Drought Resistant Gardens

I know, I know. If I use the word ‘drought’ one more time in an email or a newsletter, I am going to push people over the edge. I’ve been unrelenting!  But with good reason. I speak to the farmers several times a week, and the updates I have been receiving as the season progresses have not been good. We’ve gone from ‘dams and ponds are at a very low level from minimal snow fall’ in June, to ‘the well has gone dry and we are on town water’ in July. My own garden too is not looking healthy, some plants are holding their own with the dry weather, others might not make it, and I have been taking notes as to which is which. The latest update that came this week, is that the soil is bone dry down to 12” – in other words anything with a shallow root system is going to either go dormant, or die. Like your lawn.

One thing I have noticed, the ant population in my lawn has more than quadrupled this season. I started looking for ‘organic’ ways to get rid of the ants, but soon realized through my research that I would be interrupting nature’s hard work. Those ants, who thrive in hot, dry conditions, were building hundreds of miles of tunnels below ground, and those tunnels help water infiltrate the ground more quickly when it rains. Actually, ants are drought remediation.

The second thing I noticed is that you where the soil in my garden is crumbly in texture, some grains, some small clumps, the plants are faring better. They call this texture aggregate. Crumbly aggregate allows water to travel through the soil more easily, and the soil actually retains water better. Aggregate is closely linked with organic matter. The more organic matter you have in your soil, the better your aggregate is likely to be. Soils that are tilled regularly, or fed with nitrogen based fertilizers instead of organic matter (compost), have their aggregate diminished.

37563348 - hand man holding a gardening tool full with compost for garden

The desired crumbly soil aggregate that retains water best.

To build up better soil, and to build a garden that can weather just about anything, here are some quick tips:

  • Nurture the soil in your garden, feed it compost and manure and AVOID chemical fertilizers (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous), because they have a toxic impact on decomposer organisms and break down good soil aggregate.
  • Use perennial plants and grasses whenever possible. Plants that live longer lives provide better shelter and generally have deeper root systems, which is vital in drawing carbon deeper into the soil and reaching for water when the surface is dry. Deeper roots also keep plants well rooted in high winds.
  • Only use annuals in 10% of your garden for accents, or only use them for temporary cover crops to cover up bare soil (mulches can also be used for this purpose).
  • Use no till methods in your gardens
  • Work towards a biodiverse garden, the more different plant species you have in the garden, the less hard hit your garden will be if you lose a species due to extreme weather one year.
  • Add carbonaceous materials to soils, such as biochar.
  • And of course, create water catchment areas, create basins, gulleys, and swales.
  • Install rain water and grey water catchment systems.


We all know we should reduce lawn spaces in our gardens.  There are more acres under residential garden and lawn, than farmland in the U.S. – think for a moment on the ramifications of that statement.  We hold our farmers to a high standard, but each of us can have just as big an impact.  Lawns create useful spaces for families to enjoy being outside, so, we have included an info graphic of root systems for your information.  The most common lawn grass planted today is Kentucky Blue Grass, featured far left.  See how short the roots are?  It is not a very efficient carbon trapper, nor is it particularly drought resistant.  It is popularly promoted by grass companies who know you will be coming back for seed year after year.  Compare it to the Buffalo Grass on the far right, which is easily mowed, very drought resistant, and excellent at carbon trapping.

Prairie-grass-roots-2-credit-smallChanges like these are subtle, you do not need to sacrifice beauty for hardiness.


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