5 Ways to Transform Your Garden into a Low-Water Garden
We’ve all heard the cardinal rule of watering—your garden needs one inch over the surface each week. What if I told you that’s a myth, that you don’t need to water your garden weekly? You can create a low water garden where you don't need to do the watering.
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Low Water Garden: Let Nature do the Watering for You
Wait? What? Nature will do my watering?
We often forget that the ground around us contains literal tons of water. Every river starts from a spring somewhere on the land where water literally flows out of the ground. Water flows like rivers underground just as it does on the surface.
Think about all the wild areas that never get watered (except from the rain) but still grow fine.
If you want to work with nature, your goal is to increase how much water your soil can hold, and to reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation. If you do this correctly, you can skip that weekly watering and create a low water garden.
Plus, guess what? Your fruits, berries and vegetables will be a lot more flavorful when you stop watering.
Turns out that if plants get extra water, they produce bigger fruits with more water, which dilutes the taste. It is basically the same thing that happens if you put too much water in your soup – the taste is diluted.
To create a low water garden, you need to either increase how much moisture your soil can hold, decrease the moisture lost to evaporation, or reduce how much water your plants need, period—from you or any other source.
But how do you do that?
5 Ways to Create a Low Water Garden
5 ways to create a low water garden
- 1Stop tilling your soil
- 2Garden with perennials
- 3Use mulch
- 4Block summer winds
- 5Create late-afternoon shade
Before we dive into these, let’s take a closer look at one of the most important pieces of this puzzle—how soil stores water. We need to understand this in order to really understand how to preserve more of that water for your plants.
There’s a lot to take in here, but don’t worry. I made a print-friendly cheat-sheet that you can download for free to transform your garden into a low water garden.
Storing Water in the Soil
If we want to harness more groundwater for our plants, we need to take a look at soil and the way it stores water.
Healthy soil contains organic matter, (pieces of dead plants and animals, plus the millions of microbes, fungal networks, and bacteria that thrive in healthy soil) that increase the water-holding capacity of the soil. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), every 1% increase in organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available water per acre.
This means that for every 1% increase in organic matter you get an extra 0.6 gallons of water per square foot in your garden. Which is roughly the same amount of water that your plants need each week.
If you can increase your organic matter percent to say 8%, you have 2 months of water stored in the soil of your garden! That high content of organic matter could be a challenge to reach, but even 4% would store 1 month of water.
Luckily, ground water is not static—it flows. So as your plants use the water in the soil, more will be drawn in from the surrounding land.
This also means that the techniques covered in this article will be more effective if you also use them in the area around your low water garden.
Increasing the organic matter in your soil will also let your soil better hold the water from summer rains and from any watering you do.
Increasing the organic material in your soil will reduce how much you need to water, saving you time and improving the taste of your fruits and vegetables.
1. Stop Tilling Your Soil
The first step to create a low water garden is to stop tilling the soil.
Whenever you till or dig the soil, you kill some of the life in the soil and create an environment where other soil life becomes more active. This results in the organic matter being consumed and lost at a much higher rate than normal.
The result is a temporary boost in soil fertility, but a long term decrease in fertility and a decrease in soil organic matter.
Tilling will make you dependent on fertilizer inputs and irrigation, costing you time and money.
The single best thing you can do to reduce your water use and improve your soil is to stop tilling.
This also means that you should stop pulling up your plants (other than root crops) when they are done producing food. Cut them off at ground level so the roots remain in the earth, adding more organic matter to your soil.
The top parts of the plants can be left on your beds as mulch or removed and composted to be added back to your garden later.
Avoiding tilling and digging provides other benefits to your garden. This video offers a great intro into no-dig gardening.
2. Garden with Perennials
After reading that last point, you might be thinking, but wait—I can’t avoid digging altogether. I have to dig to plant my vegetables!
This is true, of course, but even here you can do a lot to reduce the disturbance to the soil.
Seeds require less disturbance than transplanting plants. Plus, plants grown from seed tend to be more productive and have better root systems which also reduces how much you need to water!
