Jane Says: You Can Have a Beautiful Garden and Use Less Water Too

Smart planting and smart irrigation will make your yard thrive with less water.

(Photo: Nacivet/Getty Images)

Jun 18, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
Thanks for your recent tips on saving water in the kitchen, but what about the garden? Isnt that where we waste the most household water?
Eric Cahill

That would be a big, fat yes. Most of the water we use at home is indeed for outdoor activities such as watering lawns and gardens—about 30 percent, on average, according to Mother Earth News. The piece, “Water-Smart Gardening,” which was picked up from Earth Gauge—a free information service from the National Environmental Education Foundation and the American Meteorological Society—goes on to say that the number ratchets up to a whopping 60 percent in hotter areas and times of year.

The good news, however, is that small, easy steps to reduce outdoor water use result in buckets of savings. Among the sources I consulted for the following strategies and tips are Earth Gauge, the EPA, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the California Garden Web, the UC Davis Arboretum & Public Garden, the Rutgers Water Resources Program, and Horticulture magazine. I know the list is California-heavy—but hey, they know from drought.

Make a Plan

If you’re building your dream garden, choose plants that aren’t water hogs; in general, species that are native to your area are a good bet because they’ve adapted to your specific climate and rainfall levels. Finding the right plants has never been easier: Check websites such as Plant Native or the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database. Local universities, plant nurseries, and USDA Cooperative Extension System Offices are other options. And because overwatering is such a common problem, research the plants you have as well as the ones you hope to grow. You may also consider making a rain garden, designed to cope with extreme moisture and/or storm runoff.

Limit the Lawn

A smooth, green expanse of lawn has become as symbolic of decadence as a Hummer. Try shrinking it or replacing turf grasses by planting more eco-friendly alternatives such as sedges and clover, which flourish without fertilizers, require less water, and rarely, if ever, need to be mowed. An added benefit is that you’ll be making your yard more attractive to birds and butterflies. Mowing less frequently (and to a height of three to four inches) tamps down on weeds and gives you healthier, more luxuriant grass.

Soil Matters

• Because clay soils hold more water than sandy soils, they can go longer between waterings.

• Besides improving the overall health of your soil, compost adds moisture, helps water-retention capacity during drought conditions, and promotes good drainage during rainy periods. And it’s never too late to start composting! Here’s how to get started.

• Adding two to four inches of mulch around plants not only inhibits weeds (which can out-compete plants for water and nutrients) but also conserves soil moisture and moderates soil temperature. Keep mulch three to four inches away from the trunk or stem of plants to prevent root flare.

Clean Sweep

Instead of using the hose to clean steps, the driveway, or sidewalks—which can waste hundreds of gallons of water—try a broom.

About Watering

• Water before 9 a.m. or in the evening; the temperature is cooler then, it’s not as windy, and the water won’t evaporate so fast. In other words, the plants have a chance to hydrate for the hotter part of the day.

• Gradually reduce the amount of water applied over the course of a few weeks, to give plants time to adjust. Then you can water less frequently—two days a week instead of four, for instance. According to the California Garden Web, infrequent deep watering encourages deeper root growth, and results in plants with greater drought tolerance.

• If your garden hose leaks at its connection to the spigot, replace the washer and tighten the spigot connection with pipe tape and a wrench, if necessary.

• Check your irrigation system to make sure it was not damaged by frost or freezing over the winter. According to the EPA’s fix-a-leak fact sheet, “An irrigation system that has a leak 1/32nd of an inch in diameter (about the thickness of a dime) can waste about 6,300 gallons of water per month.” Yikes! To get an in-ground system checked, consult with a certified EPA-WaterSense irrigation partner using this handy state-by-state locator. And adjust your irrigation system monthly to account for seasonal changes.

• Let hoses or sprinklers run for 10 minutes, or until water begins to puddle, then shut them off until the water is absorbed into the ground.

Harvest Rainwater

• The benefits of harvesting rainwater include repurposing that water, obviously, but also saving money on your water bill (and conserving town/city water), preventing basement flooding, and helping to reduce flooding and pollution runoff in local waterways. Even if your house is small, a rain barrel is worth it; according to Rutgers, “For an 800 square foot roof area that is being drained into one downspout gutter, 500 gallons of water will come off your roof in a one-inch rain storm.”

• Rain barrels have gotten increasingly sophisticated, with faucets, linking kits, downspout diverters, overflow hose adapters, and fine-mesh screening that prevents mosquito breeding. The barrels come in various sizes and in a wide range of styles; check out what’s on offer at your local hardware store, Home Depot, Lowe’s, or an outfit like Gardener’s Supply. You can also make your own.

• The water collected in a rain barrel can be used for the lawn, ornamental plants, and for washing off muddy boots or tools. It isn’t recommended for produce, however, as it may contain bacteria from bird droppings or other animals (squirrels, raccoons) traversing the roof. If you must use rainwater for food crops, don’t spray the plants, but water directly on the ground; don’t use it close to harvest time; and wash all produce very thoroughly with potable (drinking) water before eating.

• Make your walkways, patio, and/or driveway porous. Those so-called permeable hardscapes will allow rainwater to percolate through into the ground below.

About Greywater

Greywater is water from the bathroom sink, shower, tub, and washing machine; it does not include water that has come into contact with feces, either from the toilet or from washing diapers. You can read more about implementing a greywater system at Mother Earth News or websites such as Greywater Action.