Can You Garden Without Water? (3 Ways To Make It Work)


Have you ever wished it was possible to have a lush, thriving garden with little maintenance and a low water bill? Surprisingly, this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. 

It is possible to garden without water in certain circumstances – although you may need to supplement occasionally. Choosing native plants that self-sow, selecting optimal soil covering, and finding drought-tolerant plants are great ways to get started. 

The catch? You may experience some losses as you grapple with trial and error in your journey to a water-free garden experience. But once you find the perfect balance, your efforts will be well worth it. 

Can You Garden Without Water?

Gardening without irrigation is a landscaping strategy commonly referred to as Xeriscaping. This method employs various techniques that significantly reduce the need to water your garden.

Golden Barrel Cactus
If you are forced to garden without water, choosing drought tolerant plants (like cacti) is just one way to adjust.

Not many garden experts will recommend scrimping on watering a garden, but sometimes it’s necessary. Some of the reasons people might opt for no-water gardens include:

Living In Drought-Prone Areas: Gardeners who live in drought-prone areas often look for ways to get their outdoor plants to succeed with limited water. Many states in the western United States impose water restrictions during droughts to conserve water, removing the possibility of being able to supplement gardens with the hose. 

oscillating sprinkler
If your town imposes water restrictions, then you might have to change your gardening habits.

Garden Proximity To Water: When you have a large property, finding a practical way to get water to certain areas without spending money on costly equipment can be difficult. A little to no-water garden is an excellent option for those remote areas of your yard that are tricky to water. 

Ability To Maintain A Garden: People who travel frequently or don’t have the time to devote to garden maintenance (but also love plants) might be good candidates for a garden with minimal watering needs. It’s also a potential solution for individuals with disabilities who have difficulty watering plants and cannot obtain assistance maintaining their plants. 

succulent echeveria
Succulents are another good choice for a garden without much water.

Environmentally Conscious: Xeriscaping makes it possible to garden while conserving precious resources like water. It also reduces the need for fossil fuels (like gas for a lawn mower) and eliminates the necessity for synthetic fertilizer. 

With careful planning and research, it is possible to create a garden that requires little to no water. There are several different ways to accomplish this, all of which include the strategic selection of plants and knowing your soil.   

How Can I Garden Without A Water Source?

Although many people familiar with xeriscaping might picture a sparse, stone-filled landscape interspersed with cacti, your options are way more plentiful. Gardeners in various locations maintain full, green gardens that they hardly ever water. 

rosemary plant
Rosemary is a fairly drought-tolerant herb that can also be used in cooking.

Since the climate, terrain, and soil conditions vary for most homeowners, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single method that works best for gardening without a water source. Therefore, you will need to assess your situation and figure out which strategies to employ. 

Here are some of the best ways to build a garden that requires little water: 

Select Drought-Tolerant Plants

One of the most obvious solutions is to select plants that can withstand long periods without water. But even the most drought-tolerant plants need their other living conditions to be just right to survive without much water. 

Eastern Redbud
Eastern Redbud is a drought tolerant tree that might fit into some gardens with low water availability.

If you decide to only garden with drought-tolerant plants, ensure that you’re researching the optimal environment for each one. When picking out plants, you should consider:

  • Moisture Requirements: Even amongst drought-tolerant plants, there are different degrees of water needs. Plants with waxy, thick leaves tend to fare better when water is scarce. Succulents, for example, often have thick leaves and stems since this is where they store water. 
  • Soil Preference: To keep an effectively self-sufficient garden, your soil type should match the needs of the plants you select. Research each plant you’re considering to make sure it will flourish in your garden’s soil. 
  • Sunlight Needs: Don’t forget to choose plants that can handle the level of shade or sunlight they will receive in your garden. Some plants, though they tolerate high amounts of light, may require more water to thrive. 
  • Native Habitats: Plants native to your area are most likely to grow on their own, requiring little human intervention.  
Hosta (shade garden plant green leaves)
Hostas are capable of tolerating drought, and they are easy to propagate by division.

Each plant is different, so choosing those that will succeed in similar conditions is important. 

Add Mulch

Mulching is wise for both xeriscape and traditional landscape gardens. It helps keep the soil cooler in the hot summer months, reduces evaporation, and cuts down on weeds in the garden.

wood chip mulch
Wood mulch is often used for appearance and also to retain moisture in soil.

While xeriscape gardens are usually associated with gravel covering the soil, more options are available. Your choice of mulch depends on your gardening goals, selection of plants, and personal preference.

There are two main groups of mulch: 

Organic Mulch 

The most common forms of organic mulch include bark chips, grass clippings, dried leaves, and straw. Organic mulches such as wood chips are good for moisture retention and protecting the roots of plants from the cold in the winter. 

Most types of organic mulch require regular maintenance. Organic mulch decomposes over time, which means you need to replace it every 1-2 years.

mulch
Wood chip mulch decomposes over time, so you will need to replace it every so often.