If you have to transplant plants started indoors, try to only use small plants. If you need to use a shovel your transplant is too big!
I also recommend that you include more perennial plants in and around your low water garden. Perennials are the hardy plants that overwinter—plants that only need to be planted once to produce food year after year.
I wrote an article about how to garden using perennial vegetables that will help you reduce the number of annual vegetables in your garden.
By switching to perennial vegetables, you can reduce your soil disturbance which will help increase your soil organic matter. Plus, perennial plants require far less watering due to their well-established root system.
Including perennial plants in your garden will help you transform your garden into a low water garden.
If you want to see how to include perennials with your annuals in a relatively small garden then check out this video from One Yard Revolution on YouTube:
3. Use Mulch
Applying a layer of mulch (wood chips, organic straw, fall leaves, leaf mold, etc.) 3-6” thick over the top of your garden will greatly reduce how much watering you need to do.
How does it do this?
In the short run, mulch will reduce the evaporation of water from your soil and reduces the soil temperature. This keeps more of the water in your soil, keeping it available for your plants and allowing you to garden with less water.
In the long run mulch, will break down and add organic matter to your soil. This is a great way to increase the organic matter in your soil, increasing how much water your soil can hold.
Garden plants can be “chopped and dropped” and left laying as mulch in the fall, adding to what you already have.
You may be afraid that adding mulch will lock up nitrogen in the soil and make it unavailable for your plants. This comes up almost every time someone suggests using mulch on a garden.
Luckily, mulch will only lock up nitrogen if you till or dig the mulch into the soil. But remember, you’re not going to till your garden. Right?
Remember this one rule: mulch goes on the surface of the soil, not below the surface.
Finding mulch can be hard - here are a few resources to get you started.
4. Block Summer Winds
Even with mulch, your low water garden can still lose water from evaporation. One way you can further reduce evaporation is to block the summer winds blowing across your garden.
This can be done by planting a series of rows of trees and shrubs known as a hedgerow on the side of your low water garden where the summer winds normally blow in. Just be careful to plant the hedgerow far enough away from your garden not to shade it accidentally—especially if the hedgerow is along the south side of the garden.
If you use fruit trees and berry bushes in your hedgerow, you can also get a food harvest from it. How’s that for an added bonus?
What if you don’t have enough space for trees and bushes?
You can use smaller plants to create a wind block, but of course this won’t be as effective. Still, I would say any reduction in wind is well worth the effort.
Orach is a fantastic vegetable (salad and cooking green) that grows up to 8 feet tall. It could easily serve as a wind block for smaller vegetables.
Block summer winds to reduce evaporation in your low water garden.
5. Create Late-Afternoon Shade
Have you heard that your garden needs full sun?
This may be true, but do you know what “full sun” actually means? It doesn’t mean that your garden always needs to be in the sun.
It just means you want at least 6 hours of direct sunlight.
Ideally, your low water garden will get morning and early afternoon sun, and then be in the shade in the late afternoon. This will give your garden all the sunlight it needs early on, and then provide shade during the hottest time of the day.
Shading your low water garden during the hottest part of the day will reduce evaporation from the soil and reduce how much water your plants need.
Remember the hedgerows from Tip #4? You can plant a hedgerow on the west side of your low water garden to provide afternoon shade.
Shade in the afternoon will reduce how much water your plants need. Make sure your low water garden still gets a full 6 hours of sun.
Start Your Low Water Garden Today
Eliminating soil tilling, growing perennials, adding mulch, blocking the summer winds, and creating afternoon shade will all help you create a low water garden.
In the long run, you might even be able to stop watering entirely as the levels of organic matter in your soil increase and your perennials get established.
This will save you time and money, and give you much tastier vegetables, fruits and berries.
Seems like a win-win to me!
These techniques will also result in your soil becoming more fertile, which should result in larger harvests in the long-run.
Make sure to check out my post on permaculture zones if you need help figuring out where to place your wind blocks and trees to create afternoon shade.
I would love to hear your experience with these 5 methods. What has worked in your low water garden? Please leave a comment below sharing your experience creating a low water garden.
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