9 Ways to Get Your Garden Through Summer Drought
Hot summers are challenging in the garden, especially when rain clouds are nowhere in sight. Gardening expert Kaleigh Brillon is no stranger to hot and dry conditions. In this article, she gives nine ways to help your garden combat drought.
Late summer is tough for people and plants. The temperatures are too hot, and it seems like nobody can get enough water. If you haven’t abandoned gardening to cool down in the nearest body of water, you’re probably as stressed as your plants are. Helping your garden through summer drought is a challenge.
Though it may seem like you’re losing an uphill battle, there are many things you can do to get through the last heatwave. A lot of strategy and maybe a little sacrificing is all you need to make it to fall.
Let’s look at what you can do to help your thirsty plants stay cool. Don’t forget to keep yourself hydrated, too!
Don’t Water During the Day
The “survival mode” days of late summer require you to conserve resources. Watering during the middle of the day is wasteful because the sun can evaporate the moisture quickly, making the water you provide inaccessible to the garden.
The best time to water is early morning, ideally before sunrise. It’ll be a cooler time to be outside, but it’s great for the plants because the water can seep into the soil without evaporating. It will also give leaves some time to dry off to prevent the spread of fungal diseases.
The second best time to water is in the evening. You may think it would be the better time since plants will have the entire night to soak up water, but it’s not a good plan if you let the leaves get wet. Wet leaves all night will result in fungal diseases that could wipe out your garden if it gets out of control.
If watering during the day is your only option, use a drip irrigation system or a soaker hose to water slowly. The water won’t touch foliage, which will reduce and prevent diseases and keep leaves from burning.
The slow release of these hoses will give your plants a deep drink, which will help them grow deeper root systems and stay hydrated, both crucial to help the garden through drought.
Know How Much Water You Need
Know the water requirements of your current garden lineup. Some plants need more water than others in general, but a plant will need more water in the flowering and fruiting stages. For example, okra is drought-tolerant and can be pretty forgiving of dry conditions, but you’ll need to increase it to one inch of water per week once it starts flowering.
Fruits and vegetables with deep root systems are an exception to this rule. Plants like tomatoes and squash are deeply rooted in the ground, pulling in water from deeper than the rest of the garden. Because of this, you can give them a deep soak then let them dry out completely, allowing you to save water for shallow-rooted plants that need to be watered more often.
You can stop watering root vegetables like onions and potatoes starting two or three weeks before it’s time to harvest. Letting the plants dry out will prepare them for long-term storage, prevent them from becoming mushy, and free up some water usage in the garden.
Plants with shallow root systems typically need about one inch of water per week, especially during late summer. Take advantage of drought-tolerant plants and let them dry out a bit so you can focus on keeping greens, corn, and Brassicas moist.
Reduce the number of container plants in late summer. They dry out almost daily, and you’ll need to water them as much as possible, especially if you have moisture-loving plants.
Utilize Companion Planting
Companion planting provides so many benefits in the garden. Gardeners usually use this method to help increase crop production, but you can use it to your advantage when helping your garden through drought.
Since water can be an issue this time of year, consider that as you plan your upcoming crops. (And think about it for next year’s garden, too.) Plant “like-minded” plants on the same irrigation system to make watering easier. Greens and tomatoes like a lot of water, so they’ll benefit from the same watering schedule.
Height is another aspect to think about. Pair tall, sun-loving plants with shorter plants that need shade, like corn and greens. The tall ones will benefit from the sunlight, while the smaller ones will get a break from the late summer heat.
Plant Drought-Resistant Crops
This tip works best with a bit of hindsight, but you can always move forward with this knowledge. If late summer is coming up dry, look for drought-tolerant varieties of your favorite fall crops.
Seedlings will still need plenty of water, but they’ll quickly get accustomed to any lingering drought conditions as the season changes to fall. Many of these plants are also great for attracting pollinators to the late-summer garden.
If you live in an area where late summer is always brutal, plan for next year and choose as many drought-tolerant varieties as possible. Watering your garden will be easier throughout the whole season, but plants will already be acclimated to dry conditions by the time you really need forgiving plants.
