For the first 25 or so years that I was a gardener in Santa Barbara, I learned how to grow flowers, vegetables, container plants, vines, dahlias, and groundcovers, and, well, I kept rather fit pushing a lawn mower through yards and yards of Bermuda, Kikuyu, and annual rye grass lawns.
But during these recent drought-y years, I’ve become fluent in Meter Reader-ese, and spend much of my time stingily doling out not enough water to thirsty and stressed-out trees and shrubs. I’m like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, deciding not whether to sacrifice a son or daughter, but rather a ginkgo for a pomegranate tree.
To save you some of my pain, here are some hard-won lessons I’ve learned about surviving a drought in your garden.
1) Don’t Be Shallow: Learn how to use your irrigation timer properly. If beds, lawns, and hedges are still being watered briefly and shallowly three times a week or more — Bad Pup! Less-frequent, thorough waterings will encourage deeper rooting, which can help plants better survive during drought conditions.
2) Location. Location. Location: Put roses, containers, veggies, flowers, and other thirsty plants near your home where you can enjoy them. Use drought-tolerant trees and shrubs farther away and out toward the “back 40” and water more efficiently.
3) Forgiveness: Find out which plants are forgiving of missed watering days and grow those. Let’s review: Gardenias are not forgiving. Water too often or not frequently enough, and they are toast. On the other hand, Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) will come back happily, even after a severe wilt.
4) Get Potted: Plants grown in black plastic nursery containers can be slipped into slightly larger decorative pots to insulate them from the sun. Remember, plants grown directly in terra cotta dry out much faster than those in glazed or plastic containers.
5) Don’t Stress: Cacti, succulents, natives, and drought-tolerant plants are rarely drought tolerant when grown in containers. Their roots should not be allowed to dry out completely, or the plants will become stressed.
6) Shady Business: Ever notice that most nurseries display and grow their tchotchke cacti and succulents under shade cloth or beneath a lath? Yours will also benefit when grown in bright shade or morning sun instead of full, blaring afternoon or all-day sun. Even in the Sonoran Desert, the seedlings of the mighty saguaro cactus only survive and establish themselves when germinated in the shade of a palo verde tree, creosote bush, or other sheltering “nurse plant”.
7) Probed: The best way to know if you’re watering deeply and thoroughly enough is to test with a soil probe. Set a slow sprinkler under a tree or in a bed. Wait a while and use the probe to determine to what depth the water has penetrated the soil. Water. Probe. Repeat.