If you live in a dry climate and are struggling to keep your garden alive, I have some simple solutions that can help you save time and money. I know what it’s like to grow food and flowers in difficult conditions, and I’ve discovered many ways to make it easier.
The price of water is constantly increasing. By taking a few minutes to improve our garden design and watering habits, we can save water and money.
How to Save Water in Your Garden
1. Check for leaks in your plumbing and have them repaired 2. Collect rainwater in a water butt to use in your garden 3. Use a bowl to wash your fruit and vegetables instead of running water from the tap 4. Water your plants in the early morning or evening to prevent evaporation 5. Use a sprinkler for your lawn instead of a hosepipe 6. Use a broom instead of a hose to clean your driveway or patio 7. Fit a water-efficient shower head to save water and energy 8. Only run your dishwasher or washing machine when they are full 9. Take a shower instead of a bath 10. Use a plug to fill your sink instead of running the tap 11. Turn the tap off while you brush your teeth 12. Keep a jug of water in the fridge for drinking instead of running the tap 13. Only water your plants when they need it 14. Group plants together in your garden according to their water needs 1. Check for leaks in your plumbing and have them repaired. 2. Collect rainwater in a water butt to use in your garden
- Water pots in the afternoon and your garden in the morning
The timing of when you water pot plants during the day can have a significant effect on plant growth, according to research. The potted plants used in the research were grown in a pine bark-based potting mix, which is not only commonly used in the nursery industry but also is a popular choice for many home gardeners. However, pine bark-based potting mixes have low moisture retention properties, meaning pot plants dry out more quickly.
The research found that plants watered after 12.00 pm and during the afternoon performed significantly better than plants watered early in the morning. Therefore, watering container plants in the afternoon may lead to healthier, stronger plants.
The best time to water your garden, according to the University of Illinois Extension, is in the morning before it gets too hot. This way, the plants will have a chance to absorb the water before the wind picks up and causes evaporation.
Do not water your plants in the evening, especially if the leaves are wet. Nighttime temperatures are often not high enough to dry the moisture on the leaves, which can encourage the growth of fungi. However, if your plants start to show signs of drought, water them immediately – even if it is during the hottest part of the day. Waiting too long may kill the plant.
- Mulch your soil
If you don’t protect the topsoil around your plants, it will dry out and kill the roots. To keep the soil moist and healthy during summer, put a layer of mulch (compost, manure, straw, grass clippings, mushroom compost, etc.) on top. A 2-inch layer of mulch will keep the soil from drying out and reduce the amount of watering you need to do.
- Harvest water – Ways to save and reuse water
- Install a water tank rather than wasting rainwater, to maximize roof runoff and redirect it for use in your garden. Slimline tank and water harvesting systems are available for even the tiniest of spaces.
- If you steam or boil vegetables, save the water rather than tipping it down the sink! It is full of nutrients and when cooled, makes a free fertilizer for watering your plants.
- When you clean your fish tank, use the ‘old’ nitrogen and phosphorous-rich water on your plants.
- Put a couple of buckets in the bottom of your shower, while the water is heating up. Save these to water your garden every day.
- Use a Compost System. Even micro gardeners can make compost no matter how small a space you might have. Worm castings and compost hold moisture in your soil and help retain nutrients where they’re needed. Whether you make or buy a worm farm or mini compost system, you will add a valuable water-saving resource to your garden. Frugal gardeners needn’t buy a compost bin – there are many microsystems you can make yourself. I’ve made several low-cost compost systems that work well including converting a 60-liter black garbage bin by drilling 1cm holes on the sides and base and covering it with the lid. It can be turned regularly by simply rolling it on its side!
- Bokashi (fermented grain) Buckets. These mini indoor compost systems are another efficient way to compost food scraps and add moisture to the soil. They are available commercially but if you’re a thrifty gardener you can easily make your own. All you need are a couple of buckets the same size – one fitted inside the other with holes drilled in the base of the top one to allow the liquid (fermented juice) from the scraps to drip into the base of the lower bucket. Finally, fit the lid to the top bucket. You then just dig the scraps into your garden or add them to the compost and dilute the juice to use as a fertilizer.
- Worm Farms. There are many DIY worm farm options providing you with valuable worm castings that are pure humus and hold maximum moisture in your soil or invest in a commercial one. A mini in-situ worm farm I use is the Little Rotter. It’s compact, made from safe plastic, and adds humus where you need it (directly in your garden). A great way to save your plants in times of drought or severe dry weather.
- Use seep hoses & automated irrigation
Water seeps through holes in a seep hose slowly, providing a continuous supply of water to plants without waste. Seep hoses can be hidden under compost or placed near a plant’s stem, and can even be connected to a water butt instead of a tap.
Small drip line systems that you attach to an outside tap are ideal for watering your veg patch. Automated irrigation systems are set on timers so they water your plants slowly and without you needing to be there. There are also smaller drip line irrigation systems for container gardens.
- Make a water-wise pot choice if container gardening
Be sure to consider the climate and location of your plants when choosing containers, as different materials can cause plants to overheat or lose moisture. For example, metal conducts heat quickly, so raised beds and containers made of metal will require more watering in hot climates.
