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October 13, 2017

Water is an important asset, particularly in the garden, and it’s important for us to learn ways to make the best use of it.

“Water is a limited resource,” says Mike Bone, curator of the Steppe Collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens. “We’re not making more water, but we are making a lot more people.”

Because a growing population demands more from the water system, this is the time to take steps toward conserving what we have.

1. Make Smart Plant Picks

“The first things you should look at are the plant choices in your garden,” Bone says.

Of course, regional natives are ideal, but he points out that you should consider similar habitats from throughout the world. For instance, if you live in the high plains, which are often semiarid regions, steer away from plants that prefer warm, humid conditions because their water needs will be difficult to satisfy in these conditions.

Plenty of common garden flowers are loved to death by putting them in situations with too much water. Bone uses echinacea, irises and peonies as examples that are traditionally found in dry, steppe climates. We don’t have to have them in a well-watered garden to enjoy their beauty.

Finding the right plant for the location is an important piece of this puzzle, so Bone works extensively with the Plant Select program, a nonprofit collaboration of Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturists, where experts search the globe for site-specific plants that thrive in a variety of landscapes providing beauty and function without much fuss.

2. Redirect Water

Oftentimes, our homes are set up to collect rainwater running off of the roof, but the system sends it well away from where it can be used. A beautiful way to make use of this precious resource is to create a “dry stream bed” out of rocks, building a garden around the diversion method. You could also create additional landscaping by simply redirecting your spouting to send the water to a part of the garden or lawn. This is also a good opportunity to add plants that might benefit from additional moisture because you can plant them within the reach of the runoff.

3. Set Up Rain Barrels

water conservation rain barrel
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If you want to better control the use of the water from your roof, set up a couple of rain barrels, which are easily incorporated into most landscapes. A rain barrel can be as simple as a large trashcan situated below the downspout or a commercial model complete with spigot at the bottom to attach a hose and send the water where you need it. Some sort of covering on the top is useful to keep it safe for children, as well as prevent mosquitoes from using it as a breeding ground. Bone has a rain barrel on the side of his house, and he installed a trellis with vines along one side of it so the rain barrel is screened from view while the vines benefit from any watering splash-over.

4. Match Soil To Plants

“There’s a lot of interest in soils, but it goes back to plant choices,” Bone says.

Having a healthy, microorganism-rich soil is beneficial for some plants, such as vegetables, but in a truly water-wise landscape, you might be doing more harm than good.

“A lot of plants can’t tolerate this level of humus,” he says. “In a dryland garden, you want mineral-rich materials.”

Instead of forcing your soil to comply with your plants’ needs, choose those plants that work well in the soil you already have.

5. Let Moisture Reach Roots

Even in native soils, compaction can be a problem.

“In my garden, one of the things I do is aerate,” Bone says.

Aeration, just like in the lawn, opens up areas in the soil so moisture can reach the root systems. When he plug-aerates, he’ll often fill the hole with some sort of aggregate, such as coarse sand, pea gravel or “squeegee,” a material between the size of pea gravel and sand. This keeps the air space and porosity in the soil.

6. Keep Water Close To Roots

Overhead watering is the least efficient method because the water often travels beyond the plants that need it, as well as being prone to evaporation. Use soaker hoses or emitter drip systems to allow you to direct the water exactly where you want it. It’s also better to water deeply and less frequently. Instead of giving the tomatoes or corn a quick drink every day, soak them thoroughly. Giving the plants an inch of water that soaks into the soil is more effective than dampening the surface.

7. Choose The Right Time

For those gardens that do require supplemental water, such as your vegetable patch, water during the cooler parts of the day when they water isn’t simply going to evaporate into the warm air. While watering in the evening reputably increases the increased risk of fungal issues, it depends more upon your location and whether you’re prone to them in the first place, rather than simply having increased moisture in the garden at night. If watering in the evening works the best for your schedule, that’s when you need to do it.

8. Mulch Thirsty Plants

water conservation mulch
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Unless you have a resident population of voracious slugs, your water-loving plants will benefit from 1 to 3 inches of mulch tucked in around them to keep the water in the soil longer. Use organic materials ranging from shredded bark, straw or even an inch deep of grass clippings, as long as they come from a chemical-free lawn.

Creating a water-wise garden takes a little thought and planning, but it opens up a brand-new, low-fuss world. Beyond responsibly using this important resource, Bone points out that planting with water conservation in mind often results in less work in the garden since hauling hoses or fiddling with sprinklers and drip irrigation can take up a lot of time and energy.

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Hobby Farms magazine.


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