Too much water is costly and can cause fungal problems. Too little water stresses lawns and plants, making them more susceptible to diseases, weeds and insect pests. Finding that watering sweet spot helps your yard thrive, reducing problems that might lead to the use of pesticides. And of course, saving water also saves time and money.
First, fluff up the soil
Loose, loamy soil retains moisture and transmits nutrients to your plants.
- Fluff soil before you plant with a digging fork and compost.
- Once plants are in, top the soil with 3 to 4 inches of mulch around plants, keeping about 6 inches of clearance around stems. In addition to shading the soil so it stays moist longer, mulch keeps weed seeds from getting the light they need to germinate.
Group plants with similar water needs
It is easier to water just the right amount when the plants right next to each other have the same watering needs.
Think before you sprink – or drink
Some garden hoses can leach chemicals into the water flowing through them. Before you drink from a hose (or fill the dog's water bowl), make sure you're using a food-grade hose, commonly available as RV hoses at hardware stores. Otherwise, let the water run a bit before watering edibles or filling the kiddy pool, particularly if the hose has been in the sun. This is especially important for children and pregnant women since many hoses contain toxic lead, and endocrine-disrupting BPA and phthalates that are now banned in many children's products.
Garden hose toxicity ratings by healthystuff.org
Before you turn the spigot, check for leaks
Don't let leaky sprinklers, damaged drip lines and forgotten timers blast your water bill. Check for leaks and make sure they are repaired.
Put a nozzle on it
A basic hose end shut off nozzle is a easy way to save a lot of water.
Then, water low and slow
If you direct water only where plants need it, you’ll use less, and have fewer weed and pest problems too. Here are some easy techniques:
Punch holes in the bottom of a milk or juice jug, fill it with water, screw on the cap and place the jug next to a plant. It will release water for a week. If it’s very hot, refill more often.
When planting a new addition to the garden, you want wet roots to contact wet soil. Here’s how:
- Set the entire plant container into a larger container.
- Fill the larger container with water.
- While the plant is still in its pot, soak the whole thing in a larger container of water.
- Water the planting hole well and then transplant the plant into it.
Soak the soil under plants, not the plant leaves or the surrounding soil. A sprinkler is fine for the lawn but overhead watering of flower and vegetable gardens causes two problems: it encourages weed seeds in the soil to sprout and it creates ideal conditions for fungal diseases that harm leaves and stems.
Use efficient irrigation systems
Well-designed drip systems and low-precipitation sprinklers can help you deliver just the right amount of water to just where you need it, ensuring healthy plants, fewer weeds and less loss from evaporation and overspray.
The easiest method for a home gardener: soaker hoses. (Fun fact: they’re made of recycled tires.)
Or try T-tape, a thin-walled drip line sold in flat rolls; slits along its length allow water to flow out. For a larger garden, it’s inexpensive and efficient, sending water directly to the roots.
Advanced gardener tip: Also efficient are drip systems of polyethylene piping, in which water is emitted every 1 to 2 feet along the pipe length. These require more installation know-how. Buying all the components from one store and choosing one brand (brands are not necessarily interchangeable) can make it easier. And go to a specialty irrigation store; the parts will last longer.
Water early or late
Adjust timers to the weather and avoid overwatering to conserve water, save money and protect the health of your plants. If you have an automatic system, add a rain shutoff valve and check to make sure the system is off during the wet season.
Early morning is the best time to water as you lose less to evaporation and leaves are more likely to dry by nightfall, preventing plant diseases.
Time your watering, too
Use an old-fashioned egg timer or a smart phone version to help you remember when to turn the water off.
Or get a bit more garden-specific with a hose-bib attachable timer or controller. Options start at about $15 and include a simple, wind-up timer that you reset with each use, or a battery-operated timer you can program to turn the water on and off. Make sure that either your hose bib or the timer has a backflow prevention device.
If you aren’t sure how long to water, find your weekly watering number (tailored by zip code), through the Regional Water Providers Consortium, a partnership of 21 water providers and Metro.
Another technique reveals how long it takes for water to penetrate the soil. Do this once and then you know:
- First, turn on a timer and the water.
- After 15 minutes, turn off the water and dig down into the soil to see how far it has penetrated. You want it to be wet 6 inches deep for vegetables and lawns, and up to 1 foot for trees or shrubs.
- Keep watering and timing in 15-minute increments until the water reaches the desired depth.
- Then every time you water, just set the timer for the time you need and when it rings, turn off the water.
Slow, spread and sink the rain
When it's raining, suit up, go out and watch where the water flows or doesn't flow in your yard.
- If there are puddles, do they remain long after the storm passes?
- Are your gutters and downspouts carrying the rain away from the house?
- Are there rivulets threatening to become gullies in your garden? If so, make note and plan for helping the water find its way back into the soil.
Downspout disconnections, rain gardens, soakage trenches and other stormwater management options can help you slow, spread and sink the rain into the soil. But the first step is noticing it. Your efforts will help protect local rivers from pollutants, and will save water for life-supporting trees and shrubs.
Find more watering tips from the Regional Water Providers Consortium