Lessons learned while gardening in a drought...

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

The last few years have been trying for most of us that like to garden due to unprecedented drought conditions. As a result, I have been researching and experimenting with some successes which I'd like to share.

I have been practicing rainwater harvesting for a few years now, experimenting with lasagna beds, Hugelkultur beds, practicing mulching to conserve moisture and planting a succulent bed. I feel I am only limited by financial resources not limited by my knowledge or imagination.

I am reluctant to waste water, particularily on flowers so have neglected the flower beds. Some are hanging on and I am always amazed to find some plants that are truly drought tolerant and deliver blooms under these austere conditions.

Most of the flowers that do all right with this neglect have narrow leaves ( resulting in less moisture loss) or have bulbs that retain moisture.

Also Crape Myrtle, Althea and the Pavonia (rock rose in photo) ~ all of which are established.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

water beds

Many wells and springs in this area have been drying up. I value the need for water for our own use first over flowers so I have neglected the flower beds as we are on a well.

Last fall, I dug up the plants that I wanted to save and needed extra care. I potted them up. This spring I built water beds.

Water beds are 2' x 8' framed with one layer of landscape timbers and lined with a heavy plastic. Then, filled with water. In these beds, I have set the potted plants, packing the pots in tightly to prevent further water evaporation. I also chopped up garlic and added to the water which helps prevent mosquitos. The water attracts frogs, toads and birds which also help control mosquitos and other bugs.

I keep large pails of water for my pets and change it daily. I dispose of the old pet water in these beds also. All my cats and dogs also drink from these water beds and I suspect the garlic may also help them by deterring fleas.

I find it takes less water to maintain the moisture levels in these beds and plants.
This is also an excellent way to keep plants when gone for an extended period of time.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Hugelkultur bed
Hugelkultur beds are one of the experiments I've done. I think it will be worthwhile to build more of these beds. I was pleased with the results.

The first bed I built in spring. I dug down to the clay probably 8 inches deep. I added a good bit of rotting hardwood which I saturated with water. Then, filled in the bed with the dirt and compost and mulched with pinestraw. As I live in the woods both rotting wood and pinestraw are plentiful.

I planted seven tomatoes, basil and Malabar spinach in this bed which was 2' x 8'. I only watered it when I fertilized to water the fertilizer in. It never received any other water from me.

The tomatoes grew to four feet tall and delivered a good amount of fruit. They were in full afternoon sun. This photo was taken in May.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

When the temperature climbed too high for the blooms to pollinate, I pulled the plants and dug the roots. I was curious to see how deep they went and found they indeed had reached down to the wood. The wood and the soil around the tomato roots was moist yet I cannot recall the last moisture they received.

This photo was a plant I dug up showing some of the rotting wood firmly attached to the roots.

Success! Odd but I think I am happier about this than all those yummy tomatoes I've been eating...

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Hugelkultur above ground bed

I had some berry plants that needed to go in the ground. It was so dry the ground was too hard to dig so I built a Hugelkultur bed above ground. I soaked the rotting wood in the rain barrel to make sure it was well saturated. The wet wood was the first layer.

Then I mixed and added leaf mold, compost and a cheap sandy potting soil which wasn't good for much else. I did build a landscape timber bed frame but only to keep it from washing away if it ever should rain hard.

There was room for more than the berry plants which were small so I planted Hibiscus roselle, new coneflower plants and an herb ~ Artemisia in the same bed.

This bed is amazing. The hibiscus ~ roselle should demand more moisture but it it has not required water. These plants have not wilted at all. Bright light location and afternoon sun.

Note to myself: build more of these beds!

Talihina, OK

Pod I was very impressed with yor beds .FYI the most drought tolerate plant I have is the sweet Autumn Clematis ,I have one that grows on a neglected fence and it has spred to about 16 feet after being pruned to the ground in the early spring ,,And I see them growing wild here in the forest and they look pretty good ..Our drought is nowhere near as bad as Y'alls but is serious just the same..

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Thanks Grits... more to come but I keep getting timed out by my server ~ sorry to be so slow.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

lasagna beds
Last fall I started building a lasagna bed which is composed of layers of various materials. I used cardboard boxes, newspaper and compost. I also added some water absorbent polymer crystals in the layers as well as fertilizers. The layers did not rot down as well as they should have as it stayed too dry over winter but I found the plant roots still did well but spread out rather than down.

