Are you struggling to keep a garden alive in a dry climate? On water restrictions? Have limited access to water? Want to save time and money? I know what it’s like to grow food and an ornamental garden in difficult conditions and have discovered many simple ways to solve this problem.

10 Water Saving Tips for Your Garden - Water-wise ways to save time and money

10 Water Saving Tips for Your Garden – Water-wise ways to save time and money

The cost of this precious resource is rising all the time. We can all tread a little lighter on the planet by taking a few moments to re-evaluate our garden design and watering habits to eliminate inefficient practices that waste water … and reap the benefits at the same time!

How to Save Water in Your Garden

Here are my ten water saving tips to help you conserve and manage water efficiently, put money in your pocket and garden more sustainably:

 

Water Saving Tips for your Garden

Take a moment to rethink how much water literally goes down the drain at your place. Pick one of these ideas to start saving time and money in your garden.

 

Water Saving Tip 1:  Water Pots in the Afternoon and your Garden in the Morning

Research* shows that the timing of when you water pot plants during the day can have a significant effect on plant growth.  The potted plants used in the research were grown in 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.)  Pine bark based potting mixes however, 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, “significantly outperformed plants grown with early morning irrigation.” So, watering container plants in the afternoon may lead to healthier, stronger growing plants compared to container plants watered early in the morning.

 

Water potted plants in the afternoon

Pot plants grown in pine bark based potting mix tend to dry out quickly and can benefit from being watered in the afternoon.

 

According to the University of Illinois Extension, the optimal watering time for the rest of the garden, is early morning before the temperatures begin to rise, winds are lower and there is less evaporation.  Morning watering gives the plants a good supply of water to face the heat of the day.

Avoid evening watering especially on the foliage as night-time temperatures are often inadequate to dry the moisture on the leaves. This can encourage some fungal pathogens to grow.  However, any time plants start to show symptoms of drought stress is the time to water them – even if this means the middle of the day.  Waiting too long may be too late.

 

Wilted sunflower - waiting too long to water can be detrimental to the plant's health

Dr Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Horticulturalist & Associate Professor with the Washington State University says “ANY time plants exhibit drought stress symptoms is the time to water them” even if this is in the heat of the day.

 

Water Saving Tip 2:  Harvest Water – Ways to Save and Reuse Water

  • Install a water tank rather than wasting rainwater, to maximise roof runoff and redirect it for use on your garden.  Slimline tank and water harvesting systems are available for even the tiniest of spaces.
  • Save your Cooking Water. 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 fertiliser for watering your plants.

 

Boiled potatoes leach nutrients into the water - why waste it?

Save cooled water from cooking vegetables to water your garden. Reuse the valuable leached nutrients rather than tossing them down the drain.


  • Reuse Fish Tank Water. When you clean your fish tank, use the ‘old’ nitrogen and phosphorous-rich water on your plants.
  • Collect Shower Water. 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 in your garden.  Frugal gardeners needn’t buy a compost bin – there are many micro systems you can make yourself.  I’ve made several low-cost compost systems that work well including converting a 60 litre black garbage bin by drilling 1cm holes on the sides and base and covering with the lid.  It can be turned regularly by simply rolling it on its side!


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  • 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 to the compost and dilute the juice to use as a fertiliser.

 

Make a pocket in your compost for food scraps sprinkled with bokashi.

After collecting food scraps in the bokashi bin, dig them into the compost to feed soil microorganisms and build soil health. Bokashi sprinkled into the compost acts as an accelerator and speeds up decomposition. My food scraps disappear in a week in this active compost pile!

 

  • 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 a 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.

Water Saving Tip 3: Make a Water-wise Pot Choice if Container Gardening

Choose your plant container carefully. Different materials heat up quickly or lose moisture due to porosity so think about your pot location before making a final decision.  For example, metal heats up quickly so raised galvanised garden beds and metal containers will draw moisture out of the soil and these gardens will need more watering.  If you live in a hot climate, this may be a major consideration.

Clay pots such as unglazed terracotta will lose moisture through their porous surface and the soil will dry out faster than glazed pots. It’s vital to use a quality potting mix that holds moisture. I make my own for this reason.

