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How To Garden In Drought And Heat

A volunteer at the USDA People's Garden tends to garlic. (Lance Cheung/USDA)

A volunteer at the USDA People’s Garden tends to garlic. (Lance Cheung/USDA)

With much of the country under drought conditions and temperatures soaring in the rest of the country, what is a backyard gardener to do?

Ahmed Hassan is a professional landscaper and former host of Turf Wars and Yard Crashers on the DIY network and HGTV. Hassan told Here & Now that the most important things to think about when prepping your garden for drought are the type of plants you use and how you treat your soil.

“You have native plants and exotic plants, plants that are native to your region are always going to handle whatever happens there better than exotics.”

How you help your soil retain moisture is also a great way to help your harden through drought.

“You can mulch or you can cultivate your soil, but either will help retain water.”


  • Ahmed Hassan, professional landscaper and former host of Turf Wars and Yard Crashers on the DIY network and HGTV.



I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

And here in the eastern half of the country, there has been a lot of rain recently. But in the West, it remains very dry and very hot. Many western states are in what the drought monitor calls D4. That's exceptional drought. That's the highest level of drought. And that's got consequences for farmers and ranchers and for gardeners. That's what we're going to focus on now with Ahmed Hassan. He is a landscape contractor who's hosted "Turf Wars" and "Yard Crashers" on the DIY network and HGTV. He's with us from the studios of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California. Welcome.

AHMED HASSAN: Hey, Jeremy. Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, thanks for being here. And I want to start by asking you just the basic question here. If you have planted your garden, do you just have to wait for the heat to kill it, kill everything or can you do something to prepare your plants for the drought?

HASSAN: The whole thing with drought conditions is understanding that there are two different kinds of plants basically. You have your native plants, which are used to your weather conditions, and then you have the exotics. And the exotics are the plants that are not used to your weather conditions, do not grow in your type of soil. Typically, all of these plants, whether they're natives or exotics, are grown in nurseries. So just bringing them home is already going to thrown them into a certain amount of shock. But you got to decide, do you really want to go with native plants or do you want the exotics that really have no business being there in first place?

HOBSON: Are the native plants going to be better prepared for a weather event like a drought that may not happen very frequently but it does happen?

HASSAN: You've really got to make sure it's native to your specific region.

HOBSON: Right.

HASSAN: Even in California, we have the coast and then you have the interior or valley area. Two very extreme differences in weather conditions and climate, yet they're both considered California natives. So, yeah, the natives to your particular area are, of course, going to fair better than any of the exotics ever could, even in spite of drought conditions and things that don't typically happen or happen every so often. These plants stand a better chance. And if you're spending money on these plants, you're going to get more of your money's worth out of these.

HOBSON: So should you be just watering them more often or what?

HASSAN: In a drought, you're typically going to pay more for water. So should you be watering them more? No. Plants should be watered when they're thirsty. And plants show you when they're thirsty by wilting. So what you should be doing is understanding and looking at the plants and saying to yourself how far can I stretch this plant before I need to water it again because I'm paying for this water? So you should be managing your irrigation, not just throwing more water at it.

HOBSON: And how does that manifest itself in a backyard? I mean, what are you supposed to be doing?

HASSAN: Well, for example, what you could do is if you have a sprinkler system and you have it set, turn it off for a while. You want to go out and look...

HOBSON: Turn it off?

HASSAN: Turn it off. We're going to do little test, right? You can even maybe have a little note pad out there by your controller, by your sprinkler timer. So turn it off. And then the next day, go out there and look around your garden. Do what we call just visual observation. Walk around and look at things. Are things OK? Great. Leave it off. Let it go the next day. If certain area is dry, you could either hand water that area or you could turn on that particular zone, give it a fair amount of time to water it, saturate the soil and then turn it back off again. And if you can stretch your lawn a day or two longer, that's what you'll want to do. So you want to start looking at how do you manage your water rather than just saying, I water it three days a week. That's not really management. That's simple automation.

HOBSON: And I've seen that there are some ways that you can plant things in different patterns and that will help you as well.

HASSAN: Mm-hmm. Larger plants, because they create shade, can help to nurse other smaller plants. It's always good if you have some trees in your landscape. A lot of homeowners don't get into planting too many trees because they're typically afraid of these trees being too big. But small specimen trees, small to medium trees will always help your garden because they create pockets of shade, which under-canopy plants can then be grown there, so it's good to have that.

And also people who do regular pruning, and they think that you have to prune your plants every year or every season, you often can skip a season and you don't have to prune these plants. And, therefore, you get larger plants, which are going to help to shade out other plants. So that's another conscious move that you can do.

HOBSON: Do people know this stuff? Do you find - or is it just amateur gardeners come up to you and ask you questions about how to deal with something like this?

HASSAN: The latter.


HASSAN: This is not rocket science. This is simple gardening, a lot of good visual observation and just being more conscientious. And the more we pay for our precious water resources, the more conscientious we become.

HOBSON: Ahmed, what about soil? How important is that? And what can we do to make sure that our soil is helping the plants that we're trying to keep alive in a drought?

HASSAN: Now, that's were the magic happens really. The more clay that's present in your soil, the more water-holding capacity and nutrient-holding capacity your soil has. The issue with soil is protecting the soil. So many of us these days will use mulch. My dad and my grandfather didn't use mulch when I was growing up. I remember when I was a kid, all the older guys, and my dad included, would cultivate the dirt, basically roto-tilling it.

