Best Ways to Water During a Drought


Parts of the country suffer from drought all the time and some only periodically. Whichever part of the country you’re in, it helps to understand the best ways to water during a drought. This article will help homeowners establish landscape priorities and offer effective tips for water use.

Watering restrictions

Many counties or cities have landscape watering restrictions during droughts. Many alternate watering by even-numbered and odd-numbered addresses. Some areas may ban watering the lawn altogether. Others may set requirements to reduce your water usage by a certain percentage. In all cases, gardeners realize these conditions pit plants in the landscape vs. showers and clean laundry.

How much should you water?

Plants need 1 inch of water a week. You can measure than by placing empty cans in the landscape, turning on the irrigation system and stopping it when 1 inch of water accumulates in the cans. Place several cans throughout the area being watered to make sure it is being distributed evenly.

One inch of water is roughly .6 gallons of water per square foot. Consider whatever rainfall may occur during the week when calculating how much to water. Divide by two if watering twice a week. Watering less frequently but deeply helps plants establish deeper roots as they seek out water. More frequent, lighter watering encourages the roots to stay close to the surface.

Your soil type also affects how much you water. Clay soil tends to hold water, while sandy soil tends to drain quickly. Adding compost or other organic matter improves clay or sandy soils – helping clay soil drain better and helping sandy soil retain water.

Pro tip: If water starts to run off, stop and allow it to soak into the soil and then resume.

When should you water?

Avoid overhead watering during the sunniest, hottest parts of the day. Evaporation reduces the amount of water that gets to the plant’s roots, where it is needed the most. Watering in the early morning is best. 

Consider hand watering flower and vegetable beds and containers. Water the base of plants where the root system is.

Watering priorities

Here are some recommendations for watering landscape plants, in order of importance.

  • Newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials: Taking care of these ensures your investment will survive. Water once or twice a week.
  • Edible plants: Vegetables and fruits require regular watering to be productive. Water once or twice a week. A drip irrigation system is particularly efficient at delivering water to the root areas of plants.
  • Containers: Some, such as hanging baskets, may need to be watered every day. Large containers (in the 12-inch or more wide and deep range), may only need to be watered once a week.  The frequency and amount of water depends on the container’s size, location and what it’s made of. Terracotta dries out faster than plastic pots. Containers in windy or sunny areas may need to be watered more frequently than those in shady spots.

Pro Tip: To determine if a hanging basket needs to be watered, put your hand on the bottom and gently lift. If a basket feels light, it needs to be watered. For containers, tip or move them. If they feel light, water them. Always water until it drains from containers.

  • Annuals in the ground: If not using an irrigation system or drip irrigation, water once or twice a week.
  • Perennials: Established plants (three years or more in the ground) may only need to be watered every couple of weeks. Many established perennials can withstand drought without watering, but their flower power will be diminished. 
  • Native plants, including shrubs, trees and perennials, usually are well adapted to environmental challenges, and many are drought-tolerant. Water newly planted perennials at least once a week until established.
  • Shrubs: Most established shrubs can withstand drought with just a monthly soaking, more often if they show signs of stress. Signs of stress include leaves turning brown or falling off.
  • Trees: Water weekly if trees have been in the ground three years or less. Water if trees show signs of stress. Well-established trees can be watered monthly. It’s especially important to water trees and shrubs as they go into winter.

Pro Tip: Evergreens, including conifers, rhododendrons and hollies, should be well watered as fall turns to winter. These plants keep their leaves or needles during winter, exposing them to drying winds. Ensuring they are well hydrated reduces winter damage. 

Water-saving tips

Mulching gardens with shredded bark, chopped leaves, clippings from an untreated lawn or other organic matter reduces water loss from the soil. Some ground covers, such as sedums, have low water needs and they shade the soil, reducing the loss of moisture from the soil.

Install water-efficient landscaping, including drought-tolerant plants. Many native plants, including perennials, trees and shrubs, have low water needs and do well.

Stay on top of timing for irrigation systems and their emitters, soaker hoses, sprinkler heads and other water resources.

Be sure water isn’t wasted by over-spraying to the street, sidewalk or driveway. Adjust sprinkler heads accordingly.

What about the lawn?

Your lawn can go a month or six weeks before lack of water kills it. We don’t recommend this, however, as it stresses the lawn. Without water, the grass will go dormant and maybe brown out. But once hit with water, the lawn will likely green up again. Mowing should be paused when grass is dormant until the turf starts growing again.

Lawn Love has an excellent, comprehensive guide to watering your lawn.


Q. Can I use gray water – reused water from laundry or bathing – on plants?

Yes, gardeners use gray water all the time in areas where there are regular water restrictions. But because gray water can contain contaminants, you shouldn’t use it on edible plants. Check with your state to see if the use of gray water in your landscape is allowed.

Q. Should I fertilize during a drought? 

Generally not. Fertilizers can actually burn a drought-stressed lawn or plants. Wait until the temperatures become cooler.

Find a Pro

Still not sure how to tackle your gardening and lawn care during dry periods? Consider consulting a Lawn Love lawn care professional.

Main photo credit: Romaniuk Kateryna | Shutterstock

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. (She speaks at libraries, garden clubs, public gardens, home and garden shows, Master Gardener groups, and horticulture industry events.) Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at