The Ultimate Guide to Water-Wise Gardening

Phlox (purple)
Phlox (purple)

The importance of making water-wise choices has become very apparent with the spread of climate change. It’s becoming more difficult to grow certain crops, maintain landscapes and enjoy various recreational activities as water availability wavers and heat threatens popular crop growing.

Across the country, people continue to make garden choices that can help conserve water. But why is this an important choice now? Over several decades, it has become apparent that the average temperatures are increasing. While this can benefit areas with short growing seasons, farmers and communities continue to feel the pressure of unreliable water supply.

Even though many areas are experiencing good snow and rain accumulation this year, there is still plenty to question about what the following years might hold. Water-wise planting can help.

Without awareness of our water usage and water scarcity, issues will continue to arise with greater severity. The good news is that wise plant choices can help address water concerns in the garden while better supporting local wildlife.

Yes, plants do require water. But they are also one of our most beneficial tools for regulating water availability when looking at the big picture.

Water-Wise Gardening

Water-wise gardening includes the practice of using native and drought-tolerant plants as functional, attractive and easy-to-maintain pieces of a landscape. These plants can contribute more than just their looks; they create balance in your garden.

Because these plants often have stronger resistance to common pests, diseases and adverse weather conditions, you can typically get away with using fewer synthetic products in your garden while keeping a well-maintained look. Don’t worry; water-wise plants can create a gorgeous design just as easily as water-demanding plants.

Many people mistakenly cover their yards in rocks, thinking it’s the best option for reducing water use. While rocks don’t require water, they actually cause the area to become hotter. This increases the amount of water evaporated from the ground and surrounding areas without contributing to a healthy environment. Plus, hot rocks in a landscape create a less-than-desirable space for you to spend your time in.

Instead, water-wise plants such as native wildflowers and other drought-tolerant options can thrive on less water, keep the ground cool, provide shade, suppress weeds, clean the air, support vital pollinators, encourage a healthy microbiome, improve soil permeability and aid regulation of the water cycle. Keeping the ground covered is one of the best defenses against water loss and climate change.

Water-Wise Vegetable Garden

This all sounds well and good, but how can water-wise principles be applied to the vegetable garden? Food production plays a central role in sustaining life but requires plenty of water, no matter how you look at it. While many fruits and vegetables rely on water for life, you can take certain measures to reduce water loss during the growing process.

One way is to choose varieties that stand up to drought conditions. Or monitor the amount of water given to plants such as tomatoes and melons. In many instances, those plants require less water than you might think and actually taste better when not overwatered.

In addition, using tools like cover crops, mulching, drip systems and no-till methods will help reduce water loss throughout the year and improve the water-retention qualities of your soil for the seasons to come. These practices contribute to the many long-term benefits of keeping soil covered and productive.

The Power of Wildflowers

Growing wildflowers is one of the best ways to start a water-wise garden. Why? They are extremely easy to grow and are some of the most drought-tolerant options available. Generally, wildflower seeds are best planted in the spring or fall months for spring sprouting, but may also be successfully planted throughout the year.

Simply broadcast your seeds over the growing space and gently rake into the soil surface. To get started, you can grow specific native varieties or spread a formulated mix. Wildflower mixes will typically include a variety of flowers that bloom throughout the year.

While many wildflowers grow across the United States, a mix can provide a collection that thrives best in your regional climate conditions. Besides their beauty, wildflowers boast a range of benefits, including the support of pollinators and use as natural home décor, and have a wide range of medicinal uses.

Wildflowers also play a central role in maintaining healthy bee and butterfly populations.

Honey and Native Bees

Honeybees are the workhorses of pollinators and “increase crop values by more than $15 billion in the United States” and “pollinate more than 80 percent of all cultivated crops,” according to The Bee Conservancy. Unfortunately, honeybee colonies are increasingly lost to colony collapse disorder.

Native bees don’t see the same effects of colony collapse disorder, as they tend to live with more solitary habits. However, unlike honeybees, native species live much shorter lives and have very short flying ranges, causing them to rely on local habitats during their lifespan.

With increased habitat destruction, effects of climate change on flowering habits, pesticide poisoning, suppression of native varieties by invasive plants and the spread of disease, bee populations are highly threatened. Growing wildflowers is a simple action that can support all types of bee populations. In addition to being easy to grow, wildflowers can be used for many purposes, including home decor, cut flowers and herbal medicine.

While they will only last a short time, wildflowers are popular for small, country-cut flower arrangements. Adding cut flowers around the home is a great way to boost your mood and add a touch of nature. Various popular home remedies use wildflowers. From the days of hunters and gatherers, wildflowers have played an important role in medicine. Our modern-day medicines are often created from derivatives of various plants.

But good old-fashioned home remedies still have their place. Yarrow, for example, has many healing properties associated with the ability to stop bleeding. Chamomile is also popular for aiding gastric disorders and is a natural relaxant when used in herbal teas.

Drought-Tolerant Landscape Plants

Next to wildflowers, drought-tolerant varieties are your next best choice. You can find drought-tolerant plants of any size, from trees to annuals to ground covers. One of the easiest ways to start reducing water use is by replacing open areas of lawn grass as it is a big water hog. If you are open to more change, add a variety of plants, including trees, shrubs, flowers and ground covers to your landscape.

Native Grasses for Your Water-Wise Lawn

Open grass lawns became popular as a signal of social class and financial stability throughout Europe before moving with colonists to North America. Having a well-manicured lawn told others that you had the ability to own and maintain a piece of land. The grasses used for large lawns are usually of European origin and can easily suppress native types.

Instead, consider planting native grasses or opting for drought-tolerant alternatives such as clover. You will love clover because it is softer than traditional grass, is pollinator-friendly, requires less maintenance and lacks common allergens.

If you don’t want to stick with the traditional green carpet look, consider other low-growing ground covers or mass plantings to fill your space. Whether you live in the dry desert or on a salt-spray coast, there are plenty of options for water-wise landscape selections.

Contact your local university extension office for the best recommendations and additional resources tailored to your location.

Other Ideas

For the bulk of your landscaping, focus on growing various trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials. Utilizing plants at varying heights will provide greater benefits.

Trees can provide shade and reduce surrounding soil and air temperatures. This can be a game changer in western states that have been in drought for several years. Reducing temperatures around your growing area can reduce water loss from plants and soils greatly over extended periods of time.

For wind-prone areas, trees can break up strong winds, reducing damage throughout your garden and landscape. We typically associate water loss with heat and summer weather, but bitter winds can also cause woody perennials, fruit trees and shrubs to dry out during winter months.

Being able to break up arctic winds with trees throughout the winter can make a significant difference in protecting your tender perennial garden, fruit trees and shrub areas. While native plants are best, many drought-tolerant options are available for growing across the United States.

Here are some popular drought-tolerant annuals and perennials to consider.


  • Bachelor button
  • California poppy
  • Cleome
  • Cosmos
  • Dusty miller
  • Four o’clock
  • Lantana
  • Marigold
  • Nasturtium
  • Salvia statice
  • Sunflower
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Verbena
  • Zinnia


About The National Garden Bureau

This article is provided as a service of the National Garden Bureau and its members, and was first published at The National Garden Bureau does not wish to advise or recommend plants for medicinal or health use. The information here is intended for inspirational and educational purposes only. Please consult a healthcare professional before considering any natural medicinal treatments.