Pots that are unglazed, like terracotta, will dry out quicker because water will escape through the porous surface. To prevent this, it’s important to use a potting mix that is good at retaining moisture. I make my own potting mix for this reason.
If you’re set on using a metal or terracotta pot, consider using it as a cachepot, or an outer decorative pot. This will allow a smaller, less porous pot inside to retain moisture.
- Water containers when the compost feels dry
It is common for people to have problems with watering containers due to either under-watering or over-watering. In the winter, I do not water my plants at all, but this is because of the wet climate. During the summer, I will check the moisture of the soil by poking my finger in it. If the soil is dry, I will water the plant. If the soil is moist, I will not water the plant that day. This is a simple process.
- Reduce the impact of water-guzzling plants
Species with low water needs will save you time and money in the garden. These include:
- established or slow-growing plants;
- small plants;
- varieties with small or narrow leaves;
- grey or silver foliage; or
- leathery, hairy, curled, or fuzzy leaves that typically require less moisture.
Growing a majority of thirsty plants that suck up moisture can steal your time and money! These include:
- those with high fertilizer needs;
- species with large leaves;
- newly planted vegetation; or
- fast-growing species.
Large leaves require and transpire more water than slender leaves. Leaves that reflect more of the sun’s radiation (e.g. gray or silver) usually lose water through transpiration at a lower rate than green leaves. Plants that can tolerate higher leaf temperatures also evaporate water at a lower rate. For example, herbs like small fine-leafed rosemary and thyme have minimal water needs compared to larger leafed basil. Natives and succulents may make better choices than some of the more common landscape plants, so do a garden ‘audit’ and make water-wise choices.
The College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona states that there is a difference between drought tolerant plants and low water use plants.
Some plants can survive long periods without water, but will use large amounts of water if it is available. These plants go dormant when there is no water and become active again when water is present. “Many plants that are not normally considered to be low water users will use water very efficiently when soil moisture is limited. Some plants that are considered low water users will use large amounts of water if it is available, but will return to using less water when it is not.” So the message is: low water use plants will not conserve water if they are given access to large amounts of water!
- Check weather and soils
If rain is expected, it’s a good idea to turn off your automatic sprinkler system to save water and money. Additionally, climate, location, and season can affect how much watering your garden needs. For example, cooler temperatures, high humidity, winter, shade, and lack of wind require less watering, while hot, windy summers with low humidity demand more irrigation. Try to include some tall plants or structures in your garden to provide more shade.
Soil type and location affects how much water plants need. For example, plant in clay soil that is covered in mulch will need less water than plants in sandy soil that is not covered in mulch.
- Use a moisture meter
This tool helps you understand how much moisture your plants need. It is accurate and easy to use. soil that is 10-30% moisture is too dry and needs to be watered. Soil that is 40-70% moisture is just right and no action is necessary. Soil that is 80-100% moisture is too wet and you should avoid watering.
Try using a screwdriver or a chopstick to check the moisture in the soil. If it goes in easily, there is no need to water. If it is difficult to insert, then water the plant. Using a watering can is a good way to make sure you are not watering too much.
- Capture water with good design
Using a variety of design principles in your garden will help you retain moisture where you need it by storing moisture in the soil and can even assist run-off in areas that get too wet. Some simple principles to apply are:
- Use water-loving plant species that suck up moisture in boggy areas.
- Use diversion drains, swales, and terraces to help intercept water flow and spread it out. This will help water seep slowly into the ground where you want it rather than being lost into drains and causing erosion.
- Build mounds around trees and shrubs to reduce runoff and allow moisture to soak slowly into the soil around the canopy drip line and roots.
- Good design also applies to pruning. Remove unnecessary lower branches and leaves from trees. Not only does this create a more structurally appealing tree by ‘lifting’ the eye up to the canopy, but with fewer leaves, there is less moisture loss and this lowers the tree’s water requirements.
- Collect rainwater
This will catch the rainwater and stop it from going to waste. To save water, attach a water bag or two to your gutter and downspout system to catch rainwater and prevent it from going to waste.
- Recycle water
You can use dish soap, shampoo, and soap on plants, as long as you water it down first. So if you’re looking to save some water, you can reuse your dishwater or bath water for your plants. All you need is a plastic tub to easily transport the water from inside to outside. If you have greywater from your sink, tub, or washing machine, you’ll either have to bail it out or install custom plumbing.
- Use ollas
Ollas are ancient tools used to water crops in arid climates. They are made of terracotta, which wicks water from the inside out. This is why they can get moist after you water them. They are placed in the ground, where they slowly release water to the plants around them. You can purchase custom-made ollas, but they are expensive. It is better to make your own using terracotta pots.
- Watering with sprinklers
If you have a good layer of mulch and water in the evening, a sprinkler can help you save water. However, it can be tricky to figure out how long to run it.
A method to determine this is to place empty glasses around the desired sprinkler range. Turn on the sprinkler and allow it to run for a minimum of 20 minutes. Afterward, measure the water level in each glass with a ruler. A vegetable garden needs 1.5 inches of water per week. If the average water level in the glasses is 1 inch, then allow the sprinkler to run for an additional 10 minutes to make up the deficit.