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watering flower garden with watering can

10 Ways to Grow a Lush Garden with Less Water

Human-caused pollution, farting cows, or just plain Mother Nature: At this point, the cause of climate change is moot, and we're all starting to get serious about how we use our water. We're beginning to adapt our ornamental and vegetable garden designs to avoid water regulation penalties and high utility bills, and since we don't want our grandkids to have to mutate into mudskippers to survive, we're all trying to do our part.

Or maybe you just don't want the hassle of hauling hoses around, no matter how much fun it is to blast the neighbor's cat

Here are ten tips for growing a lush garden without swapping all your cosmos and eggplant for cacti and ice plant:

1. Check your soil for drainage with a "perc test"

Here's a handy test to figure out if your soil has suitable porosity. Note, you should either do this after a moderate rain or anytime the ground is reasonably moist to get the most accurate read on your dirt's potential drainage. Late fall through early spring is ideal, provided the ground isn't frozen or you live in the Sahara (or about 20 years in the future). 

First, dig a hole 12" deep and 12" in diameter. Fill it with water, and note the time. If all standing water is gone in...

...Three hours or less: You have excellent drainage, ideal for xeriscape plants or species that like to dry out in between waterings. Chances are, you have slightly sandy soil. 

...Three to 12 hours: Your soil has moderate drainage. It's a wide window, so plants that require a lot of water would love a slower-draining spot while semi-riparian plants (lemongrass, watercress, bee balm, forget-me-nots) bump up to the splashy end of the spectrum. If your soil falls into this category, you probably don't need to do much other than work in an inch or two of compost if it hasn't been amended in the last year or so. 

...Twelve or more hours: Either build a pond and add water lilies or invest some serious time amending the soil 12" to 18" deep. Read up on our post on breaking ground in new gardens for advice on double-digging. 

We all notice those puddles around our house after a heavy rain, but we don't always think of what they mean for our gardening options. If you're stuck with hopeless hardpan, you might want to look into raised beds...or bring in a backhoe. Of course, even humus-rich soil can be boggy, but there's often dense matter underneath.

2. Use swales and tiling to keep water where you want it

Does your yard flood during a rain, or form topsoil-depleting baby gullies? Farmers solve this problem in their fields using a network of drainage pipes, tubes, and ditches. This is called "tiling," and it's scalable to residential backyards. You might have installed a flexible, perforated plastic tubing in a gravel trench under your house's tripline, or behind a retaining wall to channel water away from the foundation. If you have, tiling isn't anything new to you. 

Now, you can make use of that "waste" water by landscaping a gentle ditch or swale at the lower end of the yard, planting it with species that quickly take up excess water and slow its escape from your property. Stone-lined "dry riverbed" designs pull double-duty, as long as any landscaping cloth you use to line the feature is water permeable.

Your city or county may offer grants or tax breaks if you install these swales and other tweaks that fall under "stormwater management." Not only do tiling schemes and swales reduce the runoff that pollutes natural waterways, but it also protects your topsoil and gives your garden a chance to claim its fair share.

3. Add plenty of organic matter to your soil

Humus isn't what hippies eat. That's hummus. What we're talking about is garden soil with lots of fine organic matter in various stages of decay. Humus supports microorganisms that enhance water and nutrient uptake. Unlike soil's mineralized components, it retains moisture. 

If you have sandy soil or quite a bit of gravel in your subsoil, it's time to add some compost to slow down the flow of water. Same goes for compacted, claylike soil, which keeps water on or just below the surface where it's more likely to evaporate than it is to reach the roots. Recently-graded yards or new construction homes tend to have horrible garden soil. The excavation process removes much of the topsoil, and heavy equipment and foot traffic destroy any natural voids between dirt particles. 

Don't go overboard when you're adding compost, as the minerals in the native soil help balance organic matter's natural pH. About a third well-aged compost to two thirds poor soil works well, though you could nudge the organic material as high as 50%. Learn how to do a basic "Mason jar soil test" in this video to find the percentage of clay, sand, and loamy organic matter that's lurking in your dirt. 

4. Use mulch around plants and on unused earth

Adding mulch around the base of plants — leaving about two inches from the stems to prevent rot — keeps the soil temperature consistent and reduces moisture loss. You can read more about different mulches on our recent blog post, "Mindful Mulching: Tips for Reducing Your Summer Garden Chores."

