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Be Water Wise: Water Conservation in the Garden

Updated on August 25, 2017
Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert is a Virginia Master Gardener, gardening magazine columnist, and book author. She is a full-time freelance writer.

Choose drought-tolerant native perennials.
Choose drought-tolerant native perennials. | Source

Water Conservation in the Garden

Conserving water throughout the garden is an important aspect of organic gardening. Even conventional gardeners find that using techniques to save water and help soil retain water for thirsty plants is a thrifty, frugal and smart way to garden. Gardeners in city or suburban municipalities might not realize how important it is to conserve water if they're on a citywide water system, where turning on the taps simply means water flows from a mysterious place and never ends. Those living in a rural location or dependent on well water, however, know how critical it is to conserve water at all costs. Running wells dry to maintain flower gardens, vegetable gardens or green lawns isn't just expensive - it's foolish. Techniques to keep rainwater in the ground near thirsty plant roots, save water for use later, or reduce plants' needs for water work together to conserve water. Even planting native species and low-water-use flowers and shrubs adds to an overall "water-wise" approach to gardening.

Mulch prevents water loss.
Mulch prevents water loss. | Source

Choose Efficient Watering Methods

Most gardens require some form of supplemental watering, especially near newly planted trees, shrubs and flowers. Consistent watering is the key to good growth and root development as well as flowering. Sprinklers and other watering systems can provide adequate water but many are overused or inefficient. The following suggestions offer more efficient options:

  • Soaker hoses: Most sprinklers shoot water at the leaves of plants, yet plants absorb water through the roots growing under the soil. Soaker hoses provide a steady stream of water directly onto the soil. They look like regular garden hoses but have tiny holes punched along the length of the tubing. This sends water right into the thirsty soil, so instead of using extra water to spray the entire plant, you're sending it directly to the roots. It's great for vegetables and plants such as roses that are sensitive to too much water on the leaves.
  • Sprinklers: If you use sprinklers, do not put them on a timer. Timers make it easier for the homeowner to keep up with watering but also send water to the garden on rainy days. Instead, use timers only when you're away; manually turn on the water and use a kitchen timer to remind you when to turn it off.
  • Hoses with multiple spray strength attachments: Garden hoses with spray nozzles that enable the homeowner to adjust the spray increase efficiency. You can change the strength from a solid, steady blasting stream to a gentle watering method. Always aim the hose at the roots of the plant. Don't stand there waving a sprinkle of water over the leaves and think you've watered; all you've done is dusted the plant. Aim at the soil where the plant drinks and use the gentle setting. Allow time for water to soak into the soil.
  • Dig a trench: Dig a shallow trench around vegetable plants such as peppers, eggplants and tomatoes. It doesn't have to be deep. This creates a sort of pocket where water collects in puddles after watering or rain storms. As long as the soil isn't pure clay and drains fairly well, this helps water plants more efficiently by collecting water and sending it down to the roots. It's also a useful technique when planting trees.

Add Mulch to the Garden

Mulch helps plants conserve water and reduces watering needs in the garden in several ways. No matter what type of mulch you choose, mulch:

  • Reduces the amount of water you need by preventing evaporation and keeping soil underneath moist
  • Cools the plant's roots, reducing the amount of water a plant needs
  • Suppresses heat glare, which can increase temperatures around a plant
  • Eliminates or suppresses weeds, which can take water away from the garden plants you want to grow

The type of mulch you choose is entirely up to you, and there are advantages and disadvantages to the many types of commercial mulch available.

  • Wood chip and bark mulches provide a renewable source of organic material for the garden. They're effective at retaining moisture, suppressing weeds, and keeping the ground moist and cool. However, they do break down rather quickly. By breaking down, they become organic matter that adds richness to the soil, but it also means you have to replace it more frequently than other types of mulch.
  • Artificial mulch such as shredded rubber tires, glass mulch and other materials made from recycled products also offers both advantages and disadvantages. Homeowners like the clean appearance of artificial mulch and it works very well to retain moisture and cool the soil. It also last a long time - up to 20 years in some cases, depending on the type and brand of mulch. However, some artificial mulch has an unpleasant smell (think of the smell of hot tires at a truck stop). It also does not add any richness to the soil since it is made from inorganic materials.

One last note about mulch. Some types such as cocoa hull mulch as poisonous to dogs and cats, so if you have pets, read up on the type of mulch you are thinking of adding. Ask your pet's veterinarian for information. Cocoa hull mulch is made from the discarded shells of cocoa beans, and the same compound that makes chocolate poisonous to pets is found in the shells. Curious pets can eat the mulch; it smells like chocolate or something sweet, and that's often enough to entice an animal to nibble it. Do your research before installing it.


Select Native Plants and Low Water Use Plants

Another technique to help the homeowner or gardener reduce and conserve water in the garden is to choose low water use plants and native plants for the landscape. Low water use plants are plants that naturally don't need a lot of water. Sedum, for example, offers many ornamental uses in the garden and is a low water use plant, as are many succulents, cacti and ornamental grasses. To find low water use plants, look at the tag on the pot in the garden center. Many stores such as Lowe's Home Improvement Stores add a tag that sports a blue water droplet and the words "Water Wise" (or "Water Wyse") on the tag, indicating that the plant requires minimal watering.

Native plants are those that have been hybridized or cultivated from plants that naturally grow in your gardening zone, state or region. Time and nature adapted them perfectly to the conditions of your garden, thus making them amenable to rainwater only and making supplemental watering unnecessary. Try selecting native plants whenever possible. Your local County Cooperative Extension office may have a list of local plant varieties available.

Save Whatever Whenever Possible

Although we might not think of it this way, water is a precious commodity. Save water whenever possible. Fix leaky faucets and reduce or eliminate timed sprinklers. Use a rain barrel, collecting the rainwater from your roof to use with a sprinkling or watering can to water pots. Add a saucer under planters to catch the extra water; allow the water to soak back into the pot. Dig a little trench around plants so that rainwater collects and waters them for longer periods of time. Add compost to the soil, which naturally balances clay and sandy soils alike and helps retain water. Lastly, plant native varieties and naturally low water use plants. You can still have a gorgeous garden even while saving the planet. Conserve water whenever possible and enjoy a beautiful garden.

© 2011 Jeanne Grunert


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