Seven Easy Steps to Water Wise(r) Gardening

By Ellen Zachos

Whether you garden in the rain-rich Northeast or the drought-challenged Southwest, water is a precious resource that should be conserved. And saving water is easier than you might expect. Here are seven simple ways to minimize water consumption in your garden, save on your water bills, and make the world a better place. Yes, it's that easy.

1. Choose the right plants
Matching your plant choice to your growing conditions is the most important step in creating a water-wise garden. If you want plants that won't require supplemental watering once they're established, look at natives growing in conditions similar to those found in your yard to see what survives in your area with nature-given water. Next, consider plants from parts of the world with weather and temperature conditions similar to your own.

If you've got a full-sun garden with sandy soil and expect an average rainfall of 15 inches, choose drought-tolerant plants with water-storing tap roots and silver foliage like Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). If you garden in a shady spot with dependable rain and consistently moist soil, try cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris).

2. Water deeply and less often
This encourages deep root growth, and roots can reach down into the soil for stored water. Shallow watering encourages shallow roots systems that are more vulnerable to drought. Once plants have developed deep roots, they're more protected during times of drought when the upper layers of soil dry out.

It's most efficient to water in stages, especially if your soil is on the heavy side: water for 10 minutes, let it soak in for 30-60 minutes, then water for another 10. This allows water to be fully absorbed and reduces runoff.

3. Use microirrigation
Drip irrigation and soaker hoses deliver water directly to the root zone, so little is wasted or lost to evaporation. An added bonus: micro-irrigation keeps water off foliage, which minimizes fungal disease problems.

Both are easy to do yourself; kits are available at big box stores and garden centers. And both types of micro-irrigation can be attached to simple timers for convenience and to ensure watering at proper times of day. Add a rain sensor, and you'll guarantee your irrigation doesn't go off right after a monsoon.

4. Choose the right time
Depending on when you water, you may lose up to half via evaporation and drift, especially if you use sprinklers. In the morning, when temperatures are cooler and winds lower, much less water is lost and soils can absorb the maximum amount of water possible. By watering at the right time of day, you can use less water and have healthier plants.

5. Be sure to mulch
Mulch makes your garden look better, and helps reduce weeding, but what does it have to do with water conservation? Weeds compete with your garden plants for water, so with fewer weeds you won't waste water on plants you don't want to cultivate.

Mulch is also an excellent way to directly conserve soil moisture. Water is lost from the soil in two ways: by evaporation (directly from the soil) and transpiration (up and out through plant tissues). A two-inch layer of mulch reduces water loss by 20 percent by providing a barrier to evaporation. It also lowers temperatures in the top four inches of soil by 10 degrees, which slows the loss of water via transpiration.

6. Catch water with rain barrels
For every inch of rain that falls on a catchment area of 1,000 square feet (the size of an average roof), approximately 600 gallons of rain can be harvested! Some parts of the country don't allow gardeners to use rain barrels because they want rain returned to the ground. But if you live where rain barrels are allowed, here are a few tips:

  • Make sure your barrel has a spigot at the bottom so you can hook up a hose or fill a watering can.
  • Add an inlet drain to keep out debris from the gutters and a mosquito screen to prevent insects from making your rain barrel into a breeding ground.
  • Make sure the cover is sturdy enough to support an adventurous child!

7. Fix leaky faucets
A drop per second can add up to more than eight gallons per day or more than 250 gallons a month. Fixing the leak may be as simple as replacing a washer inside the hose coupling or the spigot handle. Or maybe a cracked hose needs repair or replacing. A little maintenance may cost a few dollars, but think of what it saves in the long run. Stop the drops!

See, I told you it was easy.

Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (, a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden; she lectures at garden shows and events across the country.

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