12 tips for surviving a drought in the garden


The news that many British water authorities are imposing hosepipe bans this April will fill gardeners’ hearts with despair. However, there are still many things that garden-lovers can do to give their gardens tender love and care during dry spells. Follow the tips below – I’ve tried to put them in alphabetical order – and there should be no need to abandon your garden during a drought!

1. Accuracy

When watering, concentrate on the area of the soil above the roots as this is the area of the plant which needs water the most.

2. Bathwater

When you have a bath during a drought, don’t let the bathwater go down the plug. Scoop it out of the bath with a bucket and use it for watering plants. ‘Grey’ water like bathwater, washing-up water and washing-machine water should be used within 24 hours to stop the spread of bacteria. Don’t use water from toilets and dishwaters and never use grey water on fruit or vegetables.

3. Butts

No ifs and buts: buy a water butt. The reservoir of dreary grey rain water you collect during rainy days will add colour to your garden if a drought hits. And there’s no rule to say you can only set up one water butt so go to town and set up as many as you can near downpipes and sloping shed roofs – anywhere where precious rainwater will collect.

4. Greenhouses

To prevent greenhouses from over-heating during hot droughts it is always a good idea to drape shady netting over the panes of glass. Keeping the temperature down inside the greenhouse will stop water evaporating. Minimise water-use by setting up a butt within the greenhouse; the butt can receive water by being connected to gutters on the outside.

5. Lawns

During dry spells resist the urge to mow your lawn so it is as short as the Wimbledon Centre Court playing surface. Longer blades of grass create more surface-shade and retain more moisture. This makes them better at coping with droughts. Don’t panic if your grass goes brown, lawns are adept at re-generating but do use common sense – save seeding a new lawn until after the rains return. It’s also worth considering investing in a mower which finely shreds and returns clippings to the surface of the lawn, thus retaining even more moisture.

6. Learn from your mistakes

If the worst does come to the worst and plants do die during dry spells then try to find out why this has happened.

Are the plants located near large over-hanging trees which tend to monopolise water in the soil? Does a particular garden spot drain too quickly because it is exposed to wind? Learn from your mistakes.

7. Mulch

Much can be said for mulching the soil. Cover the soil with compost or bark chippings after watering and you will seal the water in. Some wonderfully exotic materials can be used as mulch – including hop manure, cocoa shell, composted sheep’s wool and bracken.

8. Ponds

Pond levels will go down during droughts but you can top them up (use rain water from butts as this is better for pond-life than tap water). Take a look at the surface of the pond: is three-quarters of the surface covered in water lily leaves and other plant growth? If the answer is no then nip to the garden centre and buy some aquatic plants to prevent further evaporation.

9. Pots

While plants in the ground can sink their roots deeper into the soil to seek out elusive moisture, plants in pots can’t. So make sure that your pots are an ample size so they don’t over-heat as quickly. Mix some water-retaining granules in the compost in the pot makes the most of moisture and grouping pots close to each other (for reasons too complicated to explain!) also keeps them hydrated.

10. Plants

Some plants cope with dry soil better than others. Put plants with grey leaves on your garden centre shopping list and you won’t have to worry during drought weather so much. Lavender, santolina and stachys are hardy enough to survive in dry soil while cistus can still thrive in sandy soils. Leafy plants like acanthus and hart’s tongue are also suited to dry shade as they won’t hog water supplies.

11. Quality not quantity

Treat plants too kindly and you will spoil them. If you water a plant too often it won’t grow deep moisture-seeking roots. These roots are invaluable when the rains won’t come. Apply some tough love by watering less frequently (and more thoroughly) and plants will fend for themselves more effectively.

12. Timing

Don’t water during the hottest part of the day as the water might evaporate before the plants can soak up the moisture. Water in the mellow heat of the morning or the evening and you will be kinder to your plants.

And finally… don’t forget to tap into the well of expert knowledge that is out there. British gardeners have survived droughts before and we’ll survive them again – happy gardening!

James Christie writes for UK business directory Thomson Local. Thomson is a great resource if you are looking for gardening services.

[Photo by Johanees Gilger]


  1. nadine sellers on April 2, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    as you wrote this great article, i was laying old bricks around my vegetable beds, they do keep the soil moist underneath.

    having gardened in the far desert, i can share these tips with you.
    lay newspapers on walkways, soak well, add one inch of grass clippings or other mulch and step on it to tamp it down.

    plant tall foliage near precious perennials to provide shading.
    water plants individually as per need, not the whole garden.
    and most of all deep water early in season, then let plants shade their roots..

  2. Mrs Green on April 3, 2012 at 7:53 am

    @nadine sellers: Ah, you are the perfect person to advise, having lived in these conditions. In England we usually have extensive rain then nothing and after 2 weeks of nothing we’re claiming drought situation. It makes me think back to when I was in Egypt – 1 river, 1 rainstorm per year and never any concerns about lack of water 😉 Thanks for sharing your tips – the newspaper is a great one for reuse too 😉

  3. Zoe @ecothrifty on April 23, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Great tips! I like the point about pond plants helping to stop evaporation.