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How to Save Water in Your Garden

Protect against drought with these tips


spinner image a wooden barrel for rainwater in a garden
schulzie/Getty

​No matter where your garden grows, water is the most precious tool. And in a time of record temperatures and more frequent droughts, it’s important to know how to conserve and use it wisely in your own backyard. ​ 

“Water is the most local thing we have,” says Signe Danler, an instructor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University in Corvallis and a Master Gardener program trainer with the OSU Extension Service. “In most places, [the water] isn’t being pulled from that far away. It’s local. That’s where it needs to be dealt with.”​

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The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water a day — about 30 percent of it outdoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In some regions, there’s a shortage due to drought; in other areas, there’s low water supply or increasing demand due to development. Besides raising sustainability questions, access to that water can translate to widely varying costs for homeowners across the country — topping out in West Virginia, where the average water bill is $105 a month. ​ ​

If you’re a gardener who wants to save water resources and money — and who doesn’t? — there are many smart steps you can take. ​

​In her book, The Water-Saving Garden: How to Grow a Gorgeous Garden With a Lot Less Water, author and garden designer Pam Penick of Austin, Texas, highlights three basic strategies: Capture the water you get, plant for water conservation and use water efficiently. Some actions, such as rethinking your plant choices, are simple; others, like building sunken “rain gardens” to absorb runoff, take muscle or money. But most water-saving steps are scalable, meaning you can start small, see how it works and then expand when you have the time or budget, Penick says. ​

​“Everything you do makes a difference and can inspire you to keep doing more things to save water,” she adds. ​

​For example, Peter Jensen helps Cape Cod, Massachusetts, homeowners use the runoff from their roofs to feed their yards and gardens. ​

​“That’s water that’s not captured and is lost for the hot, dry summer,” says Jensen, 60, an agroecologist — someone who uses ecological principles to make agriculture more sustainable. He honed his techniques consulting in places like Africa and South America, but now runs a landscaping company in his native Cape Cod that specializes in water sustainability. Homeowners, he believes, should value and protect the water under their land as much as they do their homes. ​

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​So, for example, instead of the water being wasted or washing harmful chemicals and nutrients into a nearby bay, a typical home’s runoff — about 400 gallons from a 1-inch rainfall — can be redirected and filtered. It will flow from the downspouts through meandering stone-lined channels, slowly soaking into gardens rich in organic material or over terraced slopes.  ​

“You curve water, it slows down, and then it can sink and spread through the soil,” he says.  ​

​If you want to start saving water, here are more techniques from Jensen and other experts. ​

spinner image a bed of hydrangeas with fresh mulch
Jena Ardell/Getty

Keep what you get    

  • Mulch your gardens or plant ground covers such as creeping thyme to protect the moisture in the soil. ​
  • If you get significant summer rainfall, connect a rain barrel (or two) to your downspout. For about $100, a 50-gallon barrel can provide enough water for patio plantings or a small garden. If your rainfall is seasonal and you need to save it for the summer months, consider a larger outdoor or underground water tank. But first check local and state regulations. Some places have restrictions on how much water you can collect or how you can use it.  
  • Use permeable concrete or other permeable paving materials to reduce runoff, OSU’s Danler says. Separate the bricks or pavers with sand, not concrete. “Water will go down right through it,” she notes. And use permeable landscape fabric for mulch or to reduce weeds under patios — never plastic sheeting, which Danler calls “bad stuff.” Plastic will kill the soil “because nothing can live without air or water.”     ​
  • Collect water where it forms. In Austin, where Penick gardens, homeowners collect the condensate from their air-conditioning units. “The air conditioners work very hard in the summer,” she says, “and they create a lot of drip, and people collect that in buckets and use it.”     ​
  • Terrace your slopes. By creating tiers, you slow the water, giving it time to be absorbed rather than washing into the road, Jensen says. “The first terrace stops it. That one’s going to get runoff and rain, and it will percolate through the rest of the terraces down the hill.”     ​
  • Landscape your yard to capture water, using techniques like lithic swales (stone-lined channels) and rain gardens (basins that capture the water, filtering it through compost and other organic materials as it is slowly absorbed). Information on water collection and absorption techniques are available from state agricultural extension services and local landscape specialists.  ​
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Pick plantings wisely     ​

  • Choose plants that need less water. Many drought-resistant varieties such as creeping phlox and purple coneflower will add plenty of color to your garden.      ​
  • Dig up your water-hogging lawn or reduce it. Lawns require 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week, according to Scott’s Lawn Care. Penick’s first book, Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, has lots of alternative planting and design ideas. “A lawn has certain uses,” she says. “But if it’s just sitting there and requiring the lawn mower every week, and you don’t get anything out of it, there’s a lot more attractive things that you can do.”     ​
  • Plant in water zones, with the thirstiest plants closest to the house and your water source, Penick says. “And then as you work your way out from your house, plant things that are much more able to be just put in the ground and left alone.”     ​
  • Don’t equate “native” with “water-saving.” A bog plant, for example, might be typical of your area, but it require lots of water. And some native plants may only survive in seasonally dry climates by going dormant during hot summers — probably not the garden look you want, Danler says. “So the natives can be very helpful with water, but non-natives can be, too.”    ​
spinner image a rain guage in a rainy garden
schulzie/Getty

 ​Use water efficiently

  • Use a rain gauge so you know how much water you’re getting. ​
  • Match your watering system to your garden area. For example, in a vegetable garden, drip irrigation can target crops rather than the weeds in between rows, Danler says. But areas around shrubs might do better with irrigation bubblers that can cover a wide area, she notes.     ​
  • Use your irrigation system wisely. Water before dawn, and install a smart system that doesn’t water when the ground is moist. Or run your system manually rather than setting it on automatic. Read the instructions and have it serviced annually to save water and money.     ​
  • Create the illusion of water. In The Water-Saving Garden, Penick has fun with features that create the look of water in a garden but don’t actually use water — like creating a “pond” of crushed blue glass or stone. “Symbolic water is really important in drier climates,” she says. “It’s kind of a little fool-of-the-eye to make you think about water when you’re not actually using any.”​

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