Train Your Yard to Defeat Drought. You can do it. Yes, you!

By: Bill Finch

Wouldn’t it be great if you could train your yard to be more resistant to drought?

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Expecting our modern lawns and gardens to weather a drought is like expecting a hopeless couch potato to run a marathon. The way we water our yards has actually created weak and breathless plants that can’t survive under normal conditions, much less when things take a turn toward drought.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to train your lawn and garden to be stronger, healthier, and more fit, so they’re far more likely to win the struggle against the very worst droughts.

Unfortunately, we often do just the opposite, training our lawns and gardens to be lazy and drought-vulnerable.

Automated sprinkler systems are the worst training tools. Because these brainless automated systems have no way of knowing how much moisture is in the soil, they treat your lawns and plants as if they are invalids needing constant intensive care.

Even those of us who don’t have automated sprinkling systems seem to have mindlessly followed their lead – we often water our lawns in the same unhealthy way.

Most of these automated systems are set to come on multiple times a week, and often every day. Of course, that means you’re watering when you don’t need to, when the ground is already wet.

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The constant moisture around the leaves and crowns of the plants often weakens them, and creates ideal conditions for diseases and insects and many serious lawn weeds to thrive. I strongly suspect that frequent and excessive irrigation is the primary reason for increasing outbreaks of fungal diseases and many difficult lawn weeds.

But that’s not the worst of it. When these automated systems come on, they are usually timed to irrigate for minutes, when they should be timed to irrigate for hours. Those who drag hoses and sprinklers around the yard often water on the same short schedule.

Why does that make such a difference? Well, if you only water for minutes, the water doesn’t have time to penetrate very deeply into the soil. If you’re lucky, you might moisten the first half-inch of soil with a 30 minute sprinkle.

Because the water sits so close to the surface, it dries out fast, faster than the plants can use it efficiently.

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Now, try digging an inch or two below the ground, into the soil that hasn’t been moistened. It’s like trying to dig through a brick wall. That’s where your grass roots need to grow to be healthy and protected from drought and heat.

But if you can’t break through that soil by jackhammering it with a shovel, how do you think the roots can penetrate it? They don’t. The deep roots simply wither and die, leaving only the roots in that first half inch of soil, where they are most vulnerable to drought. That means you have to water frequently, even every day, just to keep them alive.

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That’s how you train your plants to be susceptible to drought. Fortunately, training them to be strong and resistant to drought requires less effort, uses much less water, and produces plants and lawns that are even more resistant to disease, insects, and many weeds.

The secret is to water infrequently, but deeply. ALWAYS water so that the ground is wet at least 6 inches deep. You won’t do that in a few minutes. In some soils, it could require watering overnight. It’s easy to figure out if you’ve watered enough. Just take a screwdriver, and plunge it in the ground. It will be very obvious how deep the water had soaked.

Because that deep watering lubricates the soil several inches below ground, roots aren’t strangled by the brick-hard layer of soil beneath, and they can reach deep to grab any moisture that’s available. Just as important, you essentially create a reservoir of water that is protected from evaporation, and reservoir that sits patiently until the plants are ready to use it.

The result is that one deep, long watering will keep your plants happy and healthy not just for days, but for weeks. Because only the roots stay moist, you avoid promoting diseases, insects and weeds that thrive on constant surface moisture.

You’ll know when you need to water again by looking at your plants. If leaves are folded or drooping in the morning, you need to water. Because you’re watering infrequently, you don’t need an expensive irrigation system to keep your garden growing. But if you do have an automated system, all you have to do is use it smartly, turning it off and on when needed, rather than expecting a dumb timer to know when water is needed.

The more you use deep watering to create a healthy growing environment for roots, the more drought resistant your plants will become. 


  • Bill Finch is the Executive Director of the Paint Rock Forest Research Center