Some gardeners, especially beginners, often feel tethered to their garden by the watering hose. Not only are you creating more of a chore for yourself, your plants aren’t benefiting from an occasional drought stress, which would help them learn to adapt to occasional dry conditions. Though they are usually dependent on the gardener during establishment, plants have an ability to become more self-sufficient with a few easy approaches. Best of all: A self-sufficient garden requires less water – even in times of drought – allowing you to focus on water-conservation practices.

Self sufficient watering

Give additional water to a new plant to get it off to a good start at becoming self-sufficient.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning


Provide additional nutrients during plant establishment to help develop a strong root system.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Mulch around tree

Leave the ground around the base of a tree mulch-free to avoid harboring disease.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

First of all, keep in mind that it takes a tree or shrub about 18 months to establish itself. During that time, you’ll need to help the plant by providing additional watering and nutrients so that it’ll establish a strong root system. While it may seem like a good bit of work in the beginning, the reward of a self-sufficient plant will be well-worth the effort. You can get off to a good start by placing a layer of mulch around the base of your new plant. This helps retain moisture for the plant and reduces weeds.

It’s important to understand one aspect of plant physiology that contributes to drought tolerance: The more you water, the shallower the plant roots will be. The introduction of water at surface level does not encourage the roots of the plant to grow deeper in search of water. The roots just grow happily at the surface, waiting for the next “drink.” Have you ever notice that an irrigated garden looks wilted between waterings? The plants have been “taught” to depend on the irrigation system rather than be self-sufficient by using water sources deeper in the ground.

If you notice your plant is putting out new growth but you can’t seem to keep it watered enough, cut it back to reduce the amount of plant the roots need to support. Don’t worry – it’ll come back (as long as you don’t cut it to the ground). When drought conditions occur, this is especially important. The plant will focus on maintaining the older growth and not put so much effort into new growth. This’ll allow it to recover and take care of the already-established part of the plant.

The healthier the plant, the less water it needs. An overwatered and overfed plant has stunted hair-root growth. Hair-roots are the smaller, water-gathering roots that grow from the main root. When a plant’s overwatered, there’s no need for the hair-roots to seek naturally available water sources. The best chance for a strong plant is good hair-root development so it can gather water from the surrounding soil rather than wilting while it waits to be watered.

Using a slow-release organic fertilizer can produce good plant growth, even at a low rate. Don’t keep feeding a plant when it’s doing well. If you overfertilize, you’ll end up overwatering.

It’s possible to have a lush and beautiful garden without using large amounts of water. By establishing plants with self-sufficiency in mind – along with water-wise gardening practices – you can have a healthy garden that survives and thrives both in good times and in drought times.