Water conservation is something we all care about. Our goal as high desert gardeners is to do all that we can to minimize our water needs. This is accomplished by adding compost to soil to help it retain water, by mulching plants to keep them cool and moist and by designing responsible irrigation systems.

I have tried several types of watering styles and found that sprinkler heads work the best for water conservation and for the health of my plants. A drip system whether purchased or DIY was impractical and ineffective in the style of garden I have built. Where your bed is filled with a profusion of plants of different heights a little drip head at the base of each plant is impractical.  Trying to use drip in general zones was also ineffective. I found areas that were perfect, those that were too wet and some that got no water at all.

When to water

The time of day that you water is critical.  In the heat of summer soaking your plants from the top down, must be done very early or very late.  If done when the sun is high and hot … well you can imagine how your plants would be burned. Another factor in determining what time of day to water is wind. Wind is a fact of life in the high desert. Fortunately there is usually less wind in the early morning or late evening.

Your watering schedule must also adapt as the season changes. In the early spring while temperatures remain cool you will want to water when the day warms up – mid day or mid afternoon.  As the season warms you will want to move scheduled times to earlier or later in the day. And as it cools down again move the timing back.

How often to water

This too must change with the season and temperatures. In the early spring while temperatures remain cool watering every two or three days is sufficient. In addition this is the time you will be doing your spring cleanup and planting. You will be adding water with all of these chores so a regular watering schedule may not be necessary.

As the season heats up you will want to water more frequently. At the height of the heat watering twice a day may even be necessary. How windy it is will also affect how frequently watering is needed.

How long to water

Giving plants too little water at a time is as bad as not watering them at all. Small amounts of moisure cause roots to remain near the surface of the soil to grab any drop they can.

Giving plants too much water is equally as bad. The plants you will have in a high desert garden are mainly drought tolerant. Too much will kill more quickly than too little. Slow and deep watering does not work in the high desert as our soil does not retain moisture.  Water will flow right through.  Soil amendment helps to the roots of your plants but beyond that your water is wasted.

I have found that in the cooler season I have my system set to run for 8 minutes. As the weather heats up I bump it up to 10 minutes.

My watering schedule

Early spring

Daytime Temps 60’s to low 70’s

Late spring

Daytime Temps 70’s-low 80’s

Early Summer

Daytime Temps mid 80’s

Mid Summer

Daytime Temps high 80’s – 90’s


Daytime Temps high 90’s – 100’s

  • As needed
  • Mid day
  • 8 minutes
  • Every third to every other day
  • mid morning
  • 8 -10 minutes
  • Every other day to everyday
  • early morning – starting about 7 AM
  • 10 minutes
  • Every day
  • early morning – starting about 7 AM
  • 10 minutes
  • Every day
  • early morning – starting about 5 AM
  • 10 minutes
  • When plants are stressed add a second watering in the evening starting between 7 and 8 PM.

As temperatures begin to cool in the fall I work backwards through this schedule reducing the frequency and finally the length of watering. In winter as needed.

Any watering schedule you adopt should be monitored to ensure that it is meeting your garden’s needs. What works in my garden may not work in yours.

If you have a large number of zones be sure to start your schedule early enough in the morning that all zones have completed their cycles by early morning in the hottest parts of the summer. In my garden there are 6 waterings zones that run 10 minutes each in the summer. I like to allow about 5 minutes in between zones for my water pressure to reset. I start my cycle at 5:30 AM so that it is complete and plant tops are drying by 7 AM. The sun can be hot by then in the high desert.

In my garden sprinkler heads are on risers. I keep these relatively short in the spring to conserve water.  As plants grow it is necessary to adjust the height of the heads and monitor that no heads are being blocked from reaching their target.

Practical advice from a home gardener

I am Deborah Valiquet – artist and obsessive gardener. Here you will find my advice for creating a garden oasis in the high desert. I’ll share my experiences – successes and failures over the last 10+ years. 

Even if your garden isn’t in the high desert you will find lots of valuable information here. Let’s dig in!


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