How I water my garden in a California winter drought

Salvia 'Bee's Bliss' never gets water. Planted at chaparral edge.

I titled this post carefully - I'm not an expert. This is just what I do, and I'd love to hear from other native gardeners. How are you dealing with this winter drought?

This post is based on a question by frequent commenter Ed Morrow of Carmel Valley, which a beautiful area south of us and inland from the town of Carmel. Its climate is somewhat similar to my ridge-top climate, which tends to be warmer and dryer than in the valleys around me. Ed said:
It's time to start pulling the hoses and doing some hand watering. But how much and how often? Is there some good way to judge how much water to apply, is there some best way to apply it? Should I invest in a soil probe to see how deep the moisture goes? Any ideas? How much and in what way to water during our winter drought?
Maybe Town Mouse will add her thoughts to this post. She's more aware of watering, and does use soil probes. She also has a city watering bill, whereas I have a quarterly well-water bill that is not based on consumption! I'm not lavish, but I'm not niggardly either.

It's been dry since our one good winter storm in very early December. We are all hoping for the next promised drenching, supposed to hit north of here in a few days. The last promised storm stayed north of us, so we are fingers and toes crossed!

For a while after the last rain we had some good fog drip, but in the past six weeks or so, with temperatures into the seventies and even eighties, I've been hand watering. Here's how I've been coping.

Where I have seedlings, I water fairly lightly and often. Once a week, maybe more if the sun is beating on them all day. Their roots are not that deep, and they dry out quickly, especially in fluffy garden soil.

Planted from local wild seed, Clarkia rubicunda (ruby chalice clarkia), reseeds freely in my garden. 

I also water recent plantings, maybe once a week, once every other week - depending how recently they went in. I give them a bit more of a focused soak. I move from plant to plant to plant, and back again to give the water a chance to sink in. It's a pleasant and relaxing task - if you have the time to do it. Probably each plant gets around 20-30 seconds of hose time.

I water chaparral plants either not at all (I have a large wild chaparral area), or way less than riparian/shady plants. I don't have that much time - or water.

Salvia mellifera, black sage, local wild native at garden edge, never gets water

I also know the soil: where the water sinks in easily and stays wet longer; where the bedrock is not far below the surface, and more frequent watering keeps things going.

I check the turgidity of tender plants - but sclerotic (stiff-leaved) plants like manzanita don't droop, so it's harder to tell with them. Then again, they are sclerotic to withstand dry periods, so I don't worry too too much. Just a little. How much drought can they take?

Our local wild manzanita, Arctostaphylos crustacea var. crinita is starting to bloom!

I mimic the season. I don't think you can give too much water in winter because nature dumps - or used to anyway - tons of water at a time in winter. We also typically get some coastal fog and foggy-drizzle - not as much as lower places, but we do get our share. Fog just dampens things down, so I do some of that kind of light watering too.

Wild local native madrone, Arbutus menziesii, with exceptional blossoms this year. I've been watering new plantings on the slope it grows on. I think it benefitted!

The old finger in the soil is another test, for potted plants: If you feel dampness, no need to water. I'm sure probes and all that are better than the finger test.

I have salvias that look happy with no water, and a potted coreopsis that droops if I miss a couple days.

Deep watering is good, of course for deep-rooted plants. But even plants with deep roots generally have shallow roots too. True, if they never get a deep watering (from man or nature) maybe they won't put their deep roots down so far. But I guess I don't worry so much about deep watering to get them over dry spells. Also, I just have too much garden to do deep watering!

Pink flowering current (Ribes sanguineum glutinosum var. glutinosum) is a joy in the winter garden! This one is in the shade and gets a bit of extra water because of nearby new plantings. It is a plant that benefits from a bit of watering.

Coast redwoods, for all they are so tall, have very shallow roots. (They interlock to keep the trees upright in high winds.) In extremely warm winter drought periods, I would probably water planted ones like Ed's (he didn't plant them!) maybe every month, for say 20 mins of sprinkler time. Just a guesstimate. My natively-here trees are looking OK still and I never water those. But I worry about them all the same. How many dry winter years can they take? Coastal redwoods only grow where there is fog drip along the California coast.

I also like to give foliage a bit of a spritz because I think the plants would enjoy (yes, enjoy) that, and it gets the dust off.

Budbreak on a young buckeye tree (Aesculus californica). They're native near here, but I planted this one as there are none on our ridge. Buckeyes are drought tolerant - though this one may get a little water from the slope above, which I'm watering lightly to help new plantings get established.

