How to approach watering (if you want to grow with nature)

How to Approach Watering (If you Want to Grow with Nature)

Approaching watering in a way that helps heal our living world is a bit different than what’s normally recommended in gardening magazines or websites. As someone who wants to grow with nature, you’re always trying to work with nature to accomplish your goals. Never is that more important than when you’re working with this increasingly precious life-giving resource, water. Here’s how to approach watering your plants if you want to grow with nature!


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In most gardening circles, the received wisdom is that you water your plants generously, straight from the tap.

For people who want to help heal our living world, it’s quite a bit different.

Growing with nature is about cultivating abundance for people, plants and wildlife. This means living in balance with the natural systems that sustain us, and also building resilience to withstand future shocks or climatic changes.

When it comes to watering, this means we need to acknowledge that the copious amounts of water often recommended in gardening circles are simply not going to be feasible as the climate crisis intensifies.

And luckily, you don’t need to water that much. At least not the way you’re used to. 

As someone who wants to help heal our living world, approaching watering means you step back and recognize that, in temperate regions, water is a normal part of the natural environment. It’s often more readily available than you might think.

There’s water in the soils, in the air, and in all the living plants, fungi, critters and other biomass--even if it hasn’t rained in a while. If you want to grow with nature, you’ll rely on the natural sources of water as much as possible.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you never water. Depending on your climate, you may need to water more than I do here in western Washington. But while western Washington has a reputation for being wet and rainy, our summers are actually very dry.

In 2018, there was virtually no rain from mid-May all the way through mid-September. And despite the drought, I watered far less than what is normally recommended.

It’s not just me, and it’s not just western Washington. Can you believe people are growing tomatoes in the central valley of California with no irrigation? If they can do it, then you can to.

If you’re interested in changing how you approach watering, here are the core mental shifts you need to make.

  1. Start relying more on passive rather than active irrigation.
  2. Stop going for the prize-winning vegetable or fruit.
  3. Learn to accept some water stress on your plants.

Wondering what passive irrigation is, or why in the world you should sit back while your plants are starting to get thirsty? Before you read on, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet, which runs through this information and offers some tips on specific techniques you can use to further reduce how much you water your plants.

Passive Irrigation Versus Active Irrigation

So what is passive irrigation?

I’m sure you’re familiar with active irrigation methods such as sprinkler systems, watering cans, flood irrigation, and drip-hoses. All of these require you to take some sort of action to water your plants when you want to water.

The water is also generally applied at a specific time, and then it’s turned off until the next watering.

Passive irrigation is different.

With passive irrigation, you don’t actually water your plants directly. Instead, you rely on the water already present within the natural system. This is the way you want to approach watering if you want to grow with nature.

This doesn’t mean you’re sitting around waiting for the rain. While rainfall is great, passive irrigation works long after the last rainstorm has passed.

So where does the water come from?

The biggest source will be water found in the soil. If you build good, rich, and healthy soil, your soil can hold a massive amount of water. Since water moves slowly through the ground, the water will be available long after the last rainfall.

Another source of water is all the life found on your property. Plants, animals, insects and critters, and other biomass. Trees, for example, can actually add water to their environment! There have been cases of dried up streams returning once trees were added back to the landscape.

Finally, another source of water is the air. And I’m still not talking about rainfall, though of course rainfall is a great source of water for your property. The air contains moisture even when it’s not raining. This moisture can condense out in the form of dew.

Creating cool micro-climates in rock piles, under trees, or in other spaces, can all create conditions for dew to collect.

When you approach watering to grow with nature, you work to optimize these sources of water and only turn to active irrigation as a last resort.

Further Reading:

To learn about specific methods to improve passive irrigation check on your property, out these blog posts:

Stop Going for the Prize-Winning Vegetable or Fruit

When approaching watering as a wild homesteader don't go for huge prize winning vegetables

While giant tomatoes like this one are fun to grow, they tend to require a fair bit of extra water. When you approach watering in a way that aims to help heal our living world, you get smaller but much tastier vegetables and fruit that need much less water. "2 lb. tomato" by Betsian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gardening magazines and web sites often seem to imply that everyone should be growing massive tomatoes, carrots, grapes, or other crops—giant harvests worthy of the blue ribbon at the county fair.