Also, when wood-based mulches break down, they can tie up the nitrogen-producing bacteria in the soil, leading to a nitrogen deficiency. Some gardeners like to supplement their plants with fertilizer to balance the soil. 

If your goal is to minimize the upkeep of the soil and mulch, organic mulch may not work for your garden.  

Inorganic Mulch 

Rocks, pea gravel, cobblestone, crushed rocks, and lava rocks are popular inorganic mulch options. According to the Colorado State University Extension, pea gravel is excellent for weed control and allows for better drainage than wood mulch.

gravel
Inorganic mulches like gravel do not break down over time, so you won’t have to replace them (but they won’t add organic material to the soil).

When bark chips dry out, the surface tension can lead to runoff while watering, which means that it takes longer for water (including rain) to reach the roots of plants. 

A potential downside of inorganic mulch is its ability to store and retain heat. For this reason, it might not be the best choice for gardens in sunny areas, especially in warmer locations. 

You can learn more about inorganic alternatives to wood mulch here.

Give Your Garden More Attention Initially

Regardless of what you’re planting and where you’re putting them, all plants need some extra TLC at first. When you grow something, it needs regular watering while the roots work to grab onto your soil. 

Some experts recommend regular watering to establish xeriscape gardens for at least the first growing seasons, while others say a full year of watering is best. The safest strategy is to keep a close eye on your plants. If they seem to be struggling, they will likely need more attention. 

How Long Can You Leave A Garden Without Water?

The short answer? It depends. The time your garden can survive without water depends on the conditions in which they are living. As stated above, there are many factors to consider when creating the perfect microclimate for your plants. 

If you live in a warm, dry climate and plant things like native succulents and cacti, your garden could potentially go without water for months, or even years. In contrast, water-loving plants in the northeastern United States may start to suffer after a week without water in a heat wave. 

botanical garden succulents
You might be able to leave some succulents without water for months or longer.

To establish a garden that can successfully go long stretches of time without water, follow all of the recommended steps for creating an optimal xeriscape.

Can My Garden Go A Day Without Water?

Whether you have a low-water garden or one that’s full of tropical, thirsty plants, it’s safe to say that a day without water will not harm your plants. In a traditional garden with average watering needs, you may only need to water your plants 1-2 times per week. The frequency varies depending on your climate, type of soil, and weather conditions. 

Peanut Cactus
Most plants can go a day without water, unless they were already dried out. Some cacti can go weeks and months without water!

People often overestimate the amount of water their gardens need. This can lead to over watering, root rot, or even death. To prevent this, it’s a good idea to use either your fingers or a moisture meter to test your soil. Only watering your plants when they need it is better for them and helps conserve water.  

Can Plants Recover From A Lack Of Water?

Underwatering is when a plant fails to receive the water it needs to grow properly. The ability of a plant to recover from underwatering depends on the type of plant and how long the period of drought was. 

Some plants show signs of needing water by wilting, dropping leaves, or brown foliage tips. If a plant has only started to show symptoms of underwatering, it’s safe to assume that the plant will bounce back easily. 

Recovery might be more challenging if a plant loses all of its leaves, is severely wilted, or all of the foliage is browning. Plants that are more sensitive to adverse growing conditions may never recover from severe water loss. To increase the chance of recovery, it’s best to research the particular plant to learn how to safely revive it.  

What Is Dry Gardening?

The concept of dry gardening can only be successful if you choose appropriate plants for the conditions you’re providing for them. Cacti and succulents are the classic camels of the plant world, but they are not the only options out there. 

Here are some other popular drought-tolerant plants to consider:

  • Lamb’s Ear: These plants are perennials in USDA’s plant hardiness zones 4-8. They are avid growers and can thrive in dry, rocky areas. Use caution when placing these near other plants, as lamb’s ears are self-seeding and spread each growing season. 
  • Lavender: Perennials in zones 5-9, these flowering shrubs enjoy dry conditions and poor quality soil. Many use it as an herb in cooking or beauty products. 
  • Rosemary: This herb is a champ when it comes to living in arid, hot areas. They are hardy in zones 7-10, although some gardeners say they have success in zone 6 as well.
  • Coneflower: These self-sowing wildflowers come back year after year in zones 3-9. They are very drought-tolerant and can thrive in nearly any type of soil.
Purple Coneflower
Coneflower is a drought tolerant perennial flower that you can include in your low-water garden.

Conclusion

Once you build your no-water garden, it’s important to remember that learning new gardening techniques often involves trial and error. Adopt a flexible mindset, and consider any misstep a learning experience. 

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

You can learn ways to water your garden efficiently (or while you are on vacation) here.

You can find some more information about drought tolerant plants below:

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here. Enjoy!  

About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.

Kathryn F.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

Recent Posts