How to Make Potting Mix at Home in 4 Easy Steps - DIY Recipe for Making Premium Quality Soil for Healthy Plants

How to Make Potting Mix at Home in 4 Easy Steps – DIY Recipe for Making Premium Quality Soil for Healthy Plants

If you just have to have that metal or terracotta container, then consider using them as a cachepot (an outer decorative pot) and put a smaller, less porous pot inside to retain vital moisture.

 

Clay and glazed pots have different porosity

Clay and glazed pots have different porosity affecting how much moisture they retain and lose.

 

Water Saving Tip 4:  Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!

Up to 70% of water can evaporate from the soil on a hot day if you don’t have mulch as a protective layer on top.  Mulch is one of the best moisture holding strategies you can employ.  It prevents evaporation from the soil surface, helps suppress water-thieving weeds from growing and many mulches add vital nutrients to the soil at the same time.  Avoid fine mulches that tend to clump and become water-repellent.  Instead, use a coarser mulch which allows water/rain to move down through to the soil.  A depth of 3-5cm in a pot (depending on the size) and even deeper (8-10cm) in a garden bed is ideal.  Apply mulch onto moist soil and water in well.

 

Bark chip mulch is coarse, holds moisture well and allows water to drain easily to the soil below.Bark chip mulch is coarse, holds moisture well and allows water to drain easily to the soil below. Photo by Scott Liddell.

Bark chip mulch is coarse, holds moisture well and allows water to drain easily to the soil below. Avoid mulches like fresh grass clippings that mat and stop water filtering through

 

Water Saving Tip 5:  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.

 

Narrow leaves lose less moisture through transpiration

Take a look at the species in your garden and see how many low water use plants you have. Look for narrow leaves that lose less moisture. Or is your garden full of water guzzling plants?

 

Growing a majority of thirsty plants that suck up moisture can steal your time and money!  These include:

  • those with high fertiliser needs;
  • species with large leaves;
  • newly planted vegetation; or
  • fast growing species.

 

Broad leaves lose more moisture

Broad leafed plants use their leaves like large ‘solar panels’ to photosynthesize and grow, but they also lose more moisture and have a greater need for water.

 

Large leafed plants require and transpire more water over a larger surface area than slender leafed varieties.  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.

 

Succulents are attractive and low water use plants

Succulents are very low maintenance plants

 

“Remember, any newly installed plants (even natives and drought-tolerant species) need adequate water until they become established when water requirements will reduce.”

 

According to the College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona, “drought tolerant plants are not necessarily low water use plants and vice versa.”

Some plants are drought tolerant, but are high water users when water is accessible. Drought tolerant plants become dormant when soil water is unavailable and then become active when water is available again.  “Many plants not normally considered low water use species, become water thrifty for survival when soil moisture is limited.  Some plants considered low water use species, will use water at a high rate if water is available and revert to low water use when not available.”  So the message is: low water use plants won’t conserve water if they are irrigated as high water use plants!


Succulents will survive for longer periods of drought than many other plants.

Plants will respond to the amount of water they receive – even low water use plants will use more water if you make it available!

 

Water Saving Tip 6:  Check Weather and Soils

It might seem obvious, but how many times have you watered your garden, only to have it rain soon after?  Turning off automatic sprinkler systems if rain is forecast, is one sensible step to save money and water.  Also, consider your climate, location and the season.  Weather factors that impact watering include:  cool temperatures, high humidity, the winter season, shade and no wind which all reduce the need for irrigation. Whereas hot, windy summers with low humidity will increase the need for watering.  Include some tall species or garden structures that will provide more shade in your garden where possible.

 

Create a microclimate by grouping tall plants with understorey

Create a microclimate to increase shade and reduce water loss by planting tall plants over an understorey.

 

Why waste water when you can check the weather online and save yourself time and money?  Soils also vary with location and influence water needs. Keep in mind that mulched clay soils have lower water needs than bare sandy soils.

 

Moisture meters are a useful gardener's tool for avoiding water wastage.

A Moisture Meter is one of the most useful tools you can use in your garden to help reduce wasting water where it’s not required. The probe inserted into the soil will take the guesswork out of how much water your plants need.