In this bed I planted lots of herbs and vegetables. Peppers, tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, canteloupe, onions, beans, cucumbers, basils, par~cel, dill. Some did better than others but I think that will be corrected if I can find suitable cultivars to deal with this heat/humidity. After planting, I mulched with pinestraw. This bed has required a bit more water but its' needs are still minimal. The bed is only 8' x 10'.

I am still planting fall tomatoes, succession bush beans, harvesting cucumbers and setting out more cucumber plants. When all are done, I plan on adding more layers of lasagna for the next seasons planting.

All in all, I will call this a good experiment that should only get better. Again, this photo was taken at the end of May.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

I have learned (belatedly) not to trellis the tomatoes nor to prune their leaves. It is recommended to let them sprawl on mulch to help keep the ground cooler. It reduces evaporation from ground and leaves.

root pruning and top pruning

I have found on the plants that are potted that they will require less water if not rootbound. An example was a tropical Hibiscus that I couldn't seem to keep hydrated. Right before we went on vacation, I pulled it from the pot and whacked off half the roots. I added fresh soil and watered well. Now the plant rarely demands water more than weekly. A side note, when you root prune, you need to also cut back the foliage accordingly.


When possible, allow morning sun but provide afternoon, evening shade. Buildings and fences are better shade than trees or tall plants which will compete for the inground moisture .

rain barrels

I actually wish for a better set up. Right now all I am collecting is what runs off from the gutter into two different rain barrels. It is amazing how a small shower will fill one of these barrels quickly. Even more amazing how a few days of watering plants will deplete the water stash.

I only dip from the barrel with a watering can. I keep a fiberglass screen held down by an inverted plastic bread tray to prevent mosquitoes from hatching and kittens from falling in the barrels.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

succulent bed

I wanted to build a bed under the eaves of the GH which is protected and wouldn't receive much rain.

As I didn't want to have to water a lot and I have always had a passion for succulent plants, I decided they would be perfect in this location.

These conditions seem to be well suited to these plants.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Nothing is lush but I am still in a learning curve until I learn to make it rain. LOL

Most of our state has been experiencing severe drought conditions so I know many of us have been struggling.

Please tell us what plants you find are most drought tolerant?

How are you managing to conserve water in the garden and flower beds?

Please share your thoughts and ideas. I would like to hear what you have been doing to survive the drought and what has (or hasn't) worked for you.

Irving, TX(Zone 8a)

thanks so much for all of this amazing information.
I'm really impressed !

Gainesville, TX

Impressed, I am. Thanks for the info.

I live in an oak forest in pure sand, worthless soil.....I buy pine needles when I can find them, they don't go far. Free for the hauling bio sludge compost from the city of Ardmore, Ok 45 miles away. I mix it in by hand with the sorry sand. Sure makes the crepe myrtle bloom pretty. We have had a beautiful tomato crop even with the drought and heat. I water them with soaker hose attached to the well. I did not know that they would not set fruit in extreme heat....thanks for info....I still have plenty of blooms but I guess them the fruiting is over?

This year we had the harshest winter we have had in years.......and the severe drought and 100 + temps since mid-may

We have 3 wells on property can get ground water at 30 ft, so it's reasonable to drill .....I Irrigate from the 4 ponds and when the ponds get low we run the wells to refill them. The water from the ponds is much more nutritious than from the wells. The house is on rural city water . Great water but way to expensive to use in the yard areas. The 40+ crepe we dug and moved from Irving is my pride this time of year. It gets very little water, as it is in an un irrigated area between the house and guest house. It seems to love the old sand , but I top dressed it with about 6 in of compost this spring...edited to say the crepes have been in this location for 20 years, but were over 20 years old when we moved them

This message was edited Jul 12, 2011 9:17 AM

Gainesville, TX

The Althea are taking the heat well this year....I feed them with banana peels...They seem however, to be the favorite feast for the grasshoppers which love the heat and drought

Arlington, TX

I tried straw bale gardening last year and it did not work!. Needed lots of water and when the plants got large they fell out of the bales.
My one lasgna bed has worked pretty well but I find it still needs water.

Question about the rotting wood bed. Could you use hardwood mulch? Also for perennial beds what happens when the lower levels break down? I can see how this would work for vegetables better than flowers.

