The Iowa Gardener: Gardening in a drought


A dry summer presented the gardeners with challenges. Depending on where you live, southeastern Iowa residents will experience either an unusually dry period, moderate drought, or no drought at all. (Rebecca F. Miller / The Gazette)

It was a dry summer that poses major challenges for gardeners who want to keep their lawn healthy and grow flowers and vegetables vigorously.

On July 13, Linn County was officially classified by the US Drought Monitor as partly “abnormally dry” and partly as “moderate drought”. The counties in the southeast fared better and the rainfall is within the usual range. But counties in the northwest are either in moderate or severe drought.

The drought, particularly in the west, is deeply worrying and record-breaking. But it’s also useful to note that droughts play an important role in nature’s cycle of self-correcting. Drought poses a number of challenges, but it also counteracts problems that arise in wet years. During dry spells, fungal and some other diseases that thrive in humid conditions are reduced. Likewise, populations of problem insects that rely on wet conditions.

But that won’t keep the new trees you planted alive. Here are some ways to deal with periods of drought and total drought.

Choose your battles. You probably don’t need to water everything in your yard well. In my garden, for example, I spent $ 450 on several arborvitae trees for a new hedge this spring. Two already have servings that are turning brown. I focus my watering time, energy, and money on watering these well as this is a large, lasting investment. My cucumbers? Meh. Not as much. If I have to, I can just buy some.

On average, plants need an inch of water per week. (Zuma Press / TNS)

Consider letting your lawn rest. As long as the drought in Iowa isn’t too severe and long, it’s okay not to water the lawn and let it turn brown. It looks damn cool, of course, but it will be nice and green again next spring. However, do not start watering again when your lawn is dormant. Bringing it in and out of the resting phase stresses it out. Wait with the next watering next year.

Water intelligent. Water plants deeply and occasionally rather than often and shallowly. On average, the plants we select for our Iowa gardens require an inch of water per week. This can be difficult to achieve in dry conditions, but do your best. Deep watering promotes a stronger and deeper root system that will hold plants better during hot periods of drought. Deep watering will keep more moisture in the soil. This means there is less evaporation.

Keep weeding. Weeds compete with coveted plants for sun, nutrients and, you guessed it, water. Get rid of weeds so they don’t rob your flowers, vegetables, and other plants of critical moisture.

Using a rain gauge like this homemade one can help you use the water in the garden more efficiently. (Cultivate life)

Measure. If you don’t have a rain gauge, get one so you know exactly how much rain your landscape is getting. When you turn out your sprinkler, put a shallow bowl or bowl out so you can see how many inches of water you are bringing up.

Invest in drinking hoses or a drip irrigation system. If you can find any – there has been a run on these from stores and vendors lately – these efficient irrigation systems slowly bring the water straight to the roots with minimal runoff and evaporation. There’s also no waste, like having a sprinkler watering your sidewalk along with your lawn.

Mulching helps keep the soil moist longer. (Dream time / TNS)

Mulch. Mulching keeps the soil cooler, suppresses weeds, and keeps the soil moist longer. Apply one to three inches of mulch, such as wood chips, clippings, or straw, to your garden and flower beds to protect the soil from direct sunlight. Around permanent plantings, like shrubs, you can also use landscaping fabrics for even more control. In vegetable gardens, lay out newspapers first, then cover them with grass or straw for even more mulching power.

Head busy dead. Plants that will sow use a lot of energy and need more water. Cut off used flower heads immediately so the plant can focus its limited energy on staying alive.

Avoid herbicides. Applying some herbicides at too high a temperature can turn liquid formulations into gas and cause harmful drift. Also, weeds don’t pick up good herbicides in dry conditions, so they’re less effective anyway.

Avoid pesticides that are applied directly to the leaves of plants. In hot, dry conditions, some species can damage the leaves.

Avoid fertilizers. Fertilizer promotes rapid growth that requires plenty of water to support that growth. Even without frequent rain to rinse out the soil, fertilizer salts can build up in the soil and possibly burn plants.

Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-editor of The Iowa Gardener website at