Water Conservation in the Garden

Through proper soil preparation, mulching, and efficient watering methods, it is possible to conserve water in all types of gardens.

The rapid global environmental changes that are taking place are causing a more significant number of people to be concerned with the need for water conservation in the home. Some steps can be taken in the garden to use water efficiently and minimize waste. The use of efficient watering methods, mulching, and organic matter to the soil allows for maximum water use.


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One of the most overlooked keys to water conservation is the soil. The aesthetic appearance on the surface is whatever everyone sees and thinks about. Very few people stop and think about what is “under the hood”. The type of soil and the soil condition can often be the deciding factor in whether a plant survives. There are three different types of soil. Sandy soil is comprised of large particles and does not hold water very well. Loamy soil is the ideal soil mixture and is comprised of a combination of small and large particles. This type of soil holds water well. The final type of soil is clay. Clay is made up of tiny particles and packs down very tight, and does not allow for water drainage.

To conserve water in gardens, organic matter is often needed to be mixed into the soil to change its consistency. This organic matter can be from a variety of sources. Grass clippings and mulched leaves are probably among the most inexpensive solutions for amending to the soil, with peat moss being the most expensive. Treated lumber dust and chips are said to be okay to add to the soil, but it is also recommended to stay away from them due to the chemicals used in the process, and that might leach into the soil.

The addition of organic material to the soil will bind the particles together and allow for better moisture retention in sandy soil. In clay-type soils, this material will break up the particles and allow for water drainage. Excessive water retention can be just as bad as the lack of water retention. The consistency one is looking for is almost a light, fluffy soil with excellent water retention potential like a sponge. Sandy soil without amendments results in constant watering as the soil will not soak up the water and allows the water to pass right on through, much like pouring water into a kitchen strainer. Without organic matter to separate the densely packed particles in clay soil, water will puddle and potentially drown the plants if it does not soak in quickly. Some organic matter forms are best avoided or used minimally due to the high weed seed concentrations found in them. Some forms are applied only at certain times of the growing season, particularly at the end of the beginning, depending on what it is.


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Mulch has a lot to offer any garden. It can be purchased at home improvement stores and nurseries and offered in various colors and materials. Using a little mulch around the plants is better than not using any mulch, but typically it needs to put down in a 3″ to 4″ layer. It acts as a form of insulation by moderating the soil temperature. Placing mulch of any type around the plants, the need for frequent watering is reduced as it helps minimize evaporation and retains moisture in the soil and itself. Mulching also helps to keep the weeds out of the beds. If weeds are allowed to grow in and around the plants, they are always competing for the much-needed moisture to survive. The use of mulch also reduces the amount of soil compaction that will cause the soil not to retain the moisture properly as it will puddle on the top and then evaporate into the air, thus being wasted.

Related: The Best Moisture Meter For Plants

Depending on the type of mulch used, it can be worked into the soil as an amendment at the end of the season or the following season. This usage applies to organic mulches as some commercially available mulch are made out of rubber. Those types of mulches are best suited for flower beds and not out in the vegetable garden. By working the mulch into the garden, the soil is amended every year, making it better every season. Organic mulches break down during the season and need to be replaced every year.


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Planning an efficient method to water the garden is the final step in water conservation. The three methods for watering are flood irrigation, sprinklers, and drip irrigation. The two most efficient methods are flood irrigation and drip irrigation. These methods keep the water close to the ground and apply water only to the areas that need it.

An old method commonly seen in farm fields is the use of flood irrigation of the crops. A furrow or trench is dug between the rows close to the plants and then flooded with water. This method works best if the area is relatively level as the water will not run off as quickly. In some garden crops, a trench can be made in a circle around the plant itself and then flooded. Flood irrigation eliminates the wastefulness of overhead sprinklers through evaporation and watering where plants are not growing.

The use of sprinklers though widely used, is perhaps the most inefficient and wasteful way of watering. Since it is applied overhead, it is affected by the wind and temperature more. The wind will cause it to drift and not go where it is meant to. Another side effect of the usage of sprinklers is greater evaporation. A sprinkler often means that more water has to be used to get the same results as other watering forms. The use of sprinklers is not all bad, though, as not all sprinklers are made equal. Use a sprinkler that waters with large drops instead of sprinklers that put out more of a water mist. The larger drops of water are more solemn and not affected as much by the wind. Sprinklers that mist are more prone to drifting evaporation issues, thus wasting more water.

The rising star in watering gardens is drip irrigation. For simplicity’s sake, soaker hoses can be included in this category as well. Drip irrigation is best suited for raised beds, containers, and flower beds than large garden areas. Its most straightforward form of drip system consists of the main supply line with small feeder lines coming off it under low water pressure. There are typically small drip emitters or small sprinklers of different styles coming off of the feeder lines. The use of drip emitters allows the water to come out at a low rate and soak into the ground. Many variations can be done with this system as it allows the water to be directed at each plant. Even the supply line can be used as a drip line. Some of the major home improvement stores such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot carry a more significant assortment and selection of drip irrigation products than ever before. There are also many resources for drip irrigation products and tips on planning and usage online:

Soaker hoses though perhaps not as efficient as drip irrigation, are still an efficient way of watering and are designed to cover larger areas. Some of these hoses are made of recycled rubber and are very porous, allowing the water to weep out its pores in small droplets. Others are made out of nylon fabric and weep out through the seams. Gilmour makes one with small slits that allow it to double as a sprinkler and a soaker hose.

Careful thought needs to go into what type of plants are used, and some plants require more water than others. Combining soil preparation, mulching, and efficient watering methods in conjunction with proper plant choice forms an excellent water conservation system for gardens of all types.

Theresa Lien
Theresa Lien
A professional writer who has specialized in houseplants and indoor gardening. She's had experience with outdoor landscaping too, having written about plants that grow well on balconies and patios as one of her previous articles for Wohomen.


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