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Strategic Water Use for Permaculture & Practicality: Drought Conditions Aren't Going Away -- Just Updated!

Updated on August 3, 2015
Squeezing the trigger on a garden hose sprayer can give me the illusion that the water supply is endless and that I can afford to use all I want, whenever I want.
Squeezing the trigger on a garden hose sprayer can give me the illusion that the water supply is endless and that I can afford to use all I want, whenever I want.

Chop wood, carry water or. . .who needs the gym?

Water is heavy. Most of us don't experience that because water is delvered right to where we are. When we need some, we fasten a garden hose to a spigot or we tilt a drinking glass under the water dispenser on the fridge door.

But carrying water by the bucketful has three advantages:


1. It's great exercise. Why get your cardio speed-walking around a boring track when you can lug a few gallons of life-saving liquid out to the cantaloupe and squash beds?


2. Moving water by the pail really makes you aware of how much water you use -- and how much you waste.


3. You can use collected rainwater. A rainbrrel usually has a spigot near the base for filling a bucket.

Fill bucket & carry buckets

Fill bucket under the spigot, carry bucket goes to the garden and comes back.
Fill bucket under the spigot, carry bucket goes to the garden and comes back.

Two bucket system

I remember a comic on TV with a routine about how impatient we've all become due to instant gratifcation. He imitated someone waiting 20 seconds for the ATM to process a withdrawal: "C'mon, c'monnnn. . ."


Though we could all use the minute or two it takes for a five-gallon pail to fill under the spigot for a bit of menu planning or meditation or daydreaming, none of us can stand to wait.


If one large pail is used as a fill bucket, and a smaller one is used to take water where it needs to go, then he fill bucket can be -- you know, filling -- while the previous bucketful is giving plants a drink.


The key is to turn the spigot wheel just enough that a slow steady rivulet of water flows into the fill bucket. If the stream is kept about the same size each time, you'll quickly learn to time yourself, sensing how long it takes for the first bucket to get full. If the garden bed is near the spigot, you can go water the corn or beans and come back for a refill. If the garden is a walk from the spigot, then you'll need a reservoir near the garden bed. Another pail, a large plastic pot without drainage holes, a Rubbermaid stoarge bin -- anything can be a reservoir. Dump the carry bucket into the reservoir and go back to the fill bucket.

Proof!

I do own a garden hose. But it isn't usually attached to the spigot.
I do own a garden hose. But it isn't usually attached to the spigot.

Slip sliding away. . . downhill -- avoiding waste

Even a "flat" surface isn't usually that flat. One of water's distinguishing qualities is its way of finding a downhill path. Down to the sea in ships and all that. Water is trying to find its way back to underground streams, then to rivers, then to the sea.

And it can go where it wants, but first we need it to do its job. Often, there's a crevice or a narrow ditch which meanders away from a planted vegetable or melon. Creating a "dam" by placing a brick or a stone across the path of escape is a simple way to help water soak into the soil to reach the plant's roots.


Cutting off the escape

If you look closely, you can see a dark trail going left from the stem of a newly planted raspberry bush. This upcycled brick cuts off 90 percent of the wasted water.
If you look closely, you can see a dark trail going left from the stem of a newly planted raspberry bush. This upcycled brick cuts off 90 percent of the wasted water.

Not quite watching paint dry, but almost

A vital part of strategic watering is letting water soak down through the topsoil, rather than run off. It takes a lot of patience to stand over a small puddle, waiting for the soil to "drink" it. Directing the spout of the watering can into a plastic pot is a handy trick.

Even if the watering can has a narrow spout or has perforations for sprinkling at the end, it pays to pour the water through a recycled plastic pot with holes in the bottom. This softens the impact of the water drops. The slender stems of new seedlings won't be knocked down. Pouring the water gently into the plastic pot also prevents bounce/ricochet. If the soil surface is anything but perfectly spongy or soft, the water will hit the ground and then fly back up into the air and disperse. When you water through the plastic pot, the water will bounce but then hit the sides of the pot and fall back down.




Avoiding the big splash

I need a way to keep water where I want it.
I need a way to keep water where I want it.
The flow of water is slowed, allowing it to sink in. Also, when the soil crust is hard, water doesn't bounce up and evaporate in the hot summer air.
The flow of water is slowed, allowing it to sink in. Also, when the soil crust is hard, water doesn't bounce up and evaporate in the hot summer air.

Rolled out the barrel

The hardware store had a spigot extender which let me bring the faucet out further on this rain barrel. The barrel is up on supports to allow a 5-gallon bucket to be put under the running water.
The hardware store had a spigot extender which let me bring the faucet out further on this rain barrel. The barrel is up on supports to allow a 5-gallon bucket to be put under the running water.

Rain barrel reality

I love the plastic urn-shaped rain barrel which catches free water as it runs off my roof, I do.

However, using an actual rain barrel is another thing that itsn't as cool as it looks in gardening magazines.


