Drought Protection on a Budget

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

by John Gleason

As the weather turns warmer,  landscapes are breaking their winter dormancy and waking up to a powerful thirst. Although the current drought has been especially tough on ranchers and farmers, homeowners are to feeling the pinch too. Many are turning to local irrigation contractors, who are scrambling to fulfill an overload of requests for sprinkler system installations and repairs. Used efficiently, automatic watering systems are a powerful tool for dry weather. However, you don’t need a sprinkler system to reduce drought-stress in your landscape. By following these tips you can conserve precious water and save money.

Be Water-Thrifty

Don’t make the mistake of watering too often and not deeply enough. This type of watering causes plants to grow shallow roots that are stressed easily during dry or hot weather. Water less frequently, yet when you do, thoroughly saturate the roots of your plants. Then let the soil dry out again. This encourages a deeper, more substantial root system that tolerates drought better. Rather than watering on a set schedule, keep an eye on your plants, and let them tell you when to water.To saturate your soil without creating lots of runoff, use the “water and soak” method. Runoff is the water that “runs off” your property because it’s being applied faster than your soil can accept it. Most soils in Austin are clay, which admits water only very slowly. Slopes make the problem worse. To get the water deep down into your soil, use repeated short watering cycles, followed by a “soak-in” period. This method may initially be a bit more demanding, but less frequent irrigation overall means you save time, energy, and water in the long-term. Consider using drip irrigation in your beds since this type of system has a slower application rate than spray.

Good Investments

Purchase a moisture meter and soil analysis for your landscape. They will each provide you with valuable information. A moisture meter is tool with a soil probe and a dial which indicates your soil’s wetness or dryness. They cost about $15, and they’re available at many local hardware and garden supply centers. Use it frequently to monitor not only if there is soil moisture present, but if so, at what depth.An analysis of your soil will tell you about it’s texture and chemistry, and will recommend soil amendments that are important to your plants’ health. There are many good soil labs; the least expensive is offered by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, which has an agent in every Texas county. Costs vary from $10 to $30, depending on the level of analysis. Refer to your local Extension agent for instructions and a soil collection bag.

Mind Your Soil

Most soils could use the addition of large amounts of organic matter. A soil enriched with organic material has good water-holding capacity and encourages large, vigorous root systems. A good, cheap source of organic matter is home-made compost. If you’re not already composting, start recycling those kitchen and garden wastes into what organic gardeners call “black gold”.If you’re creating a new landscape area, till in lots of organic material to create a rich loamy soil. For existing areas of your yard, spread a thin layer of compost on your lawn and beds, then water lightly.

Go easy on the chemical fertilizers, especially during extended dry weather. Consider using organic alternatives such as ‘Dillo Dirt and compost. While lawns occasionally need to be fertilized to stay healthy, too much fertilizer means you have to water more. Do not fertilize prior to rainfall! That drizzle that you expected could turn into a thundershower and send the fertilizer into your local creek, pollute the water and harm wildlife. Use the “water and soak” method after you fertilize.


When mowing your lawn, use “Don’t Bag It” principles. By not bagging your grass clippings, you save time and add organic material to your soil. Mowing height and frequency should be set to cut off no more than one-third the height of the grass. Taller grass develops a deeper root system and shades the soil surface.Mulch can be any material applied to the surface of the soil to act as a barrier to retain moisture, insulate the soil, and control weeds. Mulching is the easiest and one of the most effective methods to slow down rainwater and hold it in your landscape. Mulch also keeps the soil surface cooler and reduces heat stress on your plants. Mulch aids in conserving water loss by reducing competition from weeds for available moisture. Organic mulch also enriches your soil as it decomposes.

With a little research, you may be able to locate a free source of mulch. Check with your neighbors or a local landscape contractor for bags of grass clippings and leaves. Some municipalities and homeowner associations offer the shredded wood leftover from land clearing.

Do the Math

Drought-tolerant landscaping conserves water, saves you money, and protects the environment . To learn more about these and other drought protection techniques, check with local landscape professionals and consider joining Austin’s Xeriscape Garden Club. Xeriscape is “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” Call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505 for more information. When you conserve water, you support a cause with community-wide dividends. It may seem a big jump to be talking of regional benefits in the same breath as how we landscape our property. But the two are intimately linked through our consumption patterns – and it is only by changing our own lives and habits that we can begin to protect our environment.

At the time this article was written (1996) John Gleason was a landscape architect with the City of Austin and was president of the Xeriscape Garden Club.

Posted in Water.