I really like the idea of not trellising the tomatoes though for me I am not sure I have the room in my suberban yard for that.

I have one long narrow bed I would like to redo and am planning on building a few new small vegetable beds. You have given me lots to think about.

Gainesville, TX

The hotter the better for this pass a long plant I received from a friend. It is not artemesia, I don't know the name.

It looks equally great whether mixed with the pale pink of bouncing bet, the red texas salvia, blue west texas mist flower, yellow coreopsis, I can't seem to find any tcolor that it does not complement. Had it mixed in with some tall dark red daily and it was fantastic. It gets a little spindly so I sometimes cut it back by 50%.

Grits.....can Sweet autumn clem be started by seed? or by transplants...........I would sure like to try some in my wild areas here, but I have not seen any for sale anywhere. I am along the red river on the okie side just 80 miles up from Dallas/FT Worth

Josephine, Arlington, TX(Zone 8a)

Excellent experiments Podster, thank you for sharing, it looks like the water bed would be a good solution for potted plants.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Thanks everyone for taking the time to read through this. It is appreciated!

My grass is dead but it will come back. Large hardwood trees are shedding big limbs in an attempt to conserve moisture. It really makes me concerned. Today we heard that our small town is considering mandatory water rationing. We will know next Wednesday.

I read that 15% of Texas provides water for the rest of the state. We are in that 15% percent and now running out of water. This does not bode well.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

NewtonsThirdLaw ~ I've heard mixed reviews on the strawbales so never even tried them. One of the reasons I chose not to was fear of the fireants moving in. I certainly don't want to encourage those buddies!

On the rotting wood, you should be able to use hardwood mulch. I do think it should be rotting as wood in an earlier stage of breaking down will be competing for nitrogen.

Regarding not trellising tomatoes, I think the key would be to grow determinates which stay short in stature. The indeterminates would truly take up real estate.

what happens when the lower levels break down?
I have wondered this too. Haven't gotten to that bridge yet... I think I will try adding it to the bed and add mulch to the top.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Sharondippity ~ if you keep the tomato plants alive thru summer, they will began to set fruit again when night temps cool down. I pulled mine as I wasn't willing to keep them watered if needed but have started a fall crop of seedlings instead.

Soaker hoses is a good way to water. Easier for you and it puts the water right where it is needed. There is far less chance of evaporation. I had considered placing soaker hoses in the lasagna bed under the mulch but got ahead of myself.

You are fortunate to have a good stand of oaks. The leaves should make good compost or mulch for you when you let them break down for a season. I added a lot of leaves to the lasagna bed too.

Your plant does resemble the Artemisia I have. I acquired it from a Mexican lady that sells herbs. She said they use it for stomach troubles and called it Estafiate. Research tells me it has many names white sage, Mexican mugwort and more. Mine has not bloomed yet so I don't know what the blooms look like but perhaps then we can compare. The foliage is delightfully fresh smelling.

A side note, most herbs do excellent in dry conditions. Herbs rate right up there with succulents in my passion. And the pass along plants deserve a spot in the garden for durability don't they!

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Grits ~ I love the Sweet Autumn clematis. It smells exquisite when blooming but I must admit I never think of it till it blooms. And I never do see it for sale although it is considered a passalong plant.

Last month we went through your area when we went to visit family in the north. I love that area but could see the effect of drought there also. In fact, when we came back home, just across the Red River in TX, there were many wooded acres burned for quite a distance. The fire danger makes us nervous living in the woods. So glad they banned fires and fireworks...

Desoto, TX(Zone 8a)

DH kept telling me I would be sorry. The last two years I have expanded the beds till they cover 3/4 of the back yard. Near the house I have bananas and EE's. They seem to do pretty well. The rest is mostly Texas Natives and surprise, surprise....they look like they have had a blow torch to them. Some 3 years back we lost a huge mature tree and it has been downhill since. Afraid of what our water bill will be as we are on Dallas water. Have way too much invested in time and money to just let it all go now.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Oh and it makes one feel sick to see the damaged living plants. Christi ~ it is sad but I have to tell you, your husband was right... this time! LOL

I have a small contained area of English ivy. It resides in a dry and shady area of poor soil. Tonight I noticed the perimeter of the leaves appear to be uniformly burned. It has to be from heat as it has had no chemicals.

