Water sprinkler on summer day

Managing Your Garden Through Heat and Drought

Gardeners across North Texas can only look at their landscape and sigh as the heat wave refuses to break and rain refuses to fall. Plants that thrive most summers are withering and dying under the stress of week after week of 100-degree-plus temperatures. Gardeners struggle to balance watering enough to keep their plants alive with responsible behavior during a drought–and the prospect of budget-busting water bills.

What to do?

“The first step is not to give up,” says Sr. Horticulturist Steve Huddleston. “You do have options.”

Option #1: Mulch!

Huddleston recommends adding two to three inches of organic mulch such as shredded leaves, compost, pine bark chips, hardwood mulch or even grass clippings around flowers, shrubs and trees. Mulch offers a long list of benefits to plants struggling through the heat:

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  • Mulch stabilizes soil temperature. With several inches of mulch on top of the soil, the soil doesn’t heat up as much during the day and extreme temperature fluctuations are prevented. 
  • Mulch retains moisture in the soil.  Water is trapped beneath the mulch and does not evaporate at the soil surface as readily.  Plants stay more evenly moist and water is conserved. 
  • Mulch inhibits weed growth.  Weeds simply won’t germinate beneath several inches of mulch.  Without any weeds in a bed, plants don’t have to compete for moisture and nutrients. 
  • Mulch prevents soil erosion.  If we should get a gully washer (wouldn’t that be amazing?!), mulch will help hold the soil in place. 
  • Mulch makes an aesthetic contribution to a bed by providing a “finished” look.

Option #2: Adopt best practices for watering.

Most of Fort Worth and Dallas are currently classified as experiencing Extreme Drought by the National Integrated Drought Information System. This has serious implications for farmers and ranchers, since crops fail to germinate, yields are reduced for irrigated crops and livestock require supplemental field and water. Counties both east and west of the Metroplex and a wide swatch south toward Killeen are considered in Exceptional Drought. At this stage, widespread crop loss is expected, and the agriculture sector will experience significant financial loss; fire danger is extreme.

Some communities have begun asking area residents to conserve water, but even those not under official orders should be responsible users of water, garden or no garden.

Get the most out of your water by taking the following steps:

  • Know and follow local watering requirements. For example, City of Fort Worth residents can use irrigation systems no more than twice a week and only between the hours of 6 pm and 10 am. No customers can water on Mondays. Check with the city to learn which days your address is allowed to water. Residents of other communities should check with their local authorities on water restrictions.
  • Maintain your sprinkler system. Repair any broken, missing or misdirected sprinkler heads.
  • Don’t allow you sprinkler system to water driveways, sidewalks or streets.
  • Water early in the morning to reduce evaporation.
  • Water only as much your lawn needs, and water deeply instead of frequently. This promotes deep roots and healthy grass. An inch of applied water will generally penetrate the soil to a depth of six inches. Lawns need an inch of water a week.

A Xeriscaped landscape full of color and texture.
Xeriscaping your landscape and removing your lawn is a proven way to save water and prepare for future brutal summers. This example shows that the approach doesn’t have to be desert-like or colorless but vibrant and full of color and texture.

Option #3: Select plants appropriate for our climate, especially native plants known to be drought-tolerant.

Unfortunately, area gardeners are likely to lose plants this year. However, plants that are well-suited to our climate are more likely to survive. Gardening magazines like to show off stunning plants to tempt readers—and nurseries will happily sell them to area gardeners. But non-native beauties such as lilacs, gardenias, and hydrangeas will always be a challenge in North Texas gardens.

You may not be able to save some plants in your garden this summer. This is a blow, but the good news is that you now have an open space where you can substitute a hardy, heat- and drought-tolerant plant. Look for ideas in previous issues of this newsletter, in books on North Texas gardening and in online resources such as the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension list of Texas Superstar Plants. We encourage you to prioritize native plants; this presentation from the Denton County Master Gardener Association includes detailed information on the value of native plants and lists a wide variety of options to consider for your landscape.

For the most water-efficient landscape, look to xeriscaping, an approach to gardening that limits or eliminates the need for irrigation. This article from the June 2021 issue of this newsletter includes background on the approach and steps to get started. Xeriscaping presents incredible opportunities for gardeners to exercise their creativity while designing a sustainable landscape.

“We’ve endured hard summers before, and we’ll get through this one as well,” says Huddleston.

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