Planning for Drought

How to Help Your Yard Survive the Next Drought

(Adapted from an article in the September 2022 newsletter of the Lexington Field and Garden Club)

This year’s drought seems to finally be coming to an end, thank goodness. But it was tough on our gardens and lawns, wasn’t it? We either spent an enormous amount of water to keep our lawns and gardens looking green and healthy, or watched as our plants wilted, turned brown, and in some cases, died.

What’s a homeowner to do? The Town didn’t impose mandatory water restrictions this year, in large part because the drought wasn’t as severe in the Quabbin watershed where our water comes from. But that won’t be true in every drought year. There will be years when water for outdoor irrigation is scarce or nonexistent.

But there are things you can do to make your yard more resistant to future droughts, which scientists tell us are part of our future as the climate changes.

Luckily for us, the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission has gathered a comprehensive list of everything a gardener needs to know about helping a yard survive a drought. Their website provides links to information about drought-tolerant plants, tips on when and how to water, ways to reduce your turf grass, and lists of native plants.

Here are some ideas to consider:

For lawns

  • Plant or over-seed lawns with drought-resistant grass varieties. Tall fescues in particular are known for their deep roots and drought resistance. You might add some clover seed also for its nitrogen-fixing ability, making for a healthier lawn.

  • If your soil is low in organic matter, top dress with compost in the fall and spring. Soils with higher organic matter content hold more water.

  • Mow high (which encourages deeper root systems), and leave lawn clippings to serve both as mulch and a source of nutrients and organic matter.

  • Let your grass go dormant. Cool-season grasses typically go dormant in the summer and reawaken with fall’s rains and cooler temperatures.

  • If you do water, do it occasionally but deeply. Frequent watering encourages grass plants to develop shallow roots in the upper part of the soil, where they are more susceptible to drought.

For gardens

  • When those autumn leaves fall, leave them on your garden beds. They provide free mulch, add nutrients to the soil, help retain soil moisture and provide winter homes for next year's insects. Most tree leaves will break down by next spring (oak is an exception).

  • Plant native plants, which are better adapted to conditions in the northeast. Even better, focus on plants known to be drought hardy.

Here’s a short list of drought-tolerant plants to replace any plants that did not make it through this year’s drought:

Asclepias tuberosa – Butterflyweed

Agastache foeniculum – Anise hyssop

Amsonia spp. – Amsonia

Aster spp. – Asters

Comptonia peregrina – Sweetfern

Coreopsis spp. – Coreopsis

Echinacea purpurea – Purple cone flower

Panicum virgatum – Switch grass

Rosa virginiana – Virginia rose

Rudbeckia spp. – Black-eyed Susan

Schizachyrium scoparium – Little bluestem

Sedum spp. – Sedum

Phlox spp. – Phlox

Vaccinium angustifolium – Lowbush blueberry

For a comprehensive list of drought-tolerant plants for Massachusetts landscapes, see this list assembled by UMass Extension.