Just add water


Our official status in Western New York is “moderate drought.” I can’t really remember the last soaking rain we got—maybe a couple times in June and a couple more in July—and the temps have ranged into the 90s with regularity. That’s unusual here. There are no watering restrictions that I’m aware of, though articles and op-eds advising people to stop watering their lawns have appeared in the paper a few times.

Thankfully, I have no lawn here, but there are 4 big maples whose roots soak up all the water they can get and a bunch of annual-filled containers with their corresponding water demands. I have luck with hostas, hakonechloa, hellebores, and other sturdy perennials in the beds, and the shrubs seem OK, but I haven’t really tested them. Because I water. That is how I deal with drought.

Would most of the in-ground plantings survive without regular water? I suppose. They would be stressed, for sure—this is not a xeriscape. I imagine many would droop and fade, if not die. But that’s all kind of beside the point, because the reason I have a garden is to be in it during the summer, and I can’t enjoy a suffering garden with a lot of dead plants sitting in pots. I’d go further—during a hot summer like this, I need the garden to look extra lush. The shade, the sound of running water, and the abundance of green foliage are essential, and all that takes attention.

Regular watering—within reason—is also helpful because it forces me to look at all the plants, deadhead if needed, cut back if needed, and attend to anything that needs attention. It helps me enjoy the plants. Because that’s why I have them. I’m not running a drought tolerance testing site here; I’m maintaining a garden that’s meant to give me and others pleasure. This year, supplemental watering—with a bit more frequency—is not a heavy price to pay for that pleasure.


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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. We have a watering ban on here. You are only supposed to water trees, and newly planted shrubs, and only in the early morning and between 7-10 at night. My front garden suffered terribly. Leaves were burnt to a crisp, even with me doing some guerrilla watering at times. I watered some small “trees” regularly because of the heat, and the fact that I had never seen them wilt before, but they still looked like death. We have had a couple really good rains in the last couple weeks, and everything has perked up a lot, but the crispy leaves still hang in there as a reminder.

  2. I would definitely innoculate ALL the plants with an excellent Mycorrhizal mix. All plants need these and they will allow plants to at least maintain health and vigor through a drought.

    And those Maples, Are they Sugar Maples ? Todd Dawson wrote a paper on the Sugar Maple’s ability of creating Hydraulic Lift and Redistrution to other plants within it’s community. Of course this only works if a good strong healthy mycorrhizal network exists between all the plants.



  3. I’ve moved a few times in my life and have lived and gardened through some horrific droughts. I’ve had some summers I was reduced to Sophie’s Choice gardening where you have to pick your favorite and focus all your resources on it and let the rest of the yard perish. Often that meant digging it up and maintaining it in a container just to keep it alive.

    I understand Right Plant, Right Spot forwards and backwards and I’m all for water conservation but I can’t call myself a gardener if I deliberately neglect my plants. Keeping them alive is what I am all about. If they need water then I water them.

    What gets me frazzled is the way fellow gardeners will invite you over to spend the day and then brag about how they no longer water, about what good conservators of a precious resource they are. Meanwhile their garden looks like hell warmed over. I get it, but you don’t host a dinner party and announce that you will no longer clean your house.

  4. One year, the blackhaw viburnum dropped its leaves and the 20-year-old Crimson King maple’s leaves curled and turned brown and crispy. Since then, I have been a proactive waterer. Like you say, watering by hand is one way to keep a close eye on everything.

  5. Prior to this year, I rarely watered except for containers and new shrubs. This year I was a watering fiend. My methods of choice are soaker hoses and one of those overhead watering wands. Luckily, my city gets its water from Lake Michigan, so there were no watering restrictions. Which does not by any means make the water free – I almost fainted when I got the water bill for July.

    My gardens are generally able to fend for themselves in a normal year without supplemental watering. But I can’t bear to see leaves getting crispy and plants drooping down to the ground. I’m careful to use watering methods that are efficient and to water only when it makes sense. But I will not apologize for watering during a drought.

  6. We are still water-restricted where I live, and despite seriously heroic water conservation methods, I received a “warning” on my bill that I water too much.–The water portion of the bill was $32.00. I think our City would like all of us to convert our yard to desert-type plantings, but I’m not a desert plant lover despite the fact that my mother was born and raised in Arizona and I live there for part of my life. On the positive side, most of my plants are tough. I too have a garden because I want to be surrounded by green, not brown.

  7. All our water comes from a well so we put ourselves on serious water restriction. I did tell my husband there was no point in planting a vegetable garden if I couldn’t water it. The thing that really galls me is that weeds love drought. I have never had such a weedy summer. Grrrrrrrr.

  8. It may be a moderate drought but as long as there are no water restrictions in place then I don’t see what the problem would be if you were to water your garden, especially if it’s what makes you happy. Although I would not like to suffer a drought I wish it would stop raining here, it’s almost non-stop. The benefit of the rain is that I now have two very large and completely filled water butts which I can rely on if a sudden drought were to strike. I highly recommend them for any gardener in an area which is prone to the occasional drought as they just fill during the rainy days.

    James @ Capital Gardens

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