Plant Survival During Water Bans

Tips to Help You and Your Plants Survive Outdoor Watering Restrictions and Bans

By Gary L. Wade, Extension Horticulturist
The University of Georgia

  • Don't panic! Most of our established trees and shrubs, and some of our warm-season turfgrasses can survive extended periods of limited rainfall. Remember, fescue turf can always be re-seeded this fall.
  • Make certain all plants are well-mulched. Mulching will help reduce further water loss from the soil. Three to five inches of a fine-textured mulch, such as pine straw, mini-nuggets or shredded hardwood mulch do a better job of conserving moisture in the soil than coarse-textured mulches. Be sure to pull the mulch five inches back from the stem or trunk of the plant you are protecting.
  • Your air conditioner or de-humidifier collects humidity from the air within your home and pumps it outside as condensation. Find the drain line from your air conditioner and collect the water for use on plants, or extend the tubing to irrigate nearby plants.

    You only need to water 25 percent of the root system of ornamental trees and shrubs. Water is very mobile and will move readily throughout the plant. The air conditioner is not a source for large amounts of water, but it may provide just enough water to keep a few plants alive through an extended drought.
  • Reduce foliar demand for water when a plant wilts. Severe wilting and foliar scorching are signs of drought stress. When a plant wilts to the point where you doubt its survival, cut the top back by one-third to one-half to eliminate the foliar demand for water on the root system. With less top to support, the root system may be able to survive the dry conditions. If you can get the root system through the dry period, the top will prosper later.
  • Save milk jugs and recycle water from inside the home to the outside (Gray water use is not allowed in some counties, so check with your local Health Department). Place a few pin holes in the bottom of the jugs and put a few pebbles in the bottom to prevent the jugs from blowing around when they are empty. Use two to four jugs for medium-size shrubs and eight to ten jugs for trees. Don't bury the jugs in the ground around trees and shrubs because the digging will damage the already stressed root system. On the other hand, two-liter soda bottles with pin holes in the bottom can be buried up to their neck in flower beds and vegetable garden to apply sub-surface irrigation to the roots. A one-gallon milk jug containing recycled water will fill about two 2-liter bottles.
  • When using washing machine water to irrigate plants, combine the rinse cycle water with the wash cycle water to dilute the detergent and bleaching agents added to the water, then use the gray water right away. An odor problem may result from the bacteria in the water if you leave it sitting around for periods of time.
  • Some garden centers are selling hydrogels, water-absorbing polymers that absorb several hundred times their weight in water, then release it slowly back to the plant. If you are using these materials, it would be best to hydrate them indoors instead of incorporating dry crystals into the soil, because the dry crystals can actually pull moisture from the soil and away from the plant as they absorb moisture.

    When hydrating these materials, however, be careful! One teaspoon absorbs a quart of water, and one-quarter cup will absorb a 5-gallon bucket of water, so avoid adding too much to the water. Let the material absorb water overnight until it's the consistency of JELL-O (tm) then spread a thin layer under mulch. On containerized plants, use a dowel to punch two to three holes downward into the growing media about halfway through the container, and place the gel in the holes. This will significantly reduce the water demand of containerized plants.

    Another product on the market is called Driwater. Unlike hydrogels that swell and shrink and last several years in the soil, Driwater is hydrated starch granules sold in sausage-shaped tubes. One simply inserts two to four of these sausages into plastic tubes placed in the ground adjacent to the plant. Bacteria in the soil gradually break down the starch granules and release water to the plant for up to three months. If you'd like more information on this product, you can access their web site at
  • This fall, begin to think of ways you can reduce the irrigated areas in your landscape by changing irrigated areas to beds of drought-tolerant ground covers or a mixed beds of tough-as-nails plants like ornamental grasses, sedum, junipers, crepe myrtle, yarrow or gaura.

More tips from CAES scientists:

  • Water trees from about 2 feet away from the trunk to just under the drip line. Most roots are in this zone, up to about 1 foot deep. Directing water in this area helps get water to where the tree can most easily use it.
  • Water trees at night. With night time watering, you lose less water to evaporation.
  • Don't wait until plants wilt to give them a drink of water. Water early in the day so the plant won't get into stress. That results in healthier plants overall.
  • The best way to water is drip or trickle irrigation, say UGA scientists. Drip watering uses low pressure and puts the water at the root zone where it will do the most good for the plant. Drip irrigation uses about one-third of the water a sprinkler uses.
  • Wondering when to water your plants? Use the "finger test." Simply poke your finger a few inches into the soil and see if it's moist. If it is, don't water.
  • Your lawn will tell you it needs water by getting a bit dull or bluish. You can double-check with the "foot test." If your footsteps spring back up soon after you walk across, your lawn is fine. You don't need to water.
  • Don't water on hot, windy afternoons. You'll lose more than half of your water to evaporation.
  • Aim your sprinklers properly. Water your plants, not the street, sidewalk and driveway. If an area in your garden always stays damp, close off the sprinkler there.
  • Stop watering when water starts to run off. You may have to turn it off and on a few times, but water and your money won't be running down the drain.
  • Improve your soil quality. Aerating or adding organic matter can prevent runoff, too.
  • Get a rain gauge. Most Georgia soils need only an inch of water per week. If it rains, subtract that amount from your total application.
  • Water deeply. As the landscape matures, soak the soil 6 to 8 inches deep to encourage deep roots. Then don't water again until the plants need it -- once a week or less.
  • Add a moisture sensor. This soil probe tells the sprinkler system when the soil is wet or dry and will turn it on and off for you.
  • Don't forget to mulch. Mulching helps keep the soil cool and moist while suppressing water-stealing weeds and reducing your garden work. Mulch a wide area around your plants (but not next to the stem or trunk).
  • Don't fertilize. Actively growing plants use more water. Over-fertilizing leads to a landscape that will be a water hog. A soil test from your Extension Service office or a private lab will tell you the soil's fertilizer and lime requirements.
  • Cut back annual and perennial flowers that wilt. This will reduce the plant top's demand for water and help keep the root system alive. Lightly pruning shrubs that become severely wilted will also help them conserve moisture and survive the dry period.
  • For a tree to survive a long drought period, it needs about 2 gallons of water for every inch of trunk diameter (measured at 4.5 feet above the ground). Distribute this amount of water under the crown of the tree. Provide drainage with the watering, as trees don't survive long in stagnant soils. Apply survival-level water, as allowed by current water restrictions, once or twice a week, when it hasn't rained to recharge the soil water.
  • To conserve moisture in the soil, use a leaf rake to gently pull back existing mulch (being careful not to disturb the surface roots of plants). Then, place two to three sheets of newspaper on the soil surface, moisten it, and rake the mulch back over the newspaper. Newspaper will serve as an added barrier to moisture loss.

Contact Information

 Address: 5110 Piney Grove Rd
Cumming, GA 30040
 Phone: 770-887-2418
 Fax: 770-887-2403
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About Us

The Forsyth County Extension Service is part of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. We are also an educational division of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners and the Forsyth County School Board.