Good Gardening: Tips for Wise Water Management

Don't waste water; use it wisely!


Photo by Nigel Valdez

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Tips for wise water management:

• Plant water before you plant plants by creating numerous basins throughout your property to spread and sink the flow of water. Plant in those basins. Start small and keep it simple so you can maintain it yourself.

• Don’t send water straight to the street. Instead, let basins overflow into other basins to give precious water the maximum opportunity to infiltrate.

• Raise paths, driveways, and patios so water will drain off them and be held in planted basins. Pathways and patios will be less muddy during rainy seasons.

• If using water-needy varieties, plant them near your house where they have easy access to roof runoff and graywater. Everywhere else plant vegetation—ideally native species—with low water requirements.

• Start harvesting water from the top of your watershed—your roof. Send water from your roof gutters to basins at least ten feet away from the house to avoid flooding and foundation damage.

• Spread your wealth of graywater to thirsty fruit trees. Brad has three drainpipes behind his washing machine labeled “orange,” “fig,” and “peach.” Every time he does laundry, he switches to a different drainpipe. Each tree gets to dry out between waterings, which prevents odor, and if one tree needs more water than others, he uses that drainpipe for a couple of loads.

• Create a low-tech drip irrigation system by burying unglazed terra-cotta ollas (spherical clay pots with narrow necks) within your sunken garden basins. Bury the spherical part of the pot and leave the opening above ground. Plant vegetables in the basin around the pot. Fill the pot with water via a hose from your cistern and put a lid over the open neck. The water will slowly wick through the ceramic pot into the plants’ root zone. By watering from beneath the soil instead of from on top, you greatly reduce water loss to evaporation.

• Build your own cistern. Brad convinced a septic-tank manufacturer to retrofit a new steel-reinforced concrete tank for use above ground, but he recognizes that other types of tanks can be just as functional. Be sure to specify that your tank be made for potable-grade water. It must have a lid to keep out sunlight, insects, and critters. Roof runoff pours into the tank through a screened downspout opening. A spigot four inches from the bottom drains water out by gravity above the “sludge layer” that accumulates at the very bottom. Create a light-proof vent with a “P-trap,” the U-shaped black plastic pipe used under sinks. Insert the pipe in the top of the tank and secure insect screen over the opening with a hose clamp.

Graywater: Your perennial spring

Graywater is the water that drains from your sink, shower, bathtub and washing machine. A single person can produce forty gallons of graywater a day. A family can generate 140 gallons a day—more than 50,000 gallons a year—which could irrigate an abundance of plants in their landscape. Graywater can be used without a permit in Arizona and New Mexico, but check your local municipality for legalities.

Create a perennial spring by directing the graywater from your bathroom sink into a planting area ten feet outside your bathroom wall. Never use the “blackwater” from your toilet. Some municipalities consider water from the kitchen sink and dishwasher blackwater because it has organic matter in it.

Trees: Nature's air conditioning

Plant trees on the east and west sides of your buildings to shade them from the rising and setting sun during the hot months. Plant deciduous trees for sunlight in winter and shade in summer.