Colleyville, TX(Zone 8a)

Very interesting experiments. Never would have thought hardwood mulch at the bottom of the bed would make a difference. In my xeri bed, I have only watered 2x since June. Snakeherb and little bluestem are all doing well. They have a little shade. This blackfoot daisy is in full sun (same bed) and although I have seen it happier, it is still blooming well.

Colleyville, TX(Zone 8a)

I am experimenting with Effective Microorganisms. I apply it to the grass and beds about 2x/month, supposed to do it 1x/week.I have been foliar spraying, but am not sure if I should be applying it just at the base of the plants. It is supposed to protect the roots. So far, the plants are doing well.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Microbal innoculants is something I am not familiar with... I will have to look into that. Thank you.

When you mentioned having seen your Blackfoot Daisy happier, I can appreciate that analogy. I have noted that a plant with adequate hydration will look different than the same type of plant that has had to 'man up' and do without moisture.

If you have ever noticed a rotting log, you will find ferns, mushrooms or other vegetation growing in the log. It is rich in nutrients, porous enough for air and the doughty texture of the wood retains moisture. Other than sunlight, the log is able to supply the necessities of plant life.

The original Hugelkultur bed was built on the surface of the ground and materials built up a la pyramid style. Then, it was planted accordingly by need for moisture, the top planted with the plants that required less moisture and so forth, circling down to the bottom.

Tell me what your Xeriscape bed soil is composed of?

This message was edited Jul 13, 2011 6:39 AM

San Antonio, TX(Zone 8b)

podster, thanks so much for sharing your methods to grow plants to conserve water. In our extreme drought conditions here as an emergency step, I have placed containered plants in a small kid's plastic swimming pool with a small amount of water added to it. I let the swimming pool dry out occasionally so that the plants do not receive too much fertilizer from the potting soil and so the roots don't rot. My daughter gave me some of those large glass watering globes. I use thme in the containered plants that need moisture the most. One in a small container is sufficient. Larger containers require two.

Colleyville, TX(Zone 8a)

I didn't amend the whole bed, only add some compost and expanded shale. Now I would make sure to soak the roots with EM, some molasses and seaweed aswell. There is a new product endorsed by H Garret called Thrive which is supposed to be similar. I know EM has a lot of organisms b/c you can "breed" more. I added some EM, molasses and water in a soda bottle,after about 2 weeks there are so many bubbles ie micro orgs, you would think there really was soda in there! I learned about this on DG...can't remember the forum, but there is so much info, it will take a while to get through it.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Good ideas Htop ~ thank you! The wading pool is the same principal as the water beds. As most of those pots don't have a fast draining soil, yes, I let the beds and potting soil dry out occasionally and that was worth mentioning.

I've never used the watering globes but have read that one should bury large plastic bottles or water jugs in ground when planting. The bottles should have small holes in the sides or bottoms and when refilled with water, will seep around the plant roots.
I suspect the watering globes work on the same principle. I always wondered if they create a vacuum when dripping into the soil. Must not though...

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Bananna18 ~ I agree most of what I have tried was from others' experience or suggestions right here on DG. It has peaked my curiousity and caused me to research futher. As well as others' successes make the choices easier. Thanks!

San Antonio, TX(Zone 8b)

I also use milk jugs and 2 and 3 liter soda bottles with small holes in them placed by plants that require high moisture like my angel trumpets. I fill several 5 gallon paint buckets with water and then turn my hose off. Then, I push the bottles into to the buckets to fill them. I use the paint buckets to fill a large pitcher and gallon milk jugs to use when watering the plants in my beds that require more water than the other plants. I have mulched the top of the soil layer in all large containers and containers that I'm able to do so. Around the roses and other plants that are fungus and/or root rot prone, I use finely chopped cypress bark mulch to prevent fungus growth. In other containers, I pre-soak sphagnum moss (the kind used to fill in around the bottom of floral arrangements) and pack it down tightly. It works very well because it retains moisture for a considerable period of time (looks attractive too!); however, it is very expensive. I also use it around plants that require high moisture in my beds. It dries out very slowly. As it decomposes, it adds a lot of nutrients to the soil.