But these massive fruits and vegetables come with a cost.

Often the flavor will be less intense, and it will take a lot of extra watering to get these prize winners. Unless you’re set on entering that county contest, there’s really no reason to try to grow the prize winner.

If you want to grow with nature, then cultivating mammoth fruits or vegetables just seems unnecessary, and even frivolous or silly. Instead you’ll approach watering in a way that will grow vegetables and fruits that will be smaller but much more flavorful.

Wild Tip:

Just be careful to give your greens a bit of water if things dry out too much, since greens can get tough and sometimes bitter with too little watering. But adding some extra mulch or growing your greens in partial shade is a great way to avoid problem this without extra watering.

Learn to Accept Some Water Stress On Your Plants

When approaching watering as a wild homesteader some water stress is okay

Does this broccoli look happy? Not really but I did not water this broccoli since most of the day it looked fine and the soil was wet. Now it is growing great and does not mind the heat. It just needed time to adjust to the sudden change from cool weather to hot weather and was not actually in need of more water.

When you approach watering in a way that works with nature, you’ll need to give your plants a bit of tough love. Plants will have more luck capturing water from the soils if they’re encouraged to send their roots far and deep. 

This means when a plant shows some signs of water stress such as wilting, you might not want to grab the watering can too quickly.

Wilting can be caused by a number of different reasons.

  1. Something may have disturbed or damaged the roots.
  2. Your plant could be suffering from transplant shock.
  3. The plant might not be adapted to the heat yet.
  4. Your plant could need water.

For plants with disturbed or damaged roots, it’s often a good idea to give them extra water to help the plant heal. In this case, the plant has less roots to get water and support the existing top growth, so extra water is helpful.

If the plant was recently transplanted and is wilting, then it very well may be suffering from transplant shock. In this case, try giving the plant some extra water and see if it recovers.

If the heat comes quickly, without a slow build-up, then your plants might just not be adapted to the heat. The older leaves may start to wilt, while the younger leaves will look fine. This can easily happen in spring when you have weeks of relatively cool weather, and then, all of a sudden, a heatwave rolls in.

This shocks the plants, but as long as the ground stays wet, they should be fine and will recover. I wouldn’t give water in this case unless you check and see that the ground has dried out below the top inch or so while the plants are young.

Wild Tip:

Sometimes you will see a plant that is suffering from extreme wilting. This is when every leaf and stem is collapsed, and the plant looks like it could just fall apart. If you see this the plant needs water asap.

Of course, your plants could just need some water. No mater how well you approach watering, sometimes passive irrigation is just not enough.

If the soil is dry several inches down and your plants look stressed, then a good, long watering in the morning or evening is likely the best idea. Don’t just do a quick watering, or you’ll encourage the plants’ roots to stay near the surface.

And if the soil is dry but your plants look fine, then don’t bother watering. Wait to see if the plants show signs of water stress. Plant roots can go very deep, so even if the surface of the soil is dry, there may be plenty of water deeper down.

The main lesson here is, don’t jump to the watering can.

Instead, look at the situation and ignore the whole “1 inch of water per week” rule that gets thrown around. It generally isn’t accurate, since the plants can often get the water they need through passive irrigation.

Approaching Watering to Grow with Nature

Create a lush garden by approaching watering as a wild homesteader

During its first year, this hedgerow was planted with a number of annual vegetables such as orach, chard, broccoli, tomatoes, peas, and lettuce in addition to the perennial shrubs and trees. Despite a severe drought it was only watered a couple times in May to get the plants established and not at all in June and July.

When you approach watering to help heal our living world, you start by trusting in natural systems and working with the water that’s already there before extracting more.

That means recognizing that passive irrigation is better than active irrigation, and that going for the prize-winning vegetable or fruit results in more water consumption for less potent foods.

It means accepting that when plants show signs of water stress or the soil is dry, you don’t always need to grab the watering can.

With this mindset, you can greatly reduce how much watering your garden needs. This is a great boon for the environment, and it will save you time, money, and energy while still giving you the abundance you seek.

And in a warming world, it’s the only way to water that makes sense in the long run.

If you want to learn more about techniques that can boost your land’s passive irrigation, then check out these blog posts:

How do you approach watering? Let me know in the comments below!

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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