Water Well

Use these smart techniques to conserve water without leaving your garden thirsty.

November 26, 2010

You've seen this common conservation crime: the oscillating sprinkler watering more sidewalk than garden in the height of the afternoon. Smart organic gardeners know that overhead sprinklers are so last summer—a waste of water and invitation to plant diseases. We asked experts in different climates for hints on watering your garden to keep it healthy throughout the season.

Hand check
Before whipping out the watering can, check your garden's soil moisture with that handiest of tools, your finger. Push it into the ground around your plants. You want the top 2 or 3 inches of the soil to be dry, and the soil below that to be moist. Oh, and don't forget to check your local weather forecast to see what Mother Nature has planned before turning on the hose.


Timing is everything
In warm weather, water in the morning to give plants a chance to drink up before the hot sun or strong winds evaporate the moisture. This protects plants from wilting in the afternoon heat, too. In a prolonged drought, cover more sensitive plants with a shade cloth to limit midday transpiration, suggests Cado Daily of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. If you can't water in the morning, try for late afternoon—but not too late; the foliage should have time to dry before the sun goes down so it doesn't develop fungal diseases.

Deep and infrequent
Seeds and seedlings demand moisture close to the soil's surface, but more established plants need deep watering to develop roots that will find water in the subsoil when drought strikes. Just be careful not to overwater! You want soil that's damp but not soggy down to 5 to 6 inches below the surface. In waterlogged soil, roots are deprived of oxygen and may lose the ability to take up water. If your plants' foliage begins to brown at the edges and fall from the plant, you may be overwatering.

Beyond the sprinkler
When it comes to watering techniques that best conserve water, you have a number of options. Spray wands are portable and easy to use for watering containers and smaller gardens. For more efficient, even, and deep watering, OG Test Gardener Debbie Leung, in Olympia, Washington, recommends investing in a good soaker hose. These hoses are easy to use and allow you to maintain a slow, constant flow of water in densely planted areas without feeding the weeds in your garden at the same time.

Add compost to conserve soil moisture
Improving your soil's moisture-holding capacity is as simple as mixing organic material, such as compost, into your beds. Depending on the type of soil you have, more organic matter can mean more accessible water for your plants. Dense clay particles commandeer most of your soil's moisture, decreasing the amount of water available for your thirsty camellias and cucumbers, while sandy soils drain water too quickly for plants to absorb it. By adding in some hearty humus, you'll give water something to hang onto until your plants need it most.

Mind your mulching
Another way to keep your garden moist (and reduce weed problems by up to 90 percent!) is to top off your beds with a fresh layer of organic mulch. Mulching with materials like dried grass clippings, straw, bark, wood chips, and even small rocks will decrease soil moisture evaporation and reduce your garden's water needs. Bonus: Mulching may also prevent certain kinds of soil diseases from coming in contact with your plants' lower leaves.