If you cultivate the soil, what you do is you disturb and turn over all of the pore spaces that are made in the soil when water travels through the soil. So in essence, what you do is you slow that water down and hold it in the soil profile for a longer period of time because that water has to figure out how to get down through gravity, right? What happens with soil is soil learns how to drain over a period of time. We've all seen it with our potted plants. When you first start your potted plant, you go and you put some water on it. It puddles up there. You have to back off the water for a minute, allow that water to drain...

HOBSON: Right.

HASSAN: ...and then you can come and introduce some more water to it. The same thing happens outside in the landscape. So what we've started doing over the years is everybody applies mulch. So we applied mulch so we can retain some of that moisture. And some people think that mulch is actually improving the soil and it does minimally.

So whether you're cultivating it like grandpa used to do or you're applying liberal amounts of mulch, typically three to four inches, that's another good way of really retaining the water that's there, in and around your plants, whether it's woodchips or straw or gravel as a mulch. And, you know, if we all threw our dirty clothes out there on top of the soil...


HASSAN: ...we would mulch it with dirty clothes. But typically...

HOBSON: It wouldn't look very pretty though.

HASSAN: No. Typically, we do gravel or mulch because it's more aesthetically pleasing.

HOBSON: OK. One more question here. If your plants have died, can you revive them or is that it? You just start over.

HASSAN: Only if you believe in reincarnation...


HASSAN: ...because I don't know anything that has - that can die, and you can revive it. What's dead is dead. I always like people to understand their fertilizer is not medicine. It's not a miracle cure. Even though it might be called miracle grow, it won't work that kind of a miracle and bring it back to life.

Plants need moisture to live. They need nutrients. They don't need nearly as much as we think they do, and plants will give you signs. They will wilt. It's called the temporary wilting point. A plant can wilt. You can go out there, and you can add liberal amounts of water, flood the soil column, and that plant will perk right back up the next day. Now, if you take a plant too far in the wilting process, we call it the permanent wilting process. That means, it's dead.

HOBSON: How long do you think that the West can handle this level of drought? It's been a long time now.

HASSAN: In my own philosophical opinion, we are having a paradigm shift. People are still trying to promote these beautiful, lush tropical gardens like they see on the islands, and it's just not going to work. The solution is native plants seeking out drought-tolerant plants, never having bare soil, always using mulch - either that you can be out there like grandpa and you can turn the soil every week if you've got that kind of time - managing your irrigation and paying attention to what the plants are telling us or what they're showing us.

HOBSON: Well, Ahmed Hassan, landscape contractor and former host of "Yard Crashers" and "Turf Wars" on the DIY Network and HGTV, thank you so much.

For sure. Thank you, Jeremy.


So, of course, some states are suffering the drought, and we feel for them. Some plants are suffering the drought, and they are owned by Jeremy.


HOBSON: It's true.

YOUNG: Am I right?

HOBSON: I have a New Mexico green chili plant that I brought with me from New Mexico to Boston. And despite the rain, he was looking a little rough this morning, I have to say.

YOUNG: That's right. Just make sure it's not permanent wilt. This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: And I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • sincere_listenerviewer

    Prompted to comment for a second time in the same day’s show!  As a listener still missing Neal Cohen and Talk of the Nation, I am evaluating Here and Now as a possible new listener.  

    As also a resident of the dry and drought stricken intermountain western USA and as a serious xeriscape (reduced water use) gardener, I found Mr. Hassan’s comments on less coping with drought less than useful.

    First, to cope successfully with water shortages and a warming climate, we need a public shift in attitude and preferences toward native dry land plants and landscaping.  Planting an Eastern or European high-water use garden needs to be seen as a self-indulgent and ignorant act on a par with driving a gas hog vehicle.  Mr. Hassan did mention natives versus exotics but not as the keystone of the whole effort, as it should be.

    Second, for those currently unfortunate enough to be surrounded by such wasteful greenswards, there need to be multiple services and incentives to alter existing lawns to reduce water use.  Mr. Hassan mentions creating shade with trees as a water saving technique.  But our most difficult re-landscaping problems involve established thirsty “exotic” trees that will die without plenty of water.  There are locally developed lists of hardy and drought tolerant trees, as well as tough native species, that can provide shade and use much less water.  So gardeners need to carefully choose species for shade.  And also to explore many time-tested Southwestern methods of obtaining shade from non-green sources such as arbors, awnings, walls and fences, etc.

    Thirdly, scientific research suggests that 3-4 inches of mulch is always good in arid areas — for cooling the earth, retaining water and protecting tender plants from hot winds and temperatures.  Mr Hassan’s suggestion of tilling to retain water does not apply in our drought stressed area.

    So, more than most undertakings, gardening is mostly a local endeavor — highly dependent on local climate, temperature and soil conditions.  Dealing with the drought is a very serious matter — we need more shows on this topic.  Just please use knowledgable experts and knowledgable interviewers so we can all learn some valuable truths.         

  • Tena

    An unfortunate truth for your first commenter is that keeping a lush garden/lawn will help with home cooling costs.  A balance between water usage and helpful foliage/vegetation would seem to be appropriate.  I live in Oklahoma, which is also coping with a significant drought, and I strive to keep my trees (native pecans & oaks) alive near the house while xeriscaping further away from the house.    I see no need to create a desert near my house that would significantly impact my energy usage and cooling costs.

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