Landscaping gardens to conserve water not only saves a precious resource, it also saves money. Use smart watering techniques plus mulch to create a water-wise landscape.
During a hot, dry summer, a landscape overflowing with colorful flowers and lush green leaves usually only comes after hours and hours of watering. Fortunately, your landscape doesn’t have to give up the ghost during dry weather. With a few simple techniques you can keep it green without running up your water bill—or violating local watering restrictions.
Learn to Water Wisely
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Conventional overhead sprinklers waste half the water they send shooting skyward. It simply evaporates before reaching your plants—bad news for the plants and your water bill. Instead of using these water-wasters, switch to techniques that slowly deliver water directly to the root zone, so there’s little or no waste or runoff.
Soaker hoses, which leak all along their length, are among the easiest, least expensive, and most efficient systems you can use. Stretch a soaker along perennial plantings or snake it among shrubs and trees. Soaker hoses are especially easy to use along the rows of a vegetable garden.
Keep in mind that you will need a conventional (non-leaking) hose to deliver water from your spigot to the garden. Once installed, turn on the water and let it drip out slowly over the course of a couple of hours. Note that you can bury soaker hoses under mulch and leave them in place indefinitely—even through the winter.
Custom drip irrigation systems are available, too, but for a less expensive, low-tech approach, look into gadgets that convert soda bottles into slow-watering devices for individual plants. Fill the bottles with water and let it soak in slowly.
For larger plants, try using 5-gallon buckets with tiny holes poked in the bottom so water drips out slowly. Heavy polyethylene bags that actually zip in place around trees also are extremely effective at delivering water slowly directly to the root zone.
If you continue to use overhead sprinklers for a lawn or other area, water at night or in the very early morning, when evaporation will be minimized.
However you water, keep in mind that one deep, slow watering session is much more effective than lots of short, shallow sprinklings. That’s because deep watering encourages deep, drought-resistant roots. To determine if you’ve watered enough, dig a shallow hole and check the soil. It should be wet to a depth of about 6 or 8 inches.
Water-Saving Soil Improvements
Mulch helps keep moisture where you want it—near plant roots. It also keeps the soil cooler, thus reducing the amount of moisture plants need, and discourages weeds, which steal water from your plants. Organic materials like shredded bark, chopped leaves, compost, and salt hay make ideal mulches.
You can also install a thick layer of newspaper under mulch to help keep weeds at bay. Whatever you use, spread mulch 3 to 4 inches deep, feathering out and reducing the depth around plant stems and trunks so the mulch does not touch the plant. Otherwise, mulch can be an invitation to plant-invading rot and pests. For unplanted areas, crushed gravel or pea gravel makes an attractive mulch.
Digging organic matter into the soil is one of the best ways to make your landscape more drought resistant. Why? Organic matter—including compost, well-rotted manure, and rotted, chopped leaves—acts like a sponge, holding moisture in the soil for plants. If you have heavy clay soil, organic matter loosens the soil and makes it more friable, but still helps hold moisture that plant roots can use.
Work organic matter into the soil every time you plant. The deeper the better, to encourage plants to grow deep, drought-resistant roots. Spreading organic matter as mulch helps, too. Earthworms and other soil-dwelling organisms carry it down into the soil for you.
Delivering water to the garden efficiently, plus managing the soil to keep it available to plants as long as possible are essential to any water-wise landscape. Also, don’t forget to make use of free water—another great tool in the drought-fighters arsenal.
Old-fashioned rain barrels capture water from the roof, and modern-day rain barrels come with kits that hook directly to down spout. Specially made diverters are another option. Use them to direct water that flows out of down spouts directly onto garden beds.
Gray water is another option for hand watering. Rather than let it run down the drain, capture water from the shower, bathtub, or kitchen sink in a bucket and use it in the garden. Your thirsty plants will thank you!