5. Dense plantings make smart gardeners

Place plants as close together as possible without risking poor air circulation, or interplant with a cover crop. This "living mulch" will also help shade the soil, and help keep soil conditions consistent. For some basic principles on bio-intensive gardening techniques, check out these sites: 

  • Ecology Action: A nonprofit that promotes worldwide education on maximizing yields using companion plants, dense plantings, and organic methods. 
  • Square Foot Gardening Foundation: The late Mel Bartholomew, author of the Square Foot Gardening books, empowered home gardeners to maximize growing space in raised beds using ideal soil and compost mixes. Even if you plan to garden directly in the ground, his plant spacing guides will help — if you really beef up your soil. 

6. Water more to save more water

Some dryland plants prefer a period of drought, but infrequent heavy watering will stress out most ornamental, herb, and vegetable plants. Drought also affects soil texture and ecology. Dry soil repels water before it begins to soak it in, especially if it's low in organic matter. Plants that prefer consistent moisture also depend on bacteria and fungi that share the same environment to thrive.

Deep-rooted plants that prefer a dry spell between irrigation periods should still have moisture available a few inches below the topsoil. The suggestion to water intermittently is more to protect the roots from getting swamped than it is to "dry out" the plant. 

7. Embrace automation with low-pressure irrigation

Also called "drip irrigation," low-pressure irrigation uses hoses, tubes, and punch-in distribution heads to deliver water (and liquid fertilizer, if you'd like) to plants where and when they need it. Components may mist, spray, drip, or soak the soil around plants, all on a timed system.

strawberry garden beds with drip irrigation

Endless configurations and the ability to create "zones" allows you to place plants that prefer surface watering alongside those that like deep, slow, consistent irrigation. And in spite of how handy they are, low-pressure irrigation systems aren't that expensive. They'll save you a ton of money when your water bill shows up (or your electric bill, if you're on a well). You'll save time, too. No more getting up early on Sundays to water, or bribing neighbors with surplus zucchini to fill in while you're either (a) hungover or (b) on vacation.

8. Choose water-hardy vegetable varieties

Commercial, homestead, and garden growers hybridize and cultivate varieties to suit their environment. Some early-maturing types fruit or flower on smaller plants than others in their species. Other plants store a lot of moisture in their stems and fruits to make sure the seeds get the nutrients they need to mature. That's why many melons do well in arid regions, and why tomatoes are so juicy. 

But melons, 'matoes, and squash have another ace up their sleeves: Deep roots. They need them, too, since all three need heat for the best fruit flavor. 

Softball-sized Tigger melons are a rapidly-maturing melon that would do very well in areas with tight water regulation or short seasons.

Speaking of tomatoes, Sonoma County Master Gardener Elaine Walter favors determinate tomatoes over indeterminate varieties for water efficiency because they're more compact and tend to mature earlier. Smaller-fruiting tomatoes, she wrote, require less water to ripen, and tomatoes, in general, have more robust flavor if they're not overwatered. Grow lots of yellow pear or cherry tomatoes, Early Girls, and anything developed for short-season gardens.

Want to avoid split tomatoes? Don't let them dry out. Drip emitters will make sure their deep roots can access moisture.

9. Irrigate at the right time of day

watering flower garden with watering can

Hand water or set your automatic timers to go off around sunrise. This gives the water plenty of time to penetrate the soil before evaporation kicks in and gives damp foliage the rest of the day to dry out. (Wet leaves encourage disease, and you don't want that.) Iowa State University gives the green light to evening watering with drip irrigation or soaker hoses, as long as the leaves stay dry through the night. 

10. Use high-quality, fresh seeds

Fresh vegetable, herb, and ornamental seeds germinate faster than old seeds, and germination rates plummet as a seed ages. If you're starting seeds directly in the garden, your soil must be consistently moist — ideally, using spray or mist emitters — so while automatic watering already saves you water, you can save more when that seeded patch doesn't need to be re-sown due to poor germination. 

We at Seed Needs can't come to help you set up your water-saving lush garden features, and we sure as heck won't fill in for you if you need us to hose down your hostas, but we're always here for you if you need gardening advice. If you have any questions about the seeds we feature in our online catalog, or if you'd like to request additions, please contact us. We're a small family outfit, and we love to hear from our future and present customers!

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