7 Tips For Less-Frequent, More-Efficient Watering

Quench your garden’s thirst without driving up your water bill with these ideas for small-scale irrigation.

by Bill Strubbe
PHOTO: Photo: iStock/Thinkstock

There’s no getting around it: If you want to grow a lush, healthy garden filled with nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs, it’s gonna need some water. But quenching your crops’ thirst doesn’t mean your water bill has to go through the roof or that you need to waste this precious resource. Here are tips for irrigating smartly and to save you time, money and water in the process.

1. Check Soil Moisture First

Stick your finger into the soil a few inches from the plant. If the soil is dry 1 to 2 inches below the surface, it’s time to water. If you don’t trust your digits, then a simple wooden chopstick—the unvarnished, splintery kind from Chinese take-out—will do. Stick the chopstick several inches into the soil. Leave it there for a minute, and then remove it: If the lower part is stained or darkened with moisture, then you can skip watering for now. (Rinse the chopstick off, let it dry and use again. You’ll need a can full of them throughout the growing season.) If you’re still lacking confidence in your soil-moisture-checking abilities, buy a simple water moisture reader from any nursery for about $10 to $15.

2. Water Deeply

Vegetables and flowering plants respond best to deep soaks at their bases. By irrigating established plants thoroughly, you’ll not only have to water less frequently, but you’ll encourage deep root growth because they’ll be buffered from the wet-dry cycle. Superficial sprinkling encourages shallow root growth. Young seedlings, on the other hand, will need more frequent, shallow waterings.

3. Get Up Early

Morning, when the air is calm and cool and there’s less evaporation, is prime watering time. If your morning schedule doesn’t allow you to irrigate before heading to work, your next best option is late afternoon, leaving several hours for the leaves to dry before dark. However, any time plants start to show symptoms of drought stress is the time to water them—even if this means the middle of the day or evening.

4. Trash the Sprinkler

Sure, it’s easier to set a sprinkler in the middle of your plot, turn on the hose for an hour, and take a nap or walk the dog, but area sprinklers are vicious water wasters. Only a fraction of the water emitted falls where needed—at the base of each plant—and instead, it ends up on walkways, stepping stones and between plants, which encourages weed growth. Plus, overhead watering encourages mildew and fungal growths.

5. Buy the Right Equipment

It’s fun to hold your thumb over the end of the hose and spray away, but it’s also a huge waste of water. A squeeze handle watering wand with variable spray options (shower, soak, flat, et cetera) allows you to shut off the water while moving between plants, minimizing water waste. If you buy the long-handled version, you’ll reap the additional benefit of not having to stoop to deliver water to the plant base.

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6. Go Old-School

Simple and straightforward, the old-fashioned watering can allows you to effectively target individual plants, ensuring the water goes straight to their roots.

7. Turn Off the Faucet

Turning on the garden hose may be the most obvious way to deliver water to your thirsty plants, but with a little creativity, you can recycle water used around the house to provide irrigation without turning on the tap. Here are a few ways you can redirect household water into the garden rather than down the drain.

  • Collect Roof Runoff: If your region receives rain during the warmer months, install a rain barrel or similar device to divert roof runoff to the garden.
  • Reuse Pasta and Veggie Water: Water used to boil pasta and vegetables is often nutrient-rich and great for plants. Similarly, when rinsing fruit and veggies, do so in a shallow pan or bucket in the sink, then take out to water the deck pots.
  • Collect Cold Shower Water: Even with an efficient water heater, it can take a minute for bath water to heat up. Keep a bucket in the shower to collect that extra water for indoor or outdoor watering.
  • Recycle Aquarium Water: Provided you don’t add chemicals or salts to your aquarium’s water, this can be a perfect natural liquid fertilizer—yup, fish poop—for plants.
  • Reuse Unwanted Ice: After a party or BBQ, don’t just dump that cooler filled with ice down the drain or on the grass. Spread it around the base of selected plants for a cool drink.


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