10 Tips for Growing Potted Plants with a Water Shortage

Container gardening is an awesome way to have more control over what you’re growing. One of the downsides of growing in plant pots and other containers is that they might need to be watered more often than an in-ground garden since they tend to dry out more quickly.

This doesn’t always matter, but it becomes an issue when you’re facing drought or water shortages.

How can you care for your plant pots well when there’s a water shortage in your area? Here are a few really effective ways to counter water shortages and keep your potted plants happy and thriving!

1. Give Your Pots More Shade

When the weather is hot, plants need more water to stay hydrated, especially if they’re heavily exposed to the sun. You can reduce the amount of water they need by providing more shade to keep the soil from drying out quickly.

Shading your plants can be as simple as hanging mesh netting that blocks a small portion of light, or moving your plant pot somewhere it will get partial sun instead of full sun. The good thing about potted plants is you can move them around fairly easily. By moving your pots somewhere they get a little less afternoon sun, you can water them less frequently and reduce your water usage.

2. Grow Vertically

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching your plants water themselves! Vertical growing is the simplest way to reuse water without having to collect it. Stack plant pots, grow bags, and other containers in a way that allows water to drip out from the top plants to those below.

You can do this in a few different ways, such as:

  • Slotted or wire shelving
  • Wall-mounted planters
  • Hanging containers
  • Planter stands above ground containers

Make sure you set it up so that watering the top plants allows water to drain down into the containers below with all the other plants. This is recycling at its best. Plus, it makes upkeep a lot easier!

3. Reuse Water

Collect water wherever possible and use it to water your plants. Plants don’t have to have clean drinking water, so you can use non-potable water as long as it’s free from harmful chemicals or substances.

Depending on what you’re growing, you have a variety of options for water recycling. For edible plants, stick to the cleanest water you can get to reuse, such as:

  • Rainwater collection
  • Plant pot drainage
  • Freshwater from outside

For decorative plants, you can use grey water that’s collected from washing your hands, washing dishes, or other similar activities. Because there can be soap and other materials in the water, it may not be appropriate for edible plants, but it’s often safe to use for decorative plants as long as you’re also using clean water intermittently.

4. Grow Native Plants

Native plants tend to adapt to local weather conditions better than other species. If you’re looking for new plants to cultivate while there’s a water shortage, look for drought-tolerant native species that can handle the conditions more comfortably.

Many non-native plants have more particular requirements than native plants because native plants are already used to the regular weather and can adapt to more extreme circumstances. Non-native plants may not be fully compatible with your growing zone and conditions, making them less adaptable to extreme conditions.

If you’re looking for a way to add new plants to your garden while there’s a water shortage in your area, do some research to find out about the native varieties available to you. Alternatively, you can find non-native plants that thrive in similar growing conditions.

5. Get Appropriate Pot Sizes

Potted plants are at a disadvantage when there’s a water shortage since the soil can dry out more quickly in a pot than it would in the ground. You can help your plants out a lot by making sure they’re in appropriately sized containers that give enough room for the roots to spread out.

When your pot is the correct size, you can use a pot of any material, even porous materials like terracotta or clay. Since the roots will be properly spread out, water will not be absorbed too quickly. The soil will be able to hold onto enough water to keep your plants healthy rather than drying out too quickly between waterings.

As your plants grow, they usually need a little more space. If you haven’t sized up your plant pots for a while, it might be time to repot them to help your plants weather the draught a little better.

6. Use Slow Watering

Pouring water on plants works, but it can also waste a lot of water since it will drain through the soil quickly. Instead, you can try slow watering methods that keep the soil moist by releasing a little bit of water at a time over a long period.

The best ways to do this are by using bottom watering or clay pot irrigation with an olla.

Bottom Watering

Bottom watering is where a plant pot sits in some kind of water reservoir that allows it to absorb water from outside the pot as needed. Watering plants from below means you are less likely to waste water by spilling it or draining it out of the plant pot. The water will be drawn up into the soil from below and the plant can get what it needs without any water being wasted.

