Water-wise Gardening

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Water-wise Gardening

A lot of people take it pretty much for granted, but fresh water is getting to be a more and more precious resource. Gardening accordingly is a skill most of us are going to have to learn.

Choosing plants carefully for local conditions and planting them where they will thrive is a fundamental concept of landscaping, and it conserves water, says Steve Windhager, director of landscape restoration for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. In Austin, that might mean planting a lively perennial garden of black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and various shades of bee balm: these are all beautiful drought-tolerant native plants. Established plantings will bloom extravagantly, without consuming resources. “If you do native plant-use right, it’s an opportunity to create a beautiful habitat that takes advantage of the water that falls from the sky,” Windhager says.

Water conservation is an important practice at the Wildflower Center, where a handsome limestone cistern and aqueduct system collects and supplies water to the gardens. Windhager doesn’t just preach, however: he installed a 5,000-gallon water tank at his home to collect rainwater for use in his own garden.

Of course, even drought-tolerant perennial plants must be watered while they are becoming established.

deep watering new tree

During their first year in a new place, trees and shrubs also need regular, deep watering. Healthy, established plants can then tolerate drought and deluge, bugs and blight. Here are some tips to help you conserve water while cultivating a robustly healthy garden:

• Group plants according to their needs: plant moisture-loving plants together, where they can all benefit from occasional watering. If you have a spot where water tends to collect after a rain, it’s a good spot for plants that need more moisture.

• Drought-tolerant plants should be fine even beyond the reach of a hose.

watering can

Carry water to them in a watering can until they are established. A five-gallon bucket with a few small holes in the bottom will deliver a slow soaking of water directly to trees and shrubs.

• Use mulch.

compost from the garden

A layer of organic mulch (compost is my favorite mulch) limits moisture lost to evaporation. It also helps keep the soil temperature even and helps control weeds.

• Limit the size of thirsty lawns, and, when you water. Water lawns deeply. Thorough watering encourages roots to grow deeper into the soil, where they have access to moisture and nutrients in the ground. Frequent, superficial watering doesn’t help solve the problem.

• Practice smart watering.

new tree

Sprinklers with big, sweeping sprays look like they have a broad reach, but, especially on hot days, a lot of water evaporates into the air before it reaches plants’ roots. Use a soaker hose or a drip irrigation system to water flower beds. A smaller sprinkler helps concentrate the water where it is needed and doesn’t fling it so high in the air.

• Adjust sprinklers to water the garden, not the sidewalk or driveway.

• Use a timer. You can buy a timer for your spigot, or just set a kitchen timer so you don’t forget the water is running.

• Check outdoor faucets. Replacing hose washers every year will limit the amount of water lost at the spigot.• Install a rain barrel. You can capture enough rain in a quick rain shower to water a flowerbed, and every little bit helps.

• The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the American Society of Landscape Architects are co-sponsors of a program called Landscape for Life, which is based on the principles of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. The organizations are working together to develop a rating system for sustainable landscape design comparable to LEED certification for buildings. Americans use more than seven billion gallons of water a day on gardens and landscapes, according to Landscape for Life, and careful planting will both conserve water and limit pollution of waterways by runoff of excess fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.