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How to beat the drought with less watering, smart planning

Blue Star Amsonia, a native plant, is very drought tolerant and easy to grow in a sunny yard.Chris Kennedy

If your lawn and garden have been losing the battle to this summer’s drought and widespread watering restrictions, the answer may be to plant something different.

One way to fight the climate-driven likelihood of drier summers, experts say, is to plant lawns and gardens with varieties of grasses and perennial plants that do not require frequent watering.

For most people, said Chris Kennedy, a landscape designer and the owner of Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate, seeing lawns turn brown in summer is “somewhat normal.” And most see lawns, despite watering bans, bounce back to some degree.

But given the prospect of more dry seasons ahead and the subsequent watering restrictions adopted by many communities, both conservationists and landscape designers urge homeowners to give a thought to the future of the planted grounds on their property.


“We do recommend reducing the size of the lawn if you’re not using it to play frisbee or football,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy recommends considering the replacement of conventional lawn grasses with more drought-resistant plants such as thyme and sedums. Red-creeping thyme is a popular choice, “and you don’t mow it,” he said.

Kennedy said he uses stonecrop sedum (popular varieties include Angelina yellow and John Creech) along the driveway of his own home. “It helps to fill in all the places between other plants and chokes out weeds,” he said.

Other recommended groundcover includes barren strawberry, which grows in dry weather and in shade. The plant is non-fruiting. “It has a yellow flower. It will fill in and spread around,” Kennedy said.

He also recommends a drought-tolerant grass seed called Black Beauty that consists of tall fescue grass and helps to thicken existing lawns. He said he saw some lawns planted with alternative grasses stay greener than more conventional neighboring lawns that relied on sprinkler systems.


Kennedy also strongly advises using mulch abundantly to hold the moisture in the soil. “We tell people to put a layer of mulch down after any planting,” he said. “It slows down the weeds, helps to retain moisture. The need for water is far less.”

“You want a diverse portfolio,” he said. “If one [variety] doesn’t make it, another can. All lawn grass is a blend.” Plant nurseries such as his own “imitate nature” in finding plants that survive drought he said. “We recommend what works in nature.”

Daniel Cohen, an arborist and assistant district manager for Hartney Greymont Tree and Lawn Service, based in Needham with clients throughout Greater Boston, said that he recommends homeowners address dry seasons by adopting drought-smart watering practices while following their community’s watering regulations.

“I think the best recommendation is obviously water when you are able to,” Cohen said, noting the significant number of restrictions throughout the region. “Ideally it’s more about lower volumes of water for extended periods of time.”

If you’re only allowed to water outdoors once a week, for instance, he recommends early morning watering for longer periods of time to reach down into the soil and lose less moisture to evaporation.

Cohen also recommends placing an end of summer or early fall “top dressing” of compost over grassy areas. Combined with aeration and overseeding, compost works to improve the strength of the roots. He also advises property owners to cut grass less often in summer.

Trees also showed stress this summer with wilting leaves and dead branches, Cohen said, especially after the region’s 100-degree day in July. One of the signs of stress is early fall color. Multiple stresses and multiple years of stress can weaken trees such as elms, making them susceptible to bark beetles. He favors hand-watering over sprinklers and concentrating water to penetrate deeply into the root zones of shrubs and trees.


Advice to regional residents on lawn and garden care without heavy water use also comes from environmentalists. The North and South Rivers Watershed Association, an organization with an emphasis on limiting lawn-watering in order to preserve water levels in the region’s watersheds, offers 10 steps to turn yards into a “thriving Greenscape.”

The first step is to download the group’s 16-page Greenscapes Guide from the alliance’s website, nsrwa.org.

The guide’s first recommendation is to stop using lawn products such as chemical fertilizers or weed-killers and switch to “a natural regimen.” The watershed association also offers lawn watering advice, such as water early, never in the middle of the day when evaporation will waste water; don’t cut the grass too short; and plant drought-tolerant native plants instead of commercially produced grass seed.

Homeowners who wish to repair drought-induced damage, or reduce lawns by substituting other plantings, may find autumn a good season to expand planting beds, mulch around current plants, and increase “hardscape” such as patios at the expense of damaged grassy areas.

“Fall is a good time to plant,” Kennedy said. Cooler, shorter days mean lawns and gardens require less water. Another advantage to planting in fall is that even if weeds begin to grow up amid or around the plantings, they don’t have enough growing time to “set seeds” for the next year, he said.


For those considering turning a piece of your lawn [or all of it] into your garden this fall, Kennedy suggests planting a ground cover such as Vinca minor (common periwinkle), which flowers in the spring, or euonymus, which prospers in the shade. “It doesn’t take high traffic,” he cautioned. “It’s aesthetic. It’s more of a garden than a lawn.”

For garden perennials and shrubs, Kennedy said, “We tend to look at native plants. One plant my gardeners hardly ever water is bluestar amsonia.” Another recommendation is vernonia, a tall flowering plant in the aster family. Asters generally hold up well in dry times, he said. “The other plant I use a lot is a shrub, spirea. It’s very drought tolerant … It’s tough as nails.”

Other hardy perennials he recommends include hosta (good for shade), daylilies, the butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa, Joe-Pye weed, and Peegee hydrangea. Ornamental trees that are holding up well in dry summers include the flowering crab apple, magnolias, and a relative newcomer called golden rain tree, a native of eastern Asia (caution: they are poisonous to dogs).

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox2@gmail.com.