Self-watering pots are a good example of this. These pots are made of two pieces: a pot for the plant and a larger pot for it to sit inside of. The inner pot is made from a porous material or has multiple access points for water to enter the soil from below, while the outer pot just needs to be sturdy enough to hold the inner pot and a small amount of water.

Clay Pot Irrigation (Olla watering)

This is a watering system that allows water to be drawn into the soil slowly as needed. For this system, you use an olla, which is a pot made of a porous material such as unglazed clay or terracotta. They can be small or large, depending on the size of the planter you’re using.

Ollas work by slowly watering the soil from the inside. They’re circular pots with a tall cylindrical spout and a lid. The pot is fully buried with the top of the spout sitting about an inch or two above the soil. As the soil around the olla dries, the water will automatically be drawn out of the olla to balance it out until the olla is empty.

Ollas can be refilled as the water levels get low, keeping the soil moisture at a steady level.

Why These Watering Techniques Work

Both bottom watering and clay pot irrigation work for the same basic reason. They reduce your overall water usage by keeping the soil at a steady moisture level without constant watering. Since you’re not dumping excess water on the plants and you’re only using enough water to fill a receptacle, there’s no spillage or wasted water, and the soil around your plants won’t dry out either.

7. Water at the Right Times 

When water is in short supply, you need to pay more attention to weather when you’re watering your plants. The more sun there is when you’re watering, the more water will evaporate rather than soaking deeper into the soil. Because of this, it’s best to water in the early morning to give the water time to soak down into the soil.

With some plants, you can water in the evening instead of the morning. The issue with evening watering is that you don’t want to leave a lot of moisture sitting on plants overnight because of issues with fungus, mildew, and other diseases.

Watering at the right time will allow your plants to benefit from the water more, keeping the soil moisture levels at a more stable level and giving your plants a chance to absorb enough water for the heat of the day, even if you use less water.

8. Water Deeply

The more thoroughly you soak water into the soil, the better your plants will resist heat and deal with intermittent watering. Deep watering helps plants establish deeper roots that will fair better in various weather conditions.

You can train your plants to grow deeper roots by spacing out your watering instead of watering daily. Plants may wilt a bit between waterings while you’re training their roots, but they will recover! Start spacing slowly and remember to water deeply each time.

9. Mulch Your Plants (with Organic Materials)

A good organic mulch will hold moisture in the soil more effectively, keeping potted plants healthier with less frequent watering. Potted plants are easy to mulch because they have a much smaller surface area, so you can use a high-quality mulch that will retain moisture while also adding valuable nutrients into the soil mix.

A few good choices for mulch made from organic materials are:

  • Straw
  • Wood chips or shavings
  • Dried, shredded leaves
  • Buckwheat hulls
  • Grass clippings
  • Pine needles
  • Shredded paper
  • Tree bark

If you want a little extra nutrient value and water retention, add a layer of compost on top of the soil before you place the mulch down.

10. Create a Healthy Soil Mix

The healthier your soil is, the better it will be for your plants when there’s less water to go around. Healthy soil doesn’t get as compacted and it retains water better while allowing roots to spread and absorb more nutrients. You can improve the soil health in your containers by mixing in the right nutrients and materials in the existing soil with top layering and compost teas.

What you want is a good portion of organic material in the soil to help water soak into the soil more efficiently and stay there. As this organic material breaks down, it adds valuable nutrients to the soil that your plants can use. Organic matter like compost also loosens up hard soil to keep it from compacting with irregular watering. For sandy soil, organic matter keeps water and nutrients from rushing out of the soil when the plant is watered.

To make a healthier soil mix, mix in some of the following types of organic matter when you’re repotting your containers:

  • Compost
  • Clean garden clippings
  • Straw
  • Manure mixes
  • Peat moss
  • Leaf mold

Compost is the simplest thing you can add. It’s made from broken down organic matter, so it’s a good source of nutrients, but it also adds enough solid organics to the soil to improve drainage.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with water shortages while gardening is challenging, but it’s not impossible. You can have a thriving container garden, even with very limited water. By practicing the right watering techniques, potting in appropriately sized pots, and implementing good soil management, you can keep your container garden healthy and strong, no matter how much water you have available.

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