Water Conservation in the Garden

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Freshwater is arguably the most precious resource on Earth, as demand increases every day but supply decreases steadily. In some areas, prolonged drought is forcing many to reconsider time-honored gardening practices. Even in areas with adequate rain, many choose to conserve water for environmental reasons, and some simply want to lower their water bill.

Regardless of your motivations, there are many options available to help reduce water use from planting to harvest. Whether you grow vegetables or blossoms, consider these aspects of your garden to optimize it for water efficiency. Be sure to check out more ways to conserve water at home.

Tips For Water Conservation in the Garden

Here is a list of effective ways for saving water in your garden.

Soil Amendments

There are various amendments that can be added to the soil before planting to retain water. Sphagnum peat, vermiculite, and compost all add moisture retention, but they each come with other effects as well.

Sphagnum peat retains moisture very well and adds some friability, but is also nutritionally empty and very acidic. It’s important to do a pH test on your soil before you add large amounts of peat, as an extremely acidic garden is not ideal for most plants. Peat is a semi-renewable resource harvested from bogs, and its sustainability depends on the rate at which it is harvested.

Vermiculite is a naturally-occurring mineral that is mined for its unique properties and used in a wide variety of commercial applications. ?Like peat, it contains no nutrients, but unlike peat vermiculite is pH-neutral. ?It can last many years depending on your conditions, and can be used in combination with any other amendment.

Compost is a great option if it’s of good quality, however there are many inferior compost products on the market today and it can be difficult for a consumer to navigate the available choices. Many options contain “biosolids,” which is the trade-name for treated sewage sludge. While sludge is nutrient-rich and safe in terms of bacteria, it contains other traces of the human lifestyle such as heavy metals and pharmaceutical residue. Don’t let these cautions deter you from using good compost, which retains moisture, adds precious humus to the soil, and is nutritionally ideal. You can always ensure quality by making your own.

Plant Choice

Some plants require more water than others. If you live in an area that doesn’t get much rainfall, favor drought-tolerant plants that don’t need too much pampering. Okra, garlic, peppers, sweet potatoes, and amaranth are all heat- and drought- tolerant vegetables, and there are many varieties of thirsty plants bred to thrive in dry conditions. For a true desert garden, try a delicious prickly-pear cactus!

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In decorative beds, consider planting local wildflowers or drought-tolerant herbs, such as chamomile, lavender, sage, and rosemary instead of traditional flowers. They are beautiful and aromatic, they attract pollinators, and best of all they need just an occasional sip of water once they are well-established. The technical term for landscaping with low water use plants is “xeriscaping,” and it’s becoming a popular buzzword in the gardening community.

Garden Layout

Block-style planting, such as the square foot method, loses less water to evaporation than row-style planting, which exposes more of the soil to the open air. Group plants with similar water needs together so that you can manage water application by bed.

Deep-rooted plants like tomatoes and squash need a lot of water early in the season, but can tolerate much less in the mid-late summer.

Lettuces and sweet corn don’t do well without constantly moist soil, but they can work together if you place lettuce on the east side of a bed and corn on the west. These thirsty plants can share wetter conditions, and a few hours of afternoon shade under the cornstalks will delay the lettuce bolting or becoming bitter.


Adding a thick layer of mulch over the soil acts as a protective barrier that accepts moisture and keeps it from evaporating. Other benefits include smothering weeds, stabilizing the soil temperature, and preventing runoff erosion. Though wood mulch is a popular choice due to its tidy appearance, freshly produced wood chips can tie up nitrogen in the soil, leading to a deficiency in your plants.

Aged wood mulches use less nitrogen, and bark chips even less. Some wood-based mulches, such as cypress, are environmentally unsustainable, so if you choose to use wood be sure to do a little research before you make your purchase.

Fallen leaves and dry grass clippings are an inexpensive and somewhat more natural option, both of which add nitrogen to the soil as they decay. At the end of the season, they can be turned under the soil to slowly compost and add humus. You must make sure that grass clippings are dry before you use them as mulch. Fresh clippings are so nitrogen-rich that they will “burn” many plants as they break down.


Traditional watering by hose can lose water through soil saturation, which results in runoff and evaporation. Drip irrigation avoids this issue by watering slowly over a longer period. (Consider the effects of a torrential afternoon thunderstorm compared to a prolonged, gentle shower.) Drip irrigation is also applied close to the soil rather than being sent through the air by sprinkler or hose, further reducing the amount lost due to evaporation.

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Drip systems come in many forms, and can be as complex as a professionally-installed timed drip hose or as simple as a few half-buried milk jugs with holes poked in the bottom. Soaker hoses are a good mid-spectrum option, touting simple installation and relatively low cost.

Rain Collection

Harvesting rainfall is perhaps the simplest way to reduce groundwater use. The easiest way to implement collection is to install a barrel under the downspout of your gutter. Remember to keep the vessel covered, otherwise it will quickly become a breeding ground for mosquitos.

A spigot installed at the bottom of the barrel will make it easier to fill your watering can, but remember to elevate the barrel in this case (perhaps with cinder blocks), so your can will fit under the spout.

Even in areas with very little rainfall, a barrel can collect those few summer showers and provide several gallons of water to sustain your garden. Some dry areas suffer from alkali groundwater, and most plants will prefer pH-neutral rainwater when it is available. Be sure to check your local regulations before collecting rainwater, as in some states it requires a permit.

Every garden is different, so think about what alterations will be the most efficient in your yard. If you incorporate just a few of these tips into your garden this year, you can become a better neighbor to those downstream and lower your water bill at the same time!

Photo by www.metaphoricalplatypus.com

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