seedling.jpg ‘Tis the season for droughts. Depending on which part of the country you live in, you may be trying to care for your garden with reduced or completely restricted water supplies. It’s probably at this point you’re cursing yourself for starting a garden, cursing the sky for not raining and considering saying “screw it” and setting your backyard ablaze before the August sun can. But fear not, there are ways to make the most of a garden during a drought, be it planning a less water intensive garden for next year, setting up a clever irrigation system that requires less water or applying general water conservation guidelines.

General principles for water conservation

The best tool in your anti-drought toolbox is to keep water conservation in mind at all times. The University of California gives some great tips:

Figure out what NEEDS water

If you have a limited water supply, the sad fact is you’re going to have to figure out what plants are the highest priority and which can wither a bit (or a lot). Your highest priority is any young trees that need the water. In a severe drought, larger trees may need water if they begin to wilt. These are harder to replace, so require first priority. In the medium range is turf that’s less than one year old, perennials, fruit and nut trees and small fruits and vegetables. Lowest priority is your annuals and established turf. These will go dormant and come back, so they can take water breaks.

Water early

If you can spare the water, irrigate early in the day. It tends to be less windy (so your water goes where it needs to), and there will be less evaporation since it is usually cooler at the beginning of the day.

Get to know your soil

If you understand your soil, you’ll know when to water. For instance, clay soil holds more water and can be watered less often than sandier soils.

Mulch is your friend

Put down two to four inches of mulch around plants. This will keep weeds down (which suck up precious water), insulate soil moisture and help keep soil temperatures down. Keeping mulch three to four inches away from a plant’s stem or trunk also prevents rot.

Control weeds

Make sure to keep weeds at bay. Again, these nasty buggers will steal water and nutrients from the plants you actually want around.

Add organic matter

Adding compost to your garden will help your garden hold onto water during dry spells and drain during wet periods.

Stay away from the fertilizer

This will make your plants grow like crazy, meaning it’s that much more water they need. During a drought, it’s important to keep your plants on the conservative end. And yet, those are some great general principles, but they don’t help navigate certain levels of drought. Depending on how severe the drought is you’ll need to keep certain activities in mind.

What to do in certain drought conditions

In general, you’ll be dealing with three states of drought conditions: no water restrictions, watering restrictions and no watering allowed. Colorado State University gives some good advice: If you currently aren’t under any watering restrictions, focus on the basics of water conservation regardless. Add your organic matter, practice good irrigation (more on that below) and check your soil before watering to avoid over-watering. If your soil sticks together when you squeeze it in your hand, it doesn’t need water. Yet letting your soil get too dry decreases efficiency, because it will affect crop yields, so make sure to check the soil regularly. If water restrictions are in place, good garden maintenance should prevent those restrictions from having an impact on your garden. For instance, if you can only water every two to three days, a properly mulched garden with solid organic matter in it should be able to last that long between irrigation. If you know you’re dealing with dry conditions each year, also try to reduce planting vegetables that need lots of water, like sweet corn. Also, try to only plant what you need. If you’re in a complete H2O shutdown, you’re left with little choice than to let the plants fend for themselves. You can try watering with rain harvested from rain barrels, but the drought conditions will make that difficult. If you’re in an area where complete water restrictions are common, try planting small indoor container gardens instead. Sometimes a drought can get so severe the only thing you can do is plan a better garden for the following year. Luckily, there are a few options that can give your garden a better fighting chance next year.

Plant a block garden

Block gardens are a good option for reducing water intake. First of all, it’s what it sounds like: planting gardens in a grid pattern with equal distance between plants (often only a few inches). The idea is to reduce the amount of weeds because of the closed, compact design. The design can also increase yields several times over row gardening, meaning your getting the most crops for the space. You can also group different plants together that need similar amounts of water, making irrigation easier and more efficient. For a guide on building a block garden, go here.

Get smart about your irrigation

A good method to look into for irrigation is drip or trickle irrigation. This system applies water slowly so that it’s used more efficiently. Applying the water slowly will reduce runoff, and the water will be delivered to just the area it needs to be (rather than something with a more broad range like a sprinkler). You can find a system like this at local home stores, where they sell holed tubes. Or you can go as fancy as self-cleaning emitters. You can even make your own with the instructions found here.

Plant the right crops

When you plan your garden, keep the drought season in mind. If you can, try to plant vegetables in the spring before the summer heat. Plant vegetables that thrive in cooler spring weather and are short season growers. Plants like spinach, peas, broccoli, rhubarb and asparagus all fit the bill. Ask around at your local garden center for some other ideas. Also make sure to go for plants that can survive with less water. Go here for a long list of drought resistant general plants and here for low-water vegetables. Again, don’t be afraid to ask around at gardening centers for plants that are well suited to your climate and water needs.