Mix Compost Into the Soil
One of the best things you can do for your soil is mix in some compost or other organic matter. Doing so will help the soil retain more water, which enables you to water less often.
New soil is usually well-equipped to hold water, so save your compost for areas with older, dry soil that could use some rejuvenation. Adding compost to the soil will prevent excess water from puddling.
While this may sound counterintuitive, too much water all at once can stress plants out and even cause root rot, which could result in dead plants.
If you live in an area that lives up to the saying, “When it rains, it pours,” you should add compost to your soil to help your garden through drought.
Be Generous with Mulch
Once your plants are settled into compost-rich soil, top them off with mulch—and lots of it! In severe drought, spreading mulch can be the main factor in helping your garden retain as much water as possible.
Water won’t be able to evaporate as quickly because of the thick layer of mulch, so the ground will stay moist. A thick layer of mulch will also keep the ground shaded, making plants less thirsty.
Like humans, plants need more water in hot and dry conditions. If roots are protected by shade, they won’t need to absorb as much water to stay hydrated.
Keep mulch on your garden beds all year round, whether there’s a drought or not. In times of plentiful rain, mulch can help reduce your watering and help you save time and money, while in times of drought, it will help you conserve limited resources.
Lightweight mulches like hay must be in thick layers up to four inches, while heavier mulches like wood chips can be in thinner layers. During droughts, you’ll want at least 2 inches of mulch to ensure it provides enough cover for the plants. Avoid letting mulch touch the base of plants and lower leaves, as too much moisture can cause fungal diseases to spread.
Focus on Perennials
I’m guilty of saying, “Forget it,” when the heat zaps my garden every August, but there comes a time when it’s the best thing you can do to conserve resources. If the endless summer days win the battle, turn your attention to perennials.
Summer annuals are winding down and putting off seeds this time of year. If you don’t have enough water, time, or patience to keep deadheading annuals to make them last as long as possible, stop watering them.
Perennials return every year, so you must keep them watered to prevent them from dying. Keep some color in your landscape by keeping those plants alive, especially if you have perennial plants that bloom in the fall.
Annuals are designed to come and go, so if you’ve already enjoyed everything they offer, feel free to say goodbye. You’ll have more resources for the rest of your garden, and you can enjoy more annuals next year.
Cut Back on Fertilizer
Fertilizer is usually a good idea, but when it’s time to conserve resources, give your plants a break. The nutrient boost makes plants grow larger and faster; when a plant is in “grow mode,” it needs more water.
Your plant will need more water and nutrients the larger it gets, so keeping plants small and manageable is ideal when cutting a few corners to finish the summer. Save fertilizer and water for your fall garden rather than the summer plants already on their way out.
Having too much fertilizer and insufficient water is also a risk since synthetic fertilizers can burn roots. When a synthetic fertilizer is overapplied, it can create an excess of salts in the soil. Since there isn’t a lot of water to wash it away, it sits in the soil and can eventually harm plants.
Don’t Use Sprays
If you use fungicides or pesticides in your garden, reduce how much you use in late summer. Better yet, don’t use them during hot weather if you can avoid it. Though they’re helpful against the pests that multiply during this time of year, they cause severe damage.
Since these products are usually sprayed directly on foliage, you risk severe sunscalding. These sprays dry on the leaves but leave a film or residue that can amplify the effects of sunlight. As a result, the hot solar rays can damage your plants. If you live in a hot climate, this will be something you need to watch for.
Burning can happen with anything on plant leaves, including organic solutions like neem oil or sulfur fungicides. Try to use pest control methods that don’t affect foliage, like removing the pests by hand. You can also plant trap crops and spray those instead of the central plants that you don’t want to burn.
The end of summer is a signal for change—cool weather is on the way! But until it arrives, you must help your garden through the final stretch of hot weather. This can come in many forms, from conserving water to letting some plants die out. It’s all about making smart decisions to use your resources wisely.