Gardening in dry conditions
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Gardening in Dry Conditions

This guide on gardening in dry conditions gives ideas to save water in the garden, preparing soil and established plants for dry weather and planning the garden to maximise success.

In New South Wales we are experiencing one of the worst droughts in history and with global warming making our weather more volatile and less predictable, these extreme weather conditions will become more common. That doesn’t mean we have to stop gardening altogether. We just need to plan our gardens to suit the climate in which we are now living.

Soil Preparation for Drought Conditions

Healthy soil means healthy plants, no matter what your conditions are like. Ensuring your soil has a mix of compost and well rotted manure will help to retain moisture and give your plants the best chance at success – the worms will love you too!

Poor soil will need 10 kg of compost/manure mix per square metre but fertile soils will only need 3 kg per square metre.

Water crystals

Adding water crystals to the soil will help to pull your plants through the dryer periods. The crystals absorb up to 400 times their weight, store then release water to the roots over time which prevents the soil from drying out. They replenish with each watering and can last several years before biodegrading harmlessly.

Planting for Dry Conditions

When gardening in dry conditions choosing the right plants for the right position can be complexing. All gardeners have had their fair share of failures. Sometimes it takes a few years of living at a new place to truly understand the nature of your garden.

Drawing out a plan of your garden then listing the amount of sun each position gets during the day will help in determining what plants will work where. Positions which get the hot westerly afternoon sun will need drought tolerant plants.

Australian natives are perfect for these conditions, but remember to choose the right variety for your area. Local nurseries are a good place to start, especially if there is a forestry nursery nearby. These red gums in the picture below were grown from seed collected from the base of trees in our garden.

Red Gums

Think about planting trees and bushes to give hot areas more shade. 

Cactus and succulent plants can be an interesting focal point for your garden and with so many varieties available, it is easy to become a collector. Aloe Vera is known for its healing properties and is a must for any sustainable garden.

Making a greenhouse will make a big difference to your vegetable garden. Even if you use shade cloth on one side only, it will help to protect plants from the hot afternoon sun and reduce moisture evaporation. You will need cloth with 40% to 60% shade.

Try this top rated 50% shade cloth from Amazon. (Paid link)

Preparing Established Plants for Drought

Water crystals (paid link) can be added to established plants by poking vertical holes around the drip line and adding a few crystals to each hole.
Add well rotted manure around the base of your plants especially fruit and nut trees.

Bark Mulch

Put a thick layer of mulch around the base, at least an inch but more if you
have it. There are many types of mulch available to buy such as sugar cane or wood chips. I have used the leaves and bark from under the gum trees or pine needles from under pine trees – you just have to be careful not to pick up weeds with the mulch.

Loosing Plants

During drought conditions some plants will die no matter how much love you give them. Sometimes you do need to make the decision to pull out an established plant which won’t make it through the dry weather. This can be depressing however it does give you a chance to plant something new which will be better suited to the conditions.

It is always best to wait until autumn to plant out natives and other exotic bushes more suited to dry conditions then protect from the frost during the winter. However, you may want to wait until the drought breaks before planting to cut down on water use. In the meantime research and plan for when the rain does fall.

Saving Water in the Garden

Saving that precious water when the sky just won’t give you any is so important. I have had bill shock at the end of a dry summer when the water bill came in several hundred dollars more than expected. Running the pump for a bore isn’t cheap either unless you have a solar pump.

Water Tank

Every home whether in the city or the country should have its own water tank (paid link) and now they come in so many different designs that are both stylish and fit small areas. A water pump can be easily set up which will give the pressure needed to run sprinklers.

Watering at the start or end of the day is better for the plants as they get more water before it evaporates.

Have you ever forgotten when you last moved the sprinkler around? Put your sprinklers on timers or set a timer for yourself to reduce the risk of overwatering.

It is best to water lawns as early in the morning as possible.  A deep watering (1 inch deep) twice a week rather than a little daily will develop a better root system and make your lawn more drought resistant.

Install a grey water system (paid link). There are natural systems available which use plants to filter the water. These enable you to reuse some of your household waste water, preventing it from uselessly going down the drain. Grey water is great for lawns, but it can’t be used on native gardens. Only treated grey water can be used for fruit and vegetables.

Feel the leaves of your plants. If they feel cool, they will not need to be watered.


One of the few benefits of dry weather is it presents a good chance to get on top of any weed problems.  This is a good time to put down weed matting to suppress weeds that germinate when it does finally rain.  Add a thick layer of mulch.

Gardening in the drought is possible and rewarding. With thoughtful planning and a little hard work your garden can pull through droughts and be a success.

Try this water saving sprinkler from Amazon. (Paid link)

To print or save this guide on gardening in dry conditions, here is the PDF Version

Are you considering planting fruit or nut trees in an arid climate?  See this guide on planting an almond tree.

Try this category on Australian Natives for plants that will tolerate a harsh dry climate. You might also like these guides to taking Rosemary Cuttings or Growing Tomatoes in a Shade House.

Are you interested in growing and preserving food or saving money at home? Try this free Homesteading guide.

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