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Water Saving Tip 7:  Use a Moisture Meter

This inexpensive tool will help you get a feel for what each of your plants need in terms of moisture.  It is easy to use and provides you with an accurate reading of the moisture content in your soil in a few seconds.  10-30% moisture indicates the soil is too DRY and you need to water; 40-70% moisture means the soil is MOIST or ‘just right’ so no action is required; and a reading of 80-100% moisture means your soil is too WET so avoid watering.

Alternatively, use a screwdriver or chopstick as a soil probe to test soil moisture.  If it goes in easily, don’t water; if it won’t budge then grab a watering can!  A watering can is also a good way to make sure you only water as much as you need to.

 

Raised kitchen garden beds with herbs and vegies.

To reduce runoff on slopes, terraced beds like in this kitchen garden help slow down and retain moisture where it is needed most – to help feed vegies and herbs.

 

Water Saving Tip 8:  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.

 

Prune lower tree branches to lift the canopy and minimise water needs.

Trees are more visually appealing when their lower branches are trimmed to ‘lift’ the canopy and create better structure. Removing unnecessary foliage reduces water requirements too.

 

Water Saving Tip 9:  Increase Organic Matter

Whilst this comes naturally to most organic gardeners, many don’t realise the benefits of building humus in the soil.  Organic matter absorbs many times its own weight in water, which is then available for plant growth.  It provides many benefits. Clay soils with added organic matter will accept water more quickly and organically amended sandy soils hold water longer, and don’t need to be watered as frequently.  One of the easiest ways to build organic matter is to add compost that breaks down to humus.  This has an amazing potential to hold moisture, nutrients and build soil health.  Compost has a buffering effect against drought and plant stresses too.  You can also add organic matter with worm castings; vegetable scraps; mulches like nutrient-rich lucerne (also known as alfalfa) and pea straw; lawn clippings and leaves.

 

Over watering is one of the deadly sins in a garden! Not only does it waste water but you can kill your plants with kindness. Photo by Kenn Kiser.

Over watering is one of the deadly sins in a garden! Not only does it waste water but you can kill your plants with kindness and cause them to become lazy, only growing roots near the surface. This also makes them more vulnerable to drought stress.

 

Water Saving Tip 10:  Avoid Overwatering

This bad habit:

  • increases your water bill;
  • leaches valuable nutrients from the soil (costing you money to replace them);
  • causes loss of oxygen in the soil pore spaces increasing the chance of root rot and other diseases from suffocation; and
  • wastes a precious resource.

Even worse, overwatering breeds dependent plants with shallow root systems so you’ll never be able to take a holiday without returning home to a garden filled with dried arrangements!

 

Other Factors That Affect Plant Water Use:

  • Applying fertiliser stimulates growth and increases plant water use in turf, ornamental shrubs and trees, fruits and vegetables.
  • Pruning of landscape plants promotes new growth that results in higher water use.
  • When plants are flowering and fruiting they have greater water needs.
  • High, frequent mowing of turf increases water use by providing more leaf surface for transpiration. However, this type of mowing also increases rooting depth, making the grass more drought tolerant.

 

Mowing turf with a sharp blade and on a high cutting increases water loss but builds a healthier root system.

Mowing turf with a sharp blade and on a high cutting increases water loss but builds a healthier root system.

 

10 Tips for Minimizing Plant Water Use:

  1. Choose native and low water use plants in your garden.
  2. Select smaller plants rather than larger ones.
  3. Reduce fertiliser use to the lowest level possible to maintain healthy plants.
  4. Use surface mulches around plants and in bare soil areas.
  5. Avoid excessive watering.
  6. Zone irrigation systems to water plants grouped where possible by their water use and soil type.
  7. Increase mowing height of lawns to allow grass to develop deeper root systems.
  8. Keep the lawn mower blade sharp to make cleaner cuts that cause less water loss than cuts from dull mower blades.
  9. Control all weeds that steal water that would otherwise be available for desirable plants.
  10. Be tough!  Don’t waste water on unhealthy or undesirable plants – instead remove or replace them.

 

Watering cans help minimise water wastage.

Watering cans help minimise water wastage.

 

Learn more tips with this video on:  Watering Tips for Different Sized Plants.

 

Video on Watering Different Sized Plants

Video on Watering Different Sized Plants

 

* References:

 

Want more garden tips?  Check out these Garden Maintenance and Tips & Tricks articles.

 

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