Surviving the Dry Spells

Follow these tips to get your wildlife garden through a prolonged drought.

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Garden for Wildlife
  • Aug 01, 2019

To cut water use, a Richmond, California, gardener put in this bark-mulch path and native plants such as bright-yellow Grindelia hirsutula.

SNOWSTORMS AND TORRENTIAL RAINS swept across much of the United States in early 2019, but most gardeners know that dry times are rarely far behind. As the climate changes, “it’s often feast or famine today,” says Dennis Patton, a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. “We will have prolonged wet periods, then the faucet will shut off, and it hardly rains for four or five months.” Below are some suggestions for getting your yard—and your wildlife habitat—through these long-lasting dry spells:

Choose drought-tolerant plants. Whether landscaping a new home or replacing existing shrubs and perennials, plant selection is critical. Some natives with deep root systems survive drought better, but even these plants must be watered until they’re well established.

“Hydrozone” your yard. “You need to think about where you put plants,” says Janet Hartin, an environmental horticulture advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. “Whenever possible, place plants with similar water needs together in high, medium, low and very low categories and irrigate them accordingly.”

Water deeply and infrequently. Early morning is best, when the soil holds onto moisture longer. If water restrictions are severe, Patton suggests prioritizing valuable trees and large shrubs. “And make sure you apply water efficiently,” he adds, “right onto the soil surface so there is little to no evaporation.” Avoid overhead sprinklers. Water by hand or use soaker hoses or drip systems.

Harvest the rain. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, diverting a downspout into a barrel to collect rain is a great way to supplement your water supply. To keep children and animals safe—and to prevent mosquitoes from breeding—all barrels should be covered. Make sure state and local laws do not prohibit rain barrels.

Deadhead some flowers. Removing blooms before they set seed saves plants energy and decreases the need for water. But leave at least half of each type of spent flower for wildlife.

• Amend your soil. “Field research shows that increasing organic matter in soil allows it to hold more water,” says Jon Traunfeld, director of the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center. He suggests using compost or shredded leaves.

Apply mulch. “During dry conditions, mulches are really important,” says Traunfeld. “They hold down evaporation, keep soil cooler and help control weeds, which compete with garden plants for water.” Leaves, grass clippings and pine needles are best, though rocks or wood chips also work. Traunfeld suggests spreading a 2- to 3-inch layer, keeping mulch at least 1 foot away from tree trunks to prevent disease. Mulching, he adds, is one of the most crucial steps you can take to save plants caught in a drought.

Doreen Cubie wrote about native turf-grass alternatives in the April–May 2019 issue.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Corralling the Rain »
A Farewell to Lawns »
Garden for Wildlife: Soil and Water Conservation »
When Water Is Gone »

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