More Fun, Less Watering

Summer is here! Patio season; warm, lingering evenings; bike rides on sun-baked trails; cooling dips in the Elk River. There is much to love about these gloriously sunny months.

In the garden, July marks the beginning of serious watering season. With less rain and hotter days, it doesn’t take long before plants begin to look a bit crispy. As climate change inevitably brings hotter average temperatures and less predictable precipitation, it’s worth considering how to make our gardens more drought tolerant.

In the short term, think about watering techniques, mulch, and shade.

  • Water deeply once or twice per week, rather than a shallow daily watering. This encourages the development of longer roots, so plants can access the long-lasting moisture deep down rather than relying on the moisture at the surface of the soil, which evaporates quickly.
  • Switch from a sprinkler to drip irrigation. The drip system releases water slowly, so less is lost to runoff and evaporation. The water goes directly to the base of your plants, which is much more efficient. Bonus: if you install the drip system with a timer, you can set it and forget it.
  • Try using an olla – an unglazed clay pot – for slow, steady irrigation. Bury it up to its neck in the soil and fill it with water; moisture will seep out through the porous clay. Similar DIY solutions include a milk jug with small holes poked in it, or a perforated drainpipe – anything porous that can be buried, then filled with water.
  • Mulch! This is, in my opinion, the easiest way to help soil retain moisture. Cover your garden with a thick layer of straw, leaves, shredded bark, dried grass clippings, or even cardboard. (Mulch will keep water out as well as in, so either install drip irrigation underneath the mulch or make sure to water very thoroughly at the base of each plant.)
  • Give your plants some shade. Set up a patio umbrella or shade cloth – the ideal placement will allow full sun in the morning but provide some shade in the afternoon. Try planting in clusters rather than rows; the plants will do a better job of shading each other and the soil.

Other factors that will improve drought tolerance in the long term are soil quality and garden design.

  • Add compost at the start and/or end of each growing season. It’s an excellent source of organic matter - the more organic matter your soil contains, the better it will be at retaining water. You can also try mixing other absorbent organics into the soil, such as peat moss or coconut coir.
  • When setting up a new garden, consider planting in raised beds. They retain water more effectively than open soil, and when starting from scratch it’s easy to make the beds self-watering (there are many online tutorials that provide construction details).
  • Whether you plant in raised beds or open soil, think about placement: is there a way to provide partial afternoon shade? Also think about plant choice: select drought resistant plants as well as perennials that will develop deeper, hardier root systems. 
Here’s to summers with less watering and more fun, and to gardens that can take whatever weather each month throws at them.