How to Water Your Yard During a Drought

If you step on a patch of grass and it springs back, it doesn't need watering. Christian Delbert/Shutterstock

Lawn? Trees? Shrubs? The bearded iris your grandmother gave you? How do you prioritize what to water in a drought?

That can be a tough question to answer, especially if your city or state government has imposed strict rules about the days and hours you can water and those regulations don't provide enough time to water everything that needs a good, long drink. For many people, it's a question that doesn't have a simple answer. For others, such as those who live in a community where a homeowner's association (HOA) makes rules about watering and other landscape maintenance, the HOA may answer the question for you but in a way you may not like.

If you're not bound by an HOA, prioritizing what you water "is going to depend on who you are, what's important to you and the idiosyncrasies of your landscape," said Ellen Bauske, who coordinates national and statewide urban programs in water and other issues for the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture. Bauske also worked with a committee of UGA experts and professional landscapers to develop the WaterSense Water Budget Tool for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On the other hand, Bauske said, an HOA could require homeowners to keep their grass green even in a severe drought, which might not leave time or wiggle room in a household budget for the increased cost of watering other parts of the landscape.

To help homeowners make decisions about how to prioritize what to water during a drought, Bauske offered some general guidelines about making those choices. And, to ease the pain of prioritizing, she even offered a few ideas about selecting drought-tolerant plants.

First things first

row of homes
Some HOAs have rules requiring specific types of grass, which can be problematic if the grass isn't native to your state. karamysh/Shutterstock

Before you can even begin prioritizing what to water, you need to know if your state or municipality has declared that your area is in a drought, their system for designating the severity of a drought, whether there are different watering restrictions for varying drought levels and what those restrictions are. As an example, outdoor watering restrictions can vary from a simple public education campaign to a limit on the hours homeowners can water. Sometimes homeowners with addresses ending in odd numbers can water on certain days during set hours and those with street numbers ending in an even number can only water during specified days. Outdoor watering may be limited to food crops or newly installed plants. Be familiar with the rules in your area. Your local extension office may be able to provide this information.

If you belong to a HOA, be aware that it might have requirements that do the prioritizing for you. Your HOA may require you to keep your lawn green regardless of drought levels declared by state or local governments. "HOA requirements are often not very considerate of ecological realities," said Bauske. "Sometimes the state can restrict lawn watering but the HOA may have covenants that require that the grass has to be green." That would negate a strategy, for instance, of letting a fescue lawn go dormant and brown during a summer drought and reseeding it in the fall. Bauske said she's also aware of HOAs that require a specific percent of the yard be in lawn. "That's OK when the trees are young, but when the trees are mature, there's not enough sun for 70 percent of the lawn to be in grass," she said.

Fighting HOA requirements usually doesn't end well for homeowners. "Generally speaking, if you fight your HOA you will not win," advised Bauske. "The law favors them because you agreed to those covenants when you purchased your home. There's some quite famously egregious cases where people lost their homes to the HOA for relatively tiny fines. The key there is to pay the fine and then get involved in the HOA and work towards changing what needs to be changed."

Prioritizing guidelines

large tree in back yard
It's important to water mature trees because even if you can replace one, it will take decades to grow back to a similar height. Artazum/Shutterstock

Assuming you do have a choice to set your own priorities, Bauske advised ranking them this way: trees, topography and then what she calls your loved ones — the plants that mean the most to you for whatever reason — while acknowledging other people might have a different ranking.

She put trees first for several reasons: A mature tree may be impossible to replace in your lifetime, it adds aesthetic and real value to your home if you ever sell your home and the shade from its canopy can reduce cooling costs during the warm seasons.

By topography, she means that if you have a steep hill that's got good vegetation on it, you want to keep that vegetation alive and well. "You don't want your soil washing away. Bare soil on a hill is no soil on a hill eventually because of erosion. Water will just carry it on down. If you lose the vegetation on the hill, it will be very hard to establish it again."

"Loved ones" refers to the plants that mean the most to you. That could be because it's a plant has been handed down through family generations, one that is rare in the wild, a hybrid that's particularly hard to find or any number of other reasons.

Lawns can also fall into a category of a portion of your landscape that's important to you. This may be especially true for families with small children. "If you've got children, grass is a nice soft place for them to play," said Bauske.

Maintenance tips

succulent plants in pot
Succulents are a great choice because they can withstand longer periods of time without water. asharkyu/Shutterstock

A golden rule in getting plants through droughts is smart plant selection — putting the right plant in the right place. "If you know you live in an area susceptible to droughts, choose succulents for flower pots" advised Bauske. Also, consider using as many native plants as possible. Plants native to your area are conditioned to survive regional weather extremes.

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are another really good idea for smart use of water because they send water directly to the root zones of thirsty plants. Infrequent but deep watering is another beneficial tactic, especially for helping trees survive extreme weather conditions.

Water collection systems such as rain barrels are a way to help reduce the costs of using municipal water on landscapes. The 40 gallon they typically contain may not last very long into a prolonged drought, but they can at lease provide some initial "free" water for your plants.

The bottom line about prioritizing what you water is that nobody can tell you what you should or shouldn't water, said Bauske. Different people have different priorities and different landscapes have different idiosyncrasies. "It's such a personal thing as to what you want to save."

For more information

Bauske worked with a large team to help the EPA to develop a WaterSense program to help irrigation professionals advise homeowners about how to reduce their water consumption, save money, and maintain a healthy and beautiful landscape by maximizing the efficiency of their irrigation system.