1. You need a plan for overfill when it rains and rains and rains.


2. You need a backup plan for when it doesn't rain.


3. During a dry spell, take a moment to dump out the last of the water/muddy sludge from the bottom of the barrel. I turn mine on its side and then use a hose to spray it out as well as I can, then turn the barrel upside-down. If I don't rinse it out once or twice a summer, sandy mud gathers near the spot on the inside where the spigot goes through, and the spirgot runs very slowllllllly.


On the happy side, my urn-style barrel has a spot at the top that lets me plant flowers. Since the rain barrel is in the sem-shade, I chose coleus this year. I have also grown cool weather salad greens there -- spinach, cress, etc.

Ugly bucket makes a prettier world

This five-gallon bucket was at our house when we moved in. I keep it near the utility sink, ready to receive water from hand laundry & dishpan.That's a lot of water for the pea patch!
This five-gallon bucket was at our house when we moved in. I keep it near the utility sink, ready to receive water from hand laundry & dishpan.That's a lot of water for the pea patch!

Gray water & where you use it

Thrift stores have made used clothes and d├ęcor fun again. Now maybe used water will become popular too.

Gray water has been used to wash dishes or clothes, stuff like that. Before it goes down the drain, it can be used for a second purpose. If the water has chemical products in it, maybe it's best used to pour over a dirty broom or a similar task. You can also flush the toilet with it -- the rush of water will open the trap in the toilet pipe under the bowl. Another option is a bed of flowers or other plants you won't be eating.

But if the water only has a few food particles in it, then the compost pile is the place for it. If ithe water is very murky or dirty, you can let it sit until the icky stuff settles to the bottom and then pour off the cleaner water.

If there's a little soap in the water, then it's a bit alkaline. Add a little splash of vinegar to bring the pH into a more neutral range before watering a garden bed. If your soil has a lot of leaf compost, pine needles, or peat moss in it, then the soapy water may actually be helpful for making acid soil more alkaline.





Peat mix drains well

No muddy clumps, and less root rot. But peat dries very quickly so plants must be watered more often.
No muddy clumps, and less root rot. But peat dries very quickly so plants must be watered more often.

Soil mixes, or when water retention is GOOD

Sometimes it's hard to tell from the surface of the garden bed whether the roots of your plants are too wet or too dry. If you are accidentally overwatering, it's wasting water and harming your crops.

Pre-made soil mix has a lot of white specks in it. The specks are usually vermiculite or perlite, minerals which make the dirt porous. Water goes right through.


If your soil is naturally sandy, as it is here in coastal Maine, water also drains easily.

If your soil has more heavy clay, then you can be watering the dry soil crust, not realizing that down at root level, the clay soil has absorbed the previous waterings. The roots may be sitting in water, which rots them.

If the garden bed is muddy, you can add peat moss or sand or vermiculite or perlite to loosen it and let the water flow away from the roots and keep them healthy.

Flow gently sweet Afton. . .

With shortages in the western half of the country, the cost of the water bill, and the labor involved in hauling water to where it needs to be, wasting water's no good.

It's so easy to carry a watering can to a plant and yet have the plant get only a fraction of the water! With a little thought, it's simple to direct the water where you want it -- down to where the roots can pull the moisture up into the plant's cells.

Before you pour, take a moment to figure out if the ground is sloped, and pour the water from the highest point, a few inches up from where you want it to go. It should trickle down and pool around the mail stem of the vegetable or flower you've planted, then soak in there and go down to the roots. The roots generally spread to mirror the branches above. Where the branches end is where the ends of the roots are.

I suggest breaking the hose habit. It's natural to grab the garden hose, crank the water flow on, and spray water over the garden while standing there and thinking happy thoughts. If you have a very large garden, then spraying may be the only way to go. But when an enthusiastic gardener points the nozzle everywhere, most of the water is going where it isn't wanted, rather than where it's needed. Putting resources where they do the most good is a basic principle of permaculture. And here's a surprising amount of water wasted when the hose is turned on and off, and when it's moved from garden bed to garden bed. Overspray happens, even if the water shuts off when the nozzle handle is released. Pay attention the next time you use a garden hose, and you'll see water droplets flying everywhere.

My main objection to running gallons of water through the hose is that it conditions us to think of water as something for which we'll always have an endless supply. I really don't think that will be true in coming years. It makes sense to me to change my ways now, while it's a voluntary matter.

If the thought of filling a watering can and carrying it from patch to patch is too much, you can also create mini cisterns, using five-gallon icing buckets or new trash cans with lids. These can be discreetly tucked behind a shrub or a bit of fencing, and filled when it rains, with water from your roof collected in a rain barrel, or with the hose. Keep either a lid or a piece of fine window screen over the water container to keep away mosquito problems.

If the watering can is narrow enough, you can submerge it in your mini cistern to fill it. Or you can use a large coffee can or plastic tub to bail the water out. Every once in a while, I tip my cistern buckets over into a garden bed and then give them a rinse to keep them from getting scummy.

3. Use a stone, a brick, a piece of woody stem, etc. to cut off grooves or rivulets which redirect the water downhill away from your plant's roots. Slope or soil texture sometimes cause a stream of water to form a natural ditch which carries away that water you lugged to the garden before the plant can use it. If you cat off the channel, the water has another minute or two to pool and soak into the ground.

