The Basques say that a lantern's value increases at dusk; water also becomes more precious when in short supply. Times of drought inspire gardeners to reduce water usage, but it's hard to know where to begin. You don't need a magic-wand-style transformation to move your garden into the realm of water-sparing. Baby steps taken regularly, will get you there. It's more a matter of pulling a new habit -- not a rabbit -- out of a hat.
Let Your Soil Do the Work
Some soils hold onto water longer than others, so start transforming your garden from the ground up. The more organic material you work into your soil, the more water it safeguards for your plants to absorb over time. Use worm castings, shredded autumn leaves, dried lawn clippings or that soil super-food, organic compost.
Turn Lawn Scraps into Water-Wise Soil
It's real life alchemy – turning kitchen and lawn detritus into compost, the gardeners' equivalent of gold. Use fancy compost bins or just make a pile in the backyard, mixing layers of dry material (like dried leaves or grass) and wet material, like veggie and fruit peelings. In a matter of months, you'll have the ideal product to help your garden soil increase the water it holds.
Plant Low-Drinking Plants
Guests make or break the party so be selective when inviting plants into your garden. To focus on the low-drinking crowd, pick perennials over annuals, natives over exotics, and plants with small leaves over those with saucer-size foliage. Make succulents a part of the magic circle; the thick leaves serve as the plant's own water-storage system.
Get Rid of Weeds
Exclude gate crashers from your party. Weeds are more than a nuisance; they are a water-grabbing nuisance, preventing your plants from getting the full benefit of the water you apply. A simple exclusion charm would be welcome here but it's more likely to be hands-and-knees work, pulling out the uninvited by their roots.
Mulch may not look like pixie dust, but nothing you layer around your plants provides more of a magical boost to your water-saving efforts. Spreading 3 inches of material on the soil surface slows water evaporation, cools the soil temperature and keeps down weeds. Select organic mulch (like compost, fallen leaves or chipped bark) since it enriches the soil as it disintegrates.
Water Your Plants at the Coolest Part of the Day
If it's water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink in your garden, rethink your watering schedule. Plants lose water to evaporation in the heat of a summer afternoon, so choose a cooler time to irrigate. You don't have to set your alarm for the witching hour; irrigating in early morning lowers evaporation significantly. Don't sprinkle daily; give good soaks less often and only when the soil is dry a few inches below the surface.
Group Your Plants According to Their Water Needs
If thirsty plants mix with others in garden beds, the drought tolerant are sure to get more than they need. Plants can be water thrifty when water is scarce, but heavy drinkers when it is available. Figure out your plants' water needs, and plant accordingly.
Invest in Water-Wise Gadgets
A thousand "water-saving" products vie for a gardener's attention, but throwing money at your backyard rarely makes a serious water impact. However, a few products actually can help you save water. Drip irrigation systems are highly efficient, directing the precious drops exactly where they need to go. Another good alternative is a perforated soaker hose, releasing water slowly at ground level to eliminate waste and evaloration.
Keep Your Grass Short
Some gardeners replace their lawn with cement, but first try simply mowing higher. If you cut your grass to 3 inches or longer, the higher blades shade the ground, allowing roots to grow. Deeper roots means less frequent watering. Be sure your blade is sharp; cutting with dull blades increase water loss.
Plant in Pots
Planting in pots can be a water-saving alternative to garden beds since water gets to the intended plant. But not all pots are created equal. To maximize the water-saving benefits of container planting, choose your caldrons well. Unglazed terracotta pots absorb and sweat out water, while metal pots heat up in the sun, drawing water from the soil. Choose plastic or glazed pots with appropriate drain holes.
- Thompson & Morgan: Water Saving Tips for the Garden
- Massachusetts Water Resources Authority
- Waterwise Queenland Department of Environmental and Resource Management: Water Saving Tips for Your Garden
- University of Florida ISAF Extension: Xeriscaping
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Conserving Water
- University of Georgia Extension: Conserving Water in the Vegetable Garden