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.
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 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
10 Tips for Minimizing Plant Water Use
- Choose native and low water use plants in your garden.
- Select smaller plants rather than larger ones.
- Reduce fertiliser use to the lowest level possible to maintain healthy plants.
- Use surface mulches around plants and in bare soil areas.
- Avoid excessive watering.
- Zone irrigation systems to water plants grouped where possible by their water use and soil type.
- Increase mowing height of lawns to allow grass to develop deeper root systems.
- Keep the lawn mower blade sharp to make cleaner cuts that cause less water loss than cuts from dull mower blades.
- Control all weeds that steal water that would otherwise be available for desirable plants.
- Be tough! Don’t waste water on unhealthy or undesirable plants – instead remove or replace them.
Learn more tips with this video on: Watering Tips for Different Sized Plants.
- Timing of Low Pressure Irrigation Affects Plant Growth and Water Utilization Efficiency
- Irrigation Timing: Effect on Plant Growth, Photosynthesis, Water-Use Efficiency and Substrate Temperature
- University of Illinois Extention – Watering Correctly Saves Time, Money & Plants
Want more garden tips? Check out these Garden Maintenance and Tips & Tricks articles.
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
Another water-saving action that we do is to collect the rinse water from the washing machine. We have a top-loader and its hose goes into the very large laundry tub. We have 10 rectangular buckets, two of which fit in the tub side by side. Once one is filled we slide the other one across and take the full one out the door while the next one is filling. Then the buckets of water are emptied onto places that need the water. Once we get some renovations done, this system will be streamlined using pipes and hoses etc. We use this water on plants whose leaves aren’t eaten – citrus trees, the tiny bit of lawn we have left, some ornamentals, vines etc – where the water won’t touch the edible parts. We use special laundry detergent so that there’s no residual chemical load. The volume of water varies from 60 to 100 litres depending on load size, and spin speed.
Thanks for sharing your water-saving tip Jill. Sometimes the easiest ways to save water are the most obvious! I’m sure this sustainable idea will inspire other gardeners to save every drop. Keep up the great work. Cheers Anne
[…] won’t allow moisture on the plants’ leaves to dry properly, possibly leading to fungus. The perfect time to water your plants is early in the morning, giving your plants the H2O supply needed to get through the […]
Hey Anne, very helpful tips. Water conservation here in Ireland can be a funny idea to get across to people as we typically have mild flooding in winter, minimal water shortages in summer, although that is not to say this isn’t going to change somewhat with global warming.
These are fantastic water-saver ideas! Sharing it to my mom, she’ll def LOVE this. Everyday she spent 3-5 hours attending the entire garden, almost half of it will be spent for watering alone. Your tips will save her time as well!
You made a good point when you mentioned collecting shower water and reusing fish tank water for gardening as just some of the simple ways to conserve water. You may want to put a couple of buckets or pales while you’re showering and use these to water your plants. If you have an aquarium at home and if you’re going to replace the water with a new set, it is best to use the “old” water in watering your plants and flowers. This will definitely help you save a lot on the cost of water. I will make sure to follow your advice every time I do my gardening chores. Thanks.
This is an excellent and one of the most beautiful posts to save the water for the garden. You have shared an informative article. This is a very useful post for my garden. I like your tips and ideas.You are so creative. I am trying to follow your Technique.
Thanks for sharing your Lovely Post.
Thanks for going over some different ways to save water for a garden. I’ll be honest, I actually hadn’t considered that it could be beneficial to get a water tank to redirect roof runoff that could be used for a garden. Definitely sounds like this could be something worth investing in if you live in an area that gets a lot of rain. I wonder if this could still be useful to do if you live in dry areas.
Thanks for your comment Taylor. Any passive water harvesting methods are going to be beneficial especially if you live in a dry area. Cheers Anne
This helped me with my assignment
Glad to hear the tips helped you Olive. Thanks for sharing. Cheers Anne
Amazing. Excelllent tips for water saving while gardening. This will helps a lot. Thanks for sharing these valuable tips, will surely gonna implement this.
Really, excellent post. I’m glad that I found this post.
In spring, I planted a garden and really paid attention to how the irrigation system was put in place so that I could conserve the most water. In some areas, the sprinklers were able to water my plants for me and that is one way that I did that. Another way that I did that, though, was by burying water bottles that had holes in them in the ground near where plants were planted. This allowed me to water it and let the plant soak in most of the water, rather than it just going to waste. It also make it so that I didn’t need to water as often as I would have otherwise had to.
For my personal use, I use a porous clay irrigation vessel called Grow Oya to help conserve water. This traditional terracotta pot only requires me to water my plants once a week and ensures that overwatering does not occur. It is a saviour of a product, and I definitely recommend it to everyone, whether you are an experienced gardener or a beginner!
We live in southern Arizona…the desert. I am always looking for ways to conserve water. I have more for you: reuse water from washing dishes. The soap in it acts as both a preventative and a cure for hydrophobic soil, a common problem here. I typically only use it only on decorative plants. Also, I keep buckets in the bathroom. When I’m waiting for the water to get warm for a bath or shower, many gallons are going down the drain. Lastly, I have a neighbor who actually reuses the water from her washing machine. I’m not sure how she does it. I may have to find out.
Thanks for all the great tips and advice!
Thanks for sharing your tips Karen. Great to hear how well you are conserving water. It sounds like you are using biodegradable/eco-friendly soap – here we use NP (no phosphate) washing up liquid and washing products through our grey water system. Phosphates can build up in this kind of water so it’s wise to use sparingly and rotate around your garden to avoid salts building up and damaging your plants or soil microbes. Keep up the great work. 🙂
Great tips! I just wanted to add a word of caution to #8: “Capture Water With Good Design…” When creating a mound of dirt around the base of a tree, the mound should be a doughnut shape whose internal side is at least 2 feet from the edge of the trunk. I learned the hard way a couple of years ago that tree roots leading from the trunk need to remain uncovered for gas exchange (breathing!). It’s a common misconception that the whole root should be covered, and people often put mounds of mulch right up to the side of the trunk. The tree will respond by either dieing slowly, or putting up numerous vertical shoots called ‘suckers’ that draw energy from the tree. Love your blog! Thanks.
Hi Dave, thanks for sharing your experience and tip. Appreciate your comments. I agree that collar rot can occur if a tree is mulched up to the trunk (unless it is a native rainforest species as this happens naturally on the forest floor) – we have a lot of lemon myrtles here and they self mulch right up to the trunk but it doesn’t worry them because they’ve adapted to surviving in this natural environment. However citrus and ornamental trees common in many home gardens are a different story, as you say! Citrus trees have a very shallow root system and benefit from mulch to keep the roots moist and cool. Applying fertiliser on top of the mulch can also avoid root burn.
Great information. I never thougth about the differences in the type of containers you use. Great tip!