Beat the Heat: Conservation-Based Garden Watering Systems

For conservation-based garden watering systems, try organic mulches and the right watering equipment to keep your crops healthy and your yields abundant.

  • Watering Cans for Home Gardening
    Dense plantings and wise use of mulch helps retain water in garden beds.
    Photo by Gap Images
  • Gardening Hose for a Garden Watering System
    To cut back on water use, purchase quality hoses that aren't prone to kinking.
    Photo by iStock

  • Watering Cans for Home Gardening
  • Gardening Hose for a Garden Watering System

In a perfect growing season, an inch of gentle rain falls each week. Gardeners dream of such a season, but native plants know better than to expect perfect weather. In response to dry conditions, they close their stomata (the thousands of “breathing” pores on both sides of their leaves) to limit moisture loss, and send roots deeper in search of water.

Although many native plants possess these admirable talents, most food-garden plants are, by comparison, amateurs at adapting to your local rainfall patterns; they need help. Delivering water wisely means minimizing wasted water and wasted time. In more practical terms, it means anticipating your garden’s needs and setting priorities, having a conservation-based garden watering system in place, preserving water through mulching, and finding innovative ways to work out the kinks in your garden’s water supply.

Which Ones Want the Water?

When figuring out your watering priorities, start with newly planted seeds, transplants of any kind and plants grown in containers. All of these almost always need supplemental water, which is usually best done with hoses and watering cans. To help maintain continuous surface moisture in newly seeded beds, cover them with burlap blankets or thrift store curtains on sunny days until the seeds start to sprout.

The next-priority plants are crops that can suffer permanent damage due to inconsistent soil moisture. Lettuce and other salad crops lose their flavor when the soil gets warm and dry, and tomatoes often split when dry conditions give way to a soaking rain. Mulches are the easiest way to avoid fluctuating soil-moisture levels when growing these and other sensitive plants. Biodegradable mulches (such as leaves, compost or clean grass clippings) block surface evaporation while suppressing weeds and making important contributions to the soil’s supply of organic matter. You can even double-mulch by covering a sheet-type mulch (of newspaper or cardboard) with grass clippings or another biodegradable mulch.

Different Soils Need Different Techniques

Although mulching will help even out soil moisture levels, unless your climate gets the absolute ideal amount of precipitation, you will be watering your garden plants. When doing so, your goal is to simulate drenching rain that replenishes moisture throughout plants’ root zones. When and how you water should be tailored to your soil’s natural tendencies. For example, water percolates slowly through tight clay soil, so a slow, deep soaking once a week works well. Sandy soil has plenty of open spaces that help water move downward quickly, so concentrated drenches twice a week are a better strategy. Site is a factor, too: High, sunny spots always dry out faster than low, shady ones.

The most efficient way to provide consistent moisture to garden plants is with soaker hoses (porous hoses that slowly weep water into the soil) or drip lines (which emit water in tiny trickles). Both distribute water exactly where it’s supposed to go, with little or no waste. You can put a simple system together as you plant your garden, and change the location of the soaker hoses or drip lines as crops come and go. For maximum versatility, limit the length of soaker or drip hoses to less than 50 feet, and install pop-in connectors to the female ends of each hose.

7/17/2014 3:22:57 PM

In our Calif drought, I keep a bucket in the kitchen and in the shower. I save the water that would go down the drain while waiting for the hot water to get from the water heater to the faucet. 1 1/2 gallons in the kitchen and about 3 gallons in the shower. That water is perfectly good, and I save use it to water my fruit trees and herbs. I keep a bowl in the kitchen sink, and that captures much of the water used for rinsing dishes. That water, sometimes a bit soapy, goes to watering the roses and other decorative plants. I still need to water some, but this keeps me going between official watering days. I like the idea of sunken garden beds! It's a bit too late to dig into dry soil now, but I'll keep this in mind for next winter when, hopefully, we'll get some rain to soften the soil.

6/27/2014 8:55:58 AM

As long as the "gray" water used on edible garden plants was not from bath/shower water, I would not be concerned about using it. Bath/shower water, however, could possibly harbor pathogens from traces of human fecal matter that might permeate and contaminate vegetable garden plants. Just a thought...

6/15/2014 10:06:36 PM

My area has little top soil, making raised beds for my gardening a necessity. I start my beds off each fall with large doses of bunny poo and chopped leaves. In the spring I remix the two and add a layer of soil. My beds are 12-18 inches high. Bunny poo is the only fertilizer that I find can be used fresh without hurting the plants or seeds. The only problem I find with raised beds is the need for more water as the beds tend to dry out quicker.

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