Talihina, OK

Pod way back in the day when I was just a small child my mother would stake half of her tomatos and let the other half lay on the ground .She said if we had a wet summer the staked ones would still do good and the ground ones would rot and if was a dry summer the the opisite would be the result..now here some 60 years later I see what she meant..Sweet Autumn is just a mainstay in my garden a lady that lives just down the street from me was giving puppies away and I remaked that I would only take one if it came with a start of her SAC so the next week here comes her grand son lugging this huge plant that was almost as big as he was...As to where can you buy them I know for sure that Blooming bulb. com has them And yes they can be started from seed since I see them growing out in the forest ...i seperate mine every few years an d get new starts but will not have any to seperate this year ..

Grand Saline, TX(Zone 7b)

Great thread, Podster. I love the way you think and always enjoy your observations!

Observation is one of the biggest tools to use for water conservation. Knowing what can take drought and combining plants in beds with the same moisture requirements makes an enormous difference. I like to seed annuals that can provide shade to the roots of established perennials. I do not water annuals, I might, if looks like rain will keep alive longer and shade roots. But at some point it's best to leave the perennial to survive on it's own..they can do it.

Now days, I work on establishing one bed at a time. That way I can concentrate water in one bed at a time. After three years, a perennial plant should be able to handle a normal summer on it's own. It won't bloom it's head off or grow much..and sometimes they go completely dormant..but they generally do survive.

I'm excited and working on Hugelkultur beds this winter. I'm not certain, but I thought mulch was not recommended because of the surface area. A log had less surface area then all the smaller pieces of mulch..less nitrogen draw. We have large piles or hardwood dumped here when we can. It takes about two years of breaking down before those pile will support weed growth. But they usually don't have soil on top of them either, so I don't know.

Anna, I love EMs! Have doing lots of on-line research in harvesting wild local EMs. If you ever get sick of buying it, let me know and I'll send you some links. Another experiment I want to try this year is fermenting my grass clippings to use in the Hugelkultur beds....just need the grass to grow first! lol

Colleyville, TX(Zone 8a)

YES! It is expensive and I know there is a way to make it from "scratch" Would love to know!!!

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

HTop ~ I have used the sphagnum moss in potted plants but yes, it is too expensive for me to use. I am glad pine straw is available here for a bed mulch.

Filling the large buckets with water like you do is good as you will be watering with moderate water rather than cold. I do that with the potted tender plants I keep. I have way too many of them. I have offered them for postage on DG in the past with great success and when I was done shipping, I couldn't even see the dent. I intend to dispose of more extra plants and cuttings before fall but hate to ship in this heat. I guess shipping them will be water savvy too ~ lol

This message was edited Jul 13, 2011 9:30 PM

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Grits ~ I like your Mothers' logic. I may consider that next season. Right now, I am fighting damping off. I have started fall tomatoes and lost a few. I know (and forget) to add hydrogen peroxide when I water. Didn't need to with the spring tomatoes. How soon I forget.

I know you like the Sweet Autumn Clematis, but how'd the pup turn out? LOL
I'm going to build more Hugelkultur beds before I pick up more plants but will definitely add SAC to the list. I am still digging and potting up plants that are in ground and suffering. May need to build a third water bed or take the wading pool away from my doggers.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Cocoa ~ I am glad you found this thread! You always have valid experience to offer. I suspect I need to treat the vegetable beds as you said you do the annuals by planting more thickly to provide shade for the roots of the plants. In fact I tend to underplant all the beds and need to rethink that.

I am still in the learning stages on Hugelkulturing and really don't know about the mulch but it was so windy in springtime that I was anticipating the soil drying out too quickly. I really hadn't found mention of mulch, pro or con in regards to these beds. I'll have to search. It will be interesting to see what your successes/failures will be on this endeavor.

I do agree with Bananna on the EM links, if you don't mind sharing. I hope to always absorb a little more knowledge, which DH says can be dangerous. 8 )

Thanks everyone for your input on this timely subject.

San Antonio, TX(Zone 8b)

podster, I wish pine straw was available here.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

That I understand after having lived in AZ.
I understand we learn to make do with what is available (or not).
That is probably where I got my passion for succulents and the
mulch of choice was rock. That was totally foreign to me.

Colleyville, TX(Zone 8a)

I am having a tree cut down in the fall....I think I will ask for the "logs" to try Hugelkulturing.

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