooted. Perennial ryegrass and creeping fescue can also tolerate some dryness.
  • Choose drought-tolerant plants such as creeping zinnia and sea poppy for your landscape. Native plants such as the Oregon iris and Pacific wax myrtle tolerate dry summers well. Find a list of water-efficient landscape plants in this OSU Extension guide
  • For most plants, watering deeply and close to the roots is more important than frequency. Study each plant's watering requirements. For vegetables, soak soil about six inches deep. Water to a depth of about a foot and a half for shrubs. Trees need water about two feet deep.
  • Mulching is critical because it improves soil structure, helps retain water in the ground and reduces weeds. Use compost-based mulches for vegetables and woody mulches for ornamental plants. Spread the mulch about two to three inches thick on the soil around your garden.
  • Water early in the morning before the day heats up.
  • Use an efficient irrigation system, such as soaker hoses or drip irrigation. If you choose a sprinkler system, select a low-pressure, in-ground system that does not shoot up in the air.

Meanwhile, in central Oregon, high desert gardeners are not yet seeing the effects of drought, said Amy Jo Detweiler, a horticulturist with OSU Extension based in Redmond.

"We're not seeing the effects of a low snowpack in gardens yet because we've had sufficient rain this spring," Detweiler said.

But wildfire danger is a real concern in dry conditions, she added. That is because native wildland areas will have new green growth during rain showers, but then will dry out without irrigation during the summer months – thus creating a fuel source. Yards and gardens continue to get irrigated through the summer.  

For more information about water-efficient gardening, view the OSU Extension guides Designing and Installing a New Landscape; Landscape and Lawn Care and An Introduction to Xeriscaping in the High Desert (pdf download). 

You can also take a series of online, self-paced courses called WaterWise Gardening: Planning & Design from OSU's Professional and Noncredit Education Unit.

Author: Denise Ruttan