I think how much to compensate for lack of rain depends on how deep the plant roots go, and what type of plants you're watering, and how recently they were planted. And also how much time you've got to fuss over them — as well as your water bill!

How are others living with winter drought coping? I'd love to know…


keith said…
I think it is important to be able to read your plants for water stress. For example if you have new growth weeping, you probably need to water. On the other hand if your leaves are harden off and it is winter, chances are you don't need to water because very little photosynthesis occurs through hardened leaves.
It is interesting to know that most roots are no deeper than a foot. Tap roots are an exception.
There are some oaks that start off with a tap root but lose their tap root as soon as the horizontal roots are sufficient to take over.
Yes, you can water almost every day during the winter and not kill your plants. This is because the soil temp is too low for harmful organism to thrive.
I am always concern when someone tells me they don't have to be worried about using too much water because they have a well, Duhh!
Country Mouse said…
Thanks, Keith - these are good guidelines - and good info especially about the tap roots. I have naked buckwheats which do have a long tap root, and wasn't sure what other natives depend on a tap root. Still, a foot is a long way down, especially when you stand there with a hose or move hose sprinklers around for a deep watering.

I agree with your concern about people on well water - I water very little compared to neighbors with "conventional" or vegetable gardens. On the other hand, I know Ms. Town Mouse is even more water-conscious than I am, so I guess I'm no saint.
Diana Studer said…
the Ungardener puts out the rain guage, to see how much water the sprinkler offers. Sets the timer for 20 minutes, then moves it on. We are watering our new trees and shrubs thru their first summer - but it is SO different to Porterville. I have plants flourishing and blooming, that battled to stay alive there. Pots like Streptocarpus I water whenever I see them yelling THIRSTY!
Grandma C said…
Thank you for the post. The lack of rain has me worried too. I have a few potted plants that I water by hand the rest I left up to nature when a California native plant take over my lawn. So far it is still green and has not been watered by me just the coastal fog and little rain we have had.
Country Mouse said…
I'm curious, Grandma C, about what California native might take over a lawn?? Diana - starting a new garden, attached to the old garden - what a situation! Maybe I'm projecting, but it would be hard for me to leave this place, unfinished as it is — and probably always will be!

Diana Studer said…
it was hard 2 years ago when we first thought of moving. Now a new chapter, and I can start again, deliberately choosing indigenous (with very few exceptions). This is fun, tracking down interesting new to my garden plants.
Country Mouse said…
Yeah, I can see that, Diana - a fresh start, with all you've learned over the years, and a different situation - Many happy gardening days and years ahead!
James said…
I think my strategies are similar to yours: seedlings, new plants, priority one. This year's dryness has been frustrating in that I've had to water so many more plants. Friday was devoted to deep watering, and the hoses were going most of the day as I tried to hydrate soil that's lost much of its deep-soil water recharge from the last of the meaningful rains six of seven weeks ago. Patches of well-established locally-native plants like bladderpod and black sage got no extra water since they've done fine without extra help. But just about everything else has gotten some extra help. I'm ready for some "normal" weather patterns. Aren't you?
Jane Strong said…
I think this is an excellent post and the question of how to water when the winter is dry is very pertinent and needs wider coverage.

First, I am in southern California and have had even less rain than you have. I water by hand and have never had any "systems" drip, sprinkler or otherwise, so it's work.

If you haven't read the late Bert Wilson's thoughts on drip and sprinkler irrigation, they are available on the Las Pilitas website. He thinks that CA natives should not have drip or soaking unless they originated in boggy places.

Most coastal sage scrub plants exhibit what is called seasonal dimorphism, that is, they have two sets of leaves and roots, long roots and small leaves for summer and large soft leaves with shallow wide-spreading roots for winter, the rainy season. California sagebrush is an excellent example of this.

Last winter I watered mimicking the seasons, using a slow back-and-forth sprinkler like an Old-fashioned CA soaking rain which I haven't seen since about 2008, was it?

The older plants survived very well, and once the rain came in December, albeit sparsely, they looked very good. One of the very few advantages of drought is that the plants are bug-free, no aphids or scale.

Of course, I did have to water the things I've kept in pots because I haven't felt that they would survive in the ground when it is so dry.

Take a look also at this new website for some ideas of what to plant that will survive and thrive in our climate: