Gardeners that effectively conserve water in their gardens do three things well:
- First, they plan a garden that reduces the amount of water that is needed.
- Second, they use methods that reuse water and efficiently water their plants.
- And third, they use certain techniques to prevent water loss.
But you’re probably wondering, “What specifically can I do to have a water-wise garden?” Well today I’ll be sharing some easy to do tips that you can begin implementing. All you need to do is take some time out of your day and tackle one of the 15 waterwise tips below. Let’s begin!
1. Add organic matter to your soil to hold water for your plants
One reason your soil could be wasting water is if it is lacking organic matter. Organic matter has the ability to absorb water like a sponge. An advantage of organic matter holding water is that the organic matter will release most of the water it absorbs to plants. Organic matter in soil will help you save water if your soil is sandy because the organic matter holds the water for plants instead of letting it drain through too quickly.
Organic matter can also help you conserve water if you have clay soil as well. Usually drainage problems are associated with clay soil and water might have trouble getting to the plant’s roots. Organic matter can provide space in between soil particles so water can penetrate into the soil better.
Adding organic matter to soil is inexpensive and easy to do. Just start a compost pile with some of the already present organic matter in your yard. Lawn clippings, straw, and especially fall leaves make great addition to a compost pile. You can also add things from your kitchen like used coffee grounds, tea leaves, and crushed egg shells.
Left over table scraps can also be added, but use in moderation (less than 10% of your entire compost)! Otherwise your compost bin will start to stink. Also avoid adding meat and dairy scraps.
Before planting in your garden, layer 2-3 inches of compost onto the soil, then dig or till the compost into the soil about 8-12 inches in depth. If your soil is sandy add a little more, if your soil is clay-like add a little less.
Compost can also help soil by attracting earthworms. Soil can become compacted by too much foot traffic or heavy rain compacting soil together. Compacted soil can cause runoff and prevent roots from spreading out. However, if you have earthworms traveling through the soil and loosening it up as they move it can help water and air move around better and roots are no longer restricted.
2. Mulching Reduces the Amount of Water Needed to Water Plants
There are several different ways that mulching helps with this. Here are a few:
- Prevents soil compaction and helps soil stay loose so water can pass freely to plant roots
- Reduces evaporation by keeping soil cooler so that more moisture is held in
- Prevents the growth of weeds that compete with your plants for water, nutrients, and sunlight
Unlike compost, mulch is spread over the surface of soil. Over time it can slowly decompose into the soil and provide nutrients. For flower beds and vegetable gardens, mulch like fall leaves, grass clippings, or straw work well. Grass clippings need to be applied on the thin side, maybe about 1-2 inches because they can clump if they get wet. Straw can be applied a little thicker, about 2-4 inches. Just make sure you keep the mulch a couple inches away from the plant stems.
Wood clippings work well for trees and shrubs. Make sure you avoid mulch volcano. If you apply too much mulch around a tree or shrub, you could do more harm than good. The mulch only needs to be 2-4 inches thick, without touching the base of the plant.
3. Water at Ideal Times
The time of day you water has a lot to do with how much water actually makes it down deep into the soil where your plants can use it. The conditions in the middle of the day are usually the worst.
Early in the morning and late in the evening are the best times. That is when temperatures are lowest and the relative humidity of the air increases. This means the amount of water vapor the air can hold is less, so the water you are applying is less likely to evaporate. Another factor is the wind, which also increases evaporation. Typically early in the morning the wind speed is at its lowest.
This is possibly the easiest tip to implement. Just water how you have been, but in the early morning or late evening. Of course life can get in the way and sometimes this is not practical with your schedule; however, you can easily automate a watering system. By pairing a cheap water timer with an irrigation system, you can schedule what time and how long to water, all while you are still enjoying your morning coffee or even while you are away from home.
4. Take Care of Your Plants So Extra Water Isn’t Needed
Obviously weeds take precious water and nutrients from the plants you are trying to grow. That is why gardeners work so hard to eradicate them from gardens. But a weed can actually be considered any plant growing where it should not be. As hard as it is to remove some of the seedlings that sprouted from seeds you actually sowed, it is actually important to do so.
Crowded plants are spindly and will produce less in the same area than those properly spaced that are not competing so hard for resources, including water. They are essentially weeds. You can start taking steps to correct plant growth right away. If you have plants too close together you can use scissors or pruners and cut some of the excess out, so the ones you leave behind start producing more.
Pruning plants is also important for water conservation. It is training the plant to grow and produce how you want it to. Many plants grow a lot of branches or stems and foliage instead of using their resources to produce the fruit or flowers you planted them for. That is why the professionals running orchards and vineyards prune so heavily. They can prove the results are worth the effort with their bottom line figures.
The thinning of lettuce and other greens or pulled young carrots make tasty additions to salads, so don’t let their current water use go to waste – eat them! Plants such as tomatoes will produce lots of “sucker” stems at leaf joints. You can safely prune out all but the 2 best stems, even when the plant is large, to have them put their energy into producing fruit instead of growing lots of leaves.
For perennial plants such as trees, vines or bushes it is best to do all drastic pruning in the late Fall or early Spring, so you may have to write a note on a calendar to remind yourself when to tackle those jobs. How you prune depends on the plant. Fruits usually grow on horizontal branches, so cutting out extra vertical growth before they grow in the Spring will result in larger harvests. Look in a growers encyclopedia or search online for how to prune your specific crop to be sure what you do will actually achieve what you want.
5. Choose Drought Tolerant Plants
Many plants and even certain varieties of the same type of plant have naturally, or through specific breeding, developed a tolerance for drought. They will survive, and often even thrive in harsher conditions with less water. And that should be music to your ears if you are looking for ways to save water.
They can do this in a variety of ways, such as deeper root systems, less foliage, or denser growth that is lower to the ground. With a little planning and research up front you will save yourself a lot of watering in the future.
Do a little research before buying. Look up drought tolerant plants in the gardening book section at a library or search online and find some recommended plants. To find information about specific varieties within a plant type try searching for “drought tolerant roses”, or whatever the plant is.
Another easy way is to check the descriptions or labels when buying plants. Most growers proudly display it when a variety excels in this important area. A few minutes comparing the available options can really pay off big over the course of a growing season – or many seasons if you are selecting a perennial.
6. Re-use Water From Your Home
There is no better way to be wise with water than to take water that would normally end up going down the drain and putting it to good use. Graywater is a term for any water that has been used but is still relatively clean. This does not include toilet water because it has come in contact with feces. Even though the water is used and “dirty”, such as bath water, plants don’t mind and can even benefit.
The simplest way to get started right away is by catching all the water you can at each faucet. Place a bucket or container by each faucet and instruct those in your household to direct the water in it any time they wash their hands (or produce). Another great opportunity is to catch the cold water that initially comes out when you turn on the shower to warm up before getting in. Then all you have to do is take the container and water a thirsty plant with it. Also, water that you have used to cook with can be used in your garden instead of being emptied down the drain.
Another unexpected place to save water is from your air conditioner. You can collect water from the air conditioner by collecting condensation from the condensation outlet. Just place a bucket under your outdoor air conditioner and you will be amazed by how much water you can collect.
A tip that can save you water and time transporting gray water is to have a hose handy in the garden when you are harvesting and clean your produce right there in the garden next to a plant that needs water. You can get even more elaborate on a gray water system later if you want to. Diverting washing machine and sink drains to holding containers similar to rain barrels is a great way to gather a lot of re-usable water for your plants.
Be careful when using graywater with vegetable plants. Graywater should not be used to water a garden that contains below ground food crops- like potatoes. It is safe for graywater to be used on above ground crops like tomatoes. Just make sure the graywater is applied directly to the ground and avoid splashing the part you’re going to eat later.
7. Harvest Rainwater To Save For Dry Times
It’s no secret that it rains more in certain seasons. It is also hot and dry during much of the growing season most places. Regardless of when it comes, much of the valuable rainfall lands on roofs, drives, patios, or other areas and runs off without helping your plants. If you catch the water when it is raining, you will have it to use for your plants during the dry times.
Runoff from your house and shed roofs is perhaps the easiest way to catch lots of water in a hurry. Start by placing any available bucket or barrel under the downspouts of guttering systems. Not having a guttering system is no excuse not to start though, just place containers under eaves, especially in corners where multiple roof surfaces run together and start a new harvest – of water. Then you can easily dip small containers into the large ones you caught the water in and pour it on your plants as needed.
For storing long term, such as Spring rain saved for the dry Summer months, you will want to upgrade your harvest containers to closed ones to keep out debris and keep it from becoming a breeding pool for bugs such as mosquitoes. Just don’t let that kind of formality stop you from saving some of the next rain to water your plants within a shorter time span like a week or two.
8. Group Plants With Similar Needs So Water Isn’t Wasted
This is a big one that a lot of people miss. If you plant a crop like melons, whose fruit is made up of mostly water, next to potatoes, you will have a watering problem. The extra water you have to provide for the melons is not only unnecessary for the potatoes; it may in fact cause them to rot underground. The wrong amount of water results in a big form of garden waste – not only was the water for the potatoes wasted during the time it grew before spoiling, but also all the time you put into planting and caring for it.
Even if your current planting arrangement violates the principle of grouping plants with similar water needs, it is not too late to apply the right amount of water to each plant. A simple way to do this is to use the dirt around the plants to either contain water near a plant that needs extra watering or create a barrier so that water drains away.
If you want to contain water near a plant that needs extra water, you can create a ring with the soil around the plant. That way you can fill the ringed area with water and it will be held in place until it soaks in. If you want to create a barrier for a plant that doesn’t need as much water as surrounding plants then you would create a mound that allows the water to drain.
Over the long term you can plan your garden so that you can apply an optimum amount of water to each plant. Once you have grouped plants that need similar amounts of water together it becomes much easier to make sure that plants aren’t getting too little or too much water.
9. Plant Close Enough To Provide Shade For The Roots
If you space plants so they will just be touching when mature, or even overlapping a little, it can actually save water. Think about the difference between being in the shade and being in the sun on a really hot day. There is a big temperature difference. The warmth from the sun speeds up the rate in which water is evaporated from the top several inches of soil. Even though plant roots typically go much deeper than that, they still have roots in that upper zone.
By planting your plants close enough to touch and shade the soil they create a kind of living mulch. Moist soil has increased microbial activity that will help break down organic matter into usable food and cause plant’s root systems flourish. Instead of frequent watering to try to regain this moisture level and start the soil’s biological activity again, your watering will be less frequent while still maintaining it.
If you have plants that are spaced too far apart to have this advantage, you can begin by transplanting some of them in between the others. If the plants are already large enough this would be a bad idea, or are just a type of plant that does not like to be transplanted, plant something else in between existing plants. There is no law that says plants have to be the same variety for this to work. In fact quite the opposite is true.
If you plant smaller plants at the base of taller plants the results can be amazing – less competition for available light, two crops where you normally only get one, different nutrients used by each – on top of the advantages of shade for the roots. The water you do apply can go even farther in this case because often root systems reflect plant height. Taller and larger plants will likely have deeper roots that will be using water at that level, and the new smaller plants will usually have shallower roots and be using the water from the upper levels of the soil.
10. Choose Vegetables That Will Produce A Lot On One Plant
Quick question: Which takes more water to maintain? 10 or 20 tomato plants? This is not a trick question. Obviously the 10 plants will require less water. If you choose a variety that yields more on each plant then not only do you water less but you harvest about the same amount. To find plants that yield a big harvest, start by looking at the estimated yield for plants before planting them. You can do this for all future seed or plant purchases.
Some varieties also do better in certain areas than others. By choosing varieties suited for your growing conditions you are putting them in the proper environment to produce their biggest yields. Talking to other gardeners about which varieties they have had success with, finding descriptions in catalogs of regional favorites, or finding catalogs, websites and books about certain regions are all great ways to find this crucial information.
Even if you have already planted some plants that may not be best for your area you can coax them into providing a larger harvest for the amount of water and work you put into them by fertilizing them properly and following some of the other tips in this list.
11. Harvest Vegetables As Soon As They Are Ready
It takes a lot of nutrients and water for plants to produce food. If you are serious about saving water, you have to know what stage the produce is perfect and pick it at that point. If you wait too long, plants are using extra water growing large tough fruit to protect seeds. Often larger veggies are too tough to eat, lower in nutrients, not as flavorful as younger fruit and at some point not even edible. By waiting too long you might waste days or even weeks worth of water on a useless harvest.
There is no hidden hard and fast rule that will tell you when every vegetable is ripe. Some veggies are ready when they slip easily from the vine if you pull on them gently. Luckily almost all are edible and tender when picked early, so if in doubt try one and see. If you are unsure when a particular vegetable is at its prime try looking in a cook book index for that vegetable. Often they give shopping advice on what to look for and what to avoid.
Another way is to look at the produce in stores or farmer’s markets. Keep in mind that store produce is usually allowed to get larger and tougher because it has a longer shelf life that way, so pick your produce at a younger stage and you will have that wonderful fresh flavor without wasting water letting it get too tough.
12. Choose Water Efficient Containers
Not all pots are created equal and you want to choose a container that minimizes water loss. There are several things you should look for in a container. First of all make sure the pot will contain moisture. Avoid pots that have fiber liners that you typically find with hanging baskets. Obviously they leak really badly.
If you have already purchased one of these or you received one as a gift you may consider lining it with a plastic and only punch a few holes through the plastic so there won’t be any waterlog.
There are a few things you want to look for when selecting a container. One thing is the color. Darker colors are going to absorb heat and cause more water to evaporate quicker. So choosing a lighter reflective color is more ideal. Also the material of the pot plays a role in the decision making process.
Avoid materials that are porous because the pot itself will absorb water that the plants could be using. Some of those materials include concrete, terracotta, and clay. Some more ideal pot materials that are waterproof include glazed ceramic, glazed terracotta, or even plastic. You could even transform some of your existing porous pots by painting them with a waterproof paint or putting a plastic pot inside and planting in it instead.
By applying some of the other tips on this list you can make your container garden more water efficient. By grouping potted plants together you can make use of shade to decrease evaporation. Also, installing a drip system designed specifically for containers you will be able to apply water more slowly. Water being applied slowly will allow the soil time to soak it up instead of having a puddle at the top evaporating away. Less water will also drain away because the plant’s roots have more time to absorb the water, instead of the water quickly passing through and draining away.
13. Know the Signs of Drought and Don’t Overwater
Carefully observing plants will tell you volumes about their condition and when to apply the necessary water amount. When you are familiar with a plant and how it looks typically, changes in appearance or growth will let you know something is not right. Part of this comes by experience, and as confusing as it may seem, the symptoms for a plant suffering from drought and from over-watering can actually be fairly similar.
The signs plants show will vary by the plant, but here are some guidelines on what to look for. Something to keep in mind over a week or longer period is how plants are growing. If they are just slightly under-watered, plant growth slows down and they appear stunted compared to what they ought to be. Plant foliage will usually give you the most information about how they are doing. The leaves on many plants will change from a shiny healthy look to a dull, less vibrant appearance.
Just because a plant is wilting, it is not safe to assume it needs water. More water is not always better. In fact the opposite could be true, and could result in a significant amount of wasted water and sick plants. Plant roots not only need water, they also need oxygen. Standing water or water-logged soil can be likened to drowning your plants. They won’t be able to “breathe” in oxygen from their roots because all of the air pockets between soil particles will be filled with water, and they will begin to wilt and die.
Plants that are wilting, even though the soil is still wet or damp, are probably over watered. Besides wilting, look at the leaves for other signs of too much water as well. Leaves or leaf tips turning brown or yellow, or leaves falling off while still in the growing season are other signs of possible over-watering. An odd blistering or bumpy look on leaves is also caused by too much water. By absorbing too much water, pressure can build up in leaf cells, and when the pressure is too great they will have a blister or lesion-like appearance. The cells may then rupture and die, and growths form where the blisters were.
When in doubt, always stick your finger in the dirt or dig down a few inches first to check the moisture content before assuming a wilting plant needs water. If you really want to be exact about the moisture in your soil you could even purchase a Moisture Meter online or from a gardening store.
14. Irrigate Smartly to Avoid Wasting Water
Believe it or not, by being sparing when you water you will actually end up wasting water. This happens for a couple reasons:
- First, the water will stay in the upper levels of soil, and water at that level evaporates at a much faster rate because the soil is warmer and is exposed to wind and heat from the sun.
- The second reason is tied to the first and is an important fact about plants. Their roots naturally grow toward water.
By only watering enough to wet the first few inches of soil, you are actually training the roots to stay in that shallow danger zone and telling them to not grow very large because there is not much water to be had. When it gets hot and the top layer of soil inevitably dries out, the plant will go into emergency water conservation mode – wilting and halting growth until conditions improve. When you come along and water again, or it cools off in the evening, the plant can begin recovery and start growing again, but valuable time and resources are wasted.
If your watering routine is applying water quickly and often, such as once or twice a day using a shower head on a hose, or just an open hose, you are applying water faster than it can soak in to the deep level needed. Water needs to be applied much more slowly to make sure it soaks into the soil deeply.
15. Use Drip Irrigation to Slowly and Efficiently Water Your Plants
The best way to target the proper depth of soil is to irrigate slowly and for longer periods of time, ideally with quality drip irrigation. Low quality systems typically apply water unevenly, so some places are saturated and there is runoff, while other places still need water. Start by assessing which plants are close enough together to water at the same time. If plants are fairly close together, such as in beds or rows, look at evenly spaced watering devices like drip tape.
If they are in the same area but there is quite a bit of space between them that does not need to be watered, such as pots or bushes, look into options where you can place individual emitters at each. You do not have to water everything the same way. Look for systems that are flexible that you can add more and modify later as you need to. High quality drip irrigation can typically be placed under soil or mulch. A buffer of dry material makes it even more efficient by almost completely eliminating the small amount of evaporation that still happens before the drips soak in deeply.
If you are looking for a free option that mimics drip irrigation, you could start with an empty milk carton or plastic soda bottle and poke a small hole (small enough it drips) in it with a pin or the tip of a sharp knife. Fill the container with water and place it at the base of the plant. As the water drips slowly it will naturally be absorbed deep and spread out, signaling the roots to do the same. This quickly becomes impractical if you have lots of plants though, but can still be useful for plants that are off by themselves and it is impractical to run a water line to their location.
Remember, you don’t have to do everything on this list. Pick whichever ones stand out and get started. Every little bit helps, and over time these things really add up when it comes to saving water in your garden.