Water-Thrifty Gardening

Here are some easy ways you can conserve water in your garden without harming your plants.

  1. Water your plants early in the morning.
    Mornings are cool, and water doesn't evaporate as readily as it does in the heat of the afternoon. Evenings are cool, too, but water sitting on leaves overnight can cause fungal diseases.
  2. Water less frequently but deeply.
    Frequent, shallow waterings lead to weak, shallow-rooted plants. Less frequent, thorough waterings encourage roots to grow deep, where the soil stays moist longer.
  3. Water the soil, not the plants.
    Use a watering can, soaker hoses, drip irrigation, or other water-conserving irrigation techniques that saturate the soil while leaving the foliage dry. This not only saves water but also helps prevent disease problems.
  4. Mulch your plantings.
    A 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch such as shredded leaves or bark or compost slows evaporation by shading and cooling the soil, slows water runoff, and as a bonus, enriches the soil as it breaks down.
  5. Choose drought-tolerant plants.
    Select plants with low water requirements. Certain characteristics indicate that a plant is drought-tolerant: Plants with silvery, hairy, or fuzzy leaves (such as wooly thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus), succulent leaves (such as rose moss, Portulaca species), or leaves with a waxy coating (such as ivy-leaved geranium, Pelargonium peltatum), are good choices. Plants with long taproots, such as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), can get through periods of drought with little or no supplemental water.
  6. Put off major planting projects
    until water is more plentiful, because all newly established plants require a lot of irrigation.
  7. Cut down on mowing and fertilizing.
    Mowing causes water loss. Mow during the coolest part of the day, and leave the clippings, which return small but valuable amounts of moisture to your lawn. Raise the mowing height, because taller grass shades the soil, reducing water loss.
  8. Let your lawn go dormant.
    Most turfgrasses are adapted to summer drought. They turn a nice buff brown color as they send their water reserves down to the roots for safekeeping. Given a bare minimum of water, your lawn will green up again in fall when temperatures cool.
  9. Improve potting mixes.
    For your container plants, consider incorporating hydrogels into the potting soil. These water-retaining polymers hold several hundred times their weight in water and release it gradually to the plants' roots. Be careful not to add more than the recommended amount—too much of a good thing and your plants will be pushed out of their containers by the expanding crystals. Add a smaller quantity to containers of drought-tolerant plants and those that require sharp drainage. Pre-soaking hydrogels until they are fully expanded makes them easier to incorporate with the potting soil in the proper ratios.
  10. Consider collecting and recycling water.
    Depending on where you live, you may be able to connect your downspouts to rain barrels to collect roof runoff that would otherwise be lost. When water used for boiling pasta and vegetables cools, use it to water your plants. Use of other types of "gray water," such as that from showers, baths, washing machines, and dishwashers, is regulated by some municipalities, and the detergents and other chemicals in the water can be harmful to some plants.

Janet Marinelli is the former director of publishing at BBG. Her book, Plant, published by Dorling Kindersley, showcases 2,000 species worldwide that are threatened in the wild but alive in cultivation.


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