How to Save and Care for Drought-Stressed Plants

It’s a hot summer day and your plants are looking…not so healthy. They are withering, they are falling off – they can even be dry and crunchy.

It doesn’t require an expert gardener to recognize the signs of drought stress in plants. While over-watering can often kill plants as quickly as less water, we typically don’t overwater our plants because we recognize how big their need for water really is.

Unfortunately, sometimes there are situations in which it is not possible to provide our plants with the water they need. When water resources are scarce, it is easy for our plants to become stressed – therefore, knowing how to relieve drought stress as quickly as possible is essential.

Here are some tips that will help you (and your plants) make it through the summer without (mostly) completing it.

How much water do most plants need?

In recent years, in particular, drought has been a major concern for both commercial and recreational producers across the country.

If drought is a recurring or occasional problem in your area, it’s important to identify how much water the plants you’re growing are going to need. In some cases, if you live in an especially dry area, growing drought-tolerant plants with minimal water requirements is ideal.

The water requirements of plants vary greatly. You need to consider the species and age of your plant, your soil type, its risks, and more.

For the most part, a plant needs about 1 inch of water per week. Again, this varies depending on the individual characteristics of the plant but is a good general approximation to shoots.

Remember that plants need more water when they are young as well as when they are growing in fast-draining, sandy soil. Consistency is important in your water. Many plants, such as tomatoes, break out and become more susceptible to diseases such as blossom end rot if the plants are left to dry out, then over-watered.

Get yourself on a good irrigation schedule. It’s a good idea to use automatic sprinklers or, even better, drip irrigation systems or soaker hoses. Allocate about 1-gallon of water per square foot of garden space each week. If it doesn’t rain, you’ll have to provide this water yourself. In extremely hot weather, even more may be necessary.

What does drought stress do to plants?

A drought-stressed plant will display many telltale symptoms. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are similar to those presented by over-watering. Therefore, it is important to keep track of individual plants as well as the weather forecast to determine whether your plants are affected by drought or some other problem.

Plants affected by drought usually first display symptoms in their older leaves. As the drought continues, the leaves turn yellow, dry out and become brown and brittle, and then drop from the plant, with symptoms relapsing at the young stage.

On a tree or shrub, water-starved plants can also suffer from twig and branch dieback.

In some cases, drought can also cause root damage. This, of course, often leads to the death of the plant.

As you might expect, the longer the drought, the more damage the plants will do. Droughts that occur early in the growing season are most damaging, as the plants are young, actively growing, and preparing themselves for summer. They do not yet have the necessary resources to face such tensions.

How to help plants hit by drought

Here are some tips to help you get your thirsty plants back on the right track.

1. Water

Plants affected by drought need to be treated differently than healthy plants. They require more water and nutrients because their roots are starving for both. The best option is to water the plant deeply, saturating the ground around it, then wait until the soil is dry before watering again.

Shallow watering every day or two will only make things worse for your plant because they can’t take in enough of what you’re giving them, so it goes into the mess below without doing any good.

It’s tempting to douse your dry plants with lots of water, but it’s unfair. Too much moisture will suddenly stress your plant further, causing damage to the small, delicate roots that are working hard to become established. Start by keeping the soil just moist, then water deeply during the growing season, only once or twice a week.

This will give your plant time to rest, recover and fully hydrate before watering again.

2. Prune

If your plants have had severe dieback, your best bet may be to prune them heavily. This will prevent your plant from wasting energy on growing those dying plant parts and instead allow that energy to be redirected for more productive growth.

A general rule of thumb is to reduce the mass of the entire plant by about a third. This will reduce the overall footprint of the plant, thereby reducing its water needs.

When dieback is widespread, you may need to cut a plant back to about 6 inches from the ground. This technique works best with perennial shrubs and trees. If you’re lucky, the plant will begin putting out new, healthy growth at its base.

Another benefit of pruning is that it can reduce the chance of diseases and pests targeting your drought-stressed plants. The less tissue they have to eat, the better.

Avoid pruning when the temperature is high. Removing damaged foliage during hot weather can also be harmful because even when injured, the dying leaves provide some protection from the elements to the rest of the plant.

3. Fertilizer

It is important that you feed plants affected by drought very carefully, as applying fertilizer at the wrong time will burn your plants and cause further stress. Fertilize lightly using an organic, slow-release product. Harsh chemicals that add a sudden influx of nutrients can cause widespread damage.

Too much fertilizer is far worse than too little – so when in doubt, avoid fertilizing if your plants are suffering from some sort of drought stress.

Also, keep in mind that after you fertilize, you’ll need to give your plants extra water.

4. Weed

When it comes to a garden affected by drought, weeds aren’t necessarily to blame—but they aren’t going to help your problem. Weeds will compete with garden plants for nutrients and water.

Because weeds adapt well to the areas in which they are growing, they will almost always win out in competition for resources.

Therefore, you must take steps to prevent and remove weeds throughout the growing season.

5. Radish

After watering, weeding, pruning, and possibly fertilizing your plants, it’s time to prevent them from being affected by drought again.

Of course, getting yourself on a good irrigation schedule during periods of drought is the best way to prevent drought stress. However, you can reduce the effects that hot, dry weather has on your plants by mulching around them. The mulch will help the soil retain moisture for a longer period of time as well as reduce competition from weeds.

Use organic mulch such as straw, hay or light-colored wood chips. These will keep the soil cool and moist while adding nutrients. You can apply mulch about 3-4 inches thick, but leave a few inches empty around the stem of your plant to prevent rot.

Even adding organic matter, such as compost, to the soil gradually over time can help your plants better cope with drought-like conditions. It improves soil structure, making it easier to retain moisture during dry seasons.

Will drought-affected plants recover?

In many cases, you can revive and completely save dried plants. As long as they haven’t been left without water for too long or the roots have been seriously damaged, you can help your plants bounce back.

In general, older, more established plants will be able to recover more easily than younger plants. Actively growing plants that are early in the growing season may suffer from overwatering.

Plants affected by drought can usually recover from the effects of very little water. However, the key to helping your plants bounce back is to make sure you’re meeting their water needs—and be consistent in your approach to irrigation.

Follow the tips above and get yourself on a schedule – you’ll find that your plants can flourish even when Mother Nature gets in your way!

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