Spraying rather than pouring

Remember when people airbrushed murals on the sides of vans? Airbrushing lets a few drops of paint do the work of a dozen brushes dipped into a bucket.

The same with a garden sprayer. Often, a windowbox full of geraniums or spinach or a bamboo plant in a patio pot don't need quarts of water poured in. Pushing a forefinger down into the dirt will sometimes help you discover damp soil just an inch or two below the crust of the dirt. A garden sprayer lets you wet just that two inches on top of the soil, as well as wash off the leaves of a dusty plant, allowing the sun to do its magic on the leaf surfaces.

Heavy-duty

Dollar store sprayers break quickly. It's worth it to spend a couple more bucks and get a sprayer which will work after thousands of sprays.
Dollar store sprayers break quickly. It's worth it to spend a couple more bucks and get a sprayer which will work after thousands of sprays.

Free water. . .well, almost free. . .

The dehumidifer water-catcher has a handy handle, and I dump the clean water right into the tub where I do our laundry pioneer-style: http://mgseltzer.hubpages.com/hub/I-Never-Replaced-Our-Washing-Machine-Part-One
The dehumidifer water-catcher has a handy handle, and I dump the clean water right into the tub where I do our laundry pioneer-style: http://mgseltzer.hubpages.com/hub/I-Never-Replaced-Our-Washing-Machine-Part-One

Pulling water out of thin air -- ta daaaaaa!

A great source for "clean" gray water (clean eough to wash in, if maybe not to drink) is my dehumdifier. I use the catch bucket now instead of running a hose to the drain. It's not even that humid today and I already "made" 7 or 8 gallons of water from the air. My dehumifier's rectangular insert has a handle on it. If it didn't, I would just dump the water in with the rest of the gray water.

The suitcase-style handle means I can carry the removable bucket over to the laundry area. I use the water both in the wash and rinse portions of the washing clothes process. I do my clothes without a washing machine, which saves a lot of electricity and an amazing amount of water: http://mgseltzer.hubpages.com/hub/I-Never-Replaced-Our-Washing-Machine-Part-One


The dehumidifier does put some cost on the electricity bill, so the water I get isn't totally free, but I have to run the dehumifider anyway. And by using the bucket attachment rather than running the water out through the drain in the back, I save power because the dehumifier turns itself off when the bucket is full. Mine holds 50 pints, which is over 6 gallons. I don't really need to keep the dehumifider running all day and night to keep the basement reasonably dry, even in coastal Maine where the water table's really high. So if I factor in less electricity used, the water I collect is nearly free and over time saves a couple bucks a month on the water bill.

Thank you for reading this!

It's great that I have books on my sustainability / green living bookshelf on perennial food, the food forest, container herbs, small space urban homesteading, square foot gardening, and so on but what I really need is community. While there are some jobs that need no explanation -- weeding, idgging a new garden bed, and so on, others -- like watering, which I explored in this article -- are more complex than they seem at first. I am adding to the number of writers I follow here, as I really enjoy seeing how others raise their food and flowers, whether off-grid or like me, on-grid and okay with that.

If the rinse water's just a little soapy, it becomes wash water

I save several gallons of water a week, not to mention lugging, by pouring off water from the rinse tub where I do my laundry by hand into the bucket where i plunge the clothes clean.
I save several gallons of water a week, not to mention lugging, by pouring off water from the rinse tub where I do my laundry by hand into the bucket where i plunge the clothes clean.

I save hundreds of gallons of water every year by refusing to buy another washing machine

This house had an old Kenmore which ran for a few months after we moved in. After it stopped filling and I could see expensive repairs or replacement were in order, we talked it over and decided to do laundry without a machine.

I have two Hubs which tell about using a spinning tub called the Wonder Wash for about a year, and then about why I switched to using a plastic laundry plunger and a bucket instead. The first Hub has a link to the second one:

http://mgseltzer.hubpages.com/hub/I-Never-Replaced-Our-Washing-Machine-Part-One

Comments

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    • MG Seltzer profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Seltzer 

      3 years ago from South Portland, Maine

      I had never thought about saving shower water but now I'm going to try that. Thank you for the great suggestion and also for the vote up.

    • MG Seltzer profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Seltzer 

      3 years ago from South Portland, Maine

      Thank you! I appreciate your vote and share.

    • MG Seltzer profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Seltzer 

      3 years ago from South Portland, Maine

      Thank you. It makes me feel good when other people care about our water and resources. Gives me hope!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a wonderful hub MG, with great hints for everyone on saving water. I have a certificate in Permaculture Design, and am on the same wavelength as you. Our only water source for the house comes from rainwater takes (5000 gallons) so we know the value of water...and 5 minute maximum showers. We recycle the shower water by using large buckets to catch the water and stop it running down the drain...we wash our clothes in it as well, before watering the plants with it. We only use biodegradable detergents and soaps (often making our own). I have written hubs about self-sufficiency and Permaculture as well. Voted up.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      3 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      This is a great and very useful hub. I've learned some important points and will use them. Voted up and sharing.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Wow!What a great reminder that we'd better watch out and not take water, or any resource for that matter for granted. Great Hub!

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