It seems as each year passes, weather patterns get more and more unpredictable. Will it be another dry growing season or not? As gardeners, the best thing we can do is be prepared, and low-volume irrigation is a great way to help your garden survive the dry months.

Drought tolerant garden

A drought-tolerant garden combined with low-volume watering is water-wise heaven!

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Drip emitter in garden

A drip system delivers the right amount of water right where a plant needs it – to the root zone.

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Soaker hose in action

Soaker hoses are a low-tech way to avoid water waste.

Photo Credit: Ernst Benary® Inc.

Thymus In Mass

Thyme serves many purposes: drought-tolerant groundcover, rock garden plant, blooming perennial and culinary herb.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller


Erigeron is a beautiful plant with low water needs that works well as a part of a lawn-alternative plan.

Photo Credit: Ernst Benary® Inc.

What is low-volume irrigation? It simply means applying a smaller amount of water to a uniform depth directly to the plant’s root zone. It’s a win-win situation because it reduces water waste and your water bill at the same time. But to be effective, you have to make sure your soil is holding all the moisture it can – and that means compost, compost, compost!

Rake in 2-3 inches of compost on top of your soil. If you’ve been consistently doing this once or twice a year, you’ll only need to place the compost on top and not rake it in. The microorganisms you nourish in your healthy soil will do the underground work for you. With sandy soil, you’ll lose less water to the subsoil, and with compacted clay soil, water will easily trickle its way to the critical roots and stay for the party.

Once you’ve got compost around your plants, add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch. Try wood chips, shredded bark, grass clippings, stems and leaves, straw or cocoa hulls. Spread the mulch around the plants, but try to keep it a few inches away from the main stem or tree trunk to avoid pests and fungal problems.

Next, take those sprinklers out of your watering regimen. They’re not part of a low-volume watering routine. What you need is the queen bee of irrigation: the drip system. Drip emitters place water directly at a plant’s roots. Studies have shown that a well-designed drip system uses at least 30 percent (and in some cases, 50 percent) less water than other irrigation methods.

A drip system isn’t complicated to install, especially if you liked playing with Tinkertoys® as a kid, but it can be time-consuming if you’re a novice. Just think of it as a fun weekend project, with a little patience and a good shopping list. (The plumbing department at my local hardware store has witnessed me in near meltdown stage, muttering to myself about an attachment valve until a sales associate thankfully has come to my rescue.)

Once you’ve set up your drip system, you may want to add a timer to it. There are straightforward ones you can set up yourself, but if you have a large yard with many different drip lines, it’d behoove you to hire a home landscape irrigation specialist in your area.

Of course, a soaker hose is simpler, less expensive and less time-consuming. The 25- or 50-foot-long hose has pin-size holes in it. Just lay it on the ground by the plants and turn on the hose bib. Each hose costs about $30 and works well on flat surfaces. The hoses are quick and easy to install and maintain – but they don’t save as much water as drip irrigation. No matter which watering method you go with, just be sure to check your equipment periodically for leaks – it’ll save you money (and guilt).

Now, back to those lawns. Think of them like leg warmers: They’re both so 1980s! Sure, grass is a nice idea if you live in New England or Minnesota and have those magical, regular summer rainstorms. But if you’re in the Southwest, California or other dry areas of the US, start taking out part of your lawn and replace the thirsty, needy turf with groundcovers or a native wildflower mix. Not only will this save water, it’ll save on pesticides.

What should you replace your lawn with? Add some low-maintenance perennials. Some drought-tolerant beauties that spread far and wide include yarrow (Achillea), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), fleabane (Erigeron), blue fescue (Festuca), beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) and creeping thyme (Thymus).

As for remaining grass, be sure to water your lawn before sunrise – when the water isn’t evaporating. And fertilize it organically. Synthetic fertilizers have a high salt content, which makes your lawn even thirstier. Just like humans, plants and turf do better on a low-salt diet! And if possible, break up your lawn watering into two intervals, with time between for absorption to prevent runoff.

Now, if you’re thinking of planting a new tree in your garden, consider planting a deciduous species along a south-facing wall. This way the leaves can shade your garden and house in summertime, then in winter, the bare branches will allow the sun’s warmth into your home and yard.

Just remember, trees require deep watering instead of lots of shallow ones. So lay a hose at the drip line of the tree every 2 weeks or so in the hot summer, and let the water soak down to a good depth for roughly 20 minutes. (It’s a good idea to set an alarm to remind you to turn the water off.)

There are lots of simple things we gardeners can do to help our yards get through the long, hot growing season. And even if you live where you get plenty of rain, it’s simply a water-wise way to grow plants – and that’s good for everyone!