Get down-to-earth, money-saving gardening advice from The Small Budget Gardener (Cool Springs Press, 2009). Author Maureen Gilmer shows every gardener — beginners and experts — how to propagate plants and use less of everything. In this excerpt taken from chapter five, “Never Thirsty: Cut Your Water Bill in Half,” learn several ways to save water in your garden and money in your wallet.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Small Budget Gardener.
Drought-tolerant landscaping used to be restricted to homes in the Southwestern states where water conservation has always been a serious issue. But today, with dwindling resources, regional droughts, and growing demand on water supplies, water conservation is everyone’s concern. Like all products, high demand and limited supply drive prices higher, and water is no exception. Now it has become something that actually has an impact on our finances, and that should be recognized by every budget-minded gardener.
In order to save water and lower your bills, you should always be aware of how much water is being used or wasted in the garden. In fact, there’s an important relationship between how we water and how drought tolerant a plant will ultimately be. So for the sake of our children and the environment, paying attention to water conservation is one of the most vital green issues around; we must heighten our awareness of all water use, both indoors and out.
The key to getting started in water conservation is to understand the basic relationship of water to soil. In order to know the most efficient way of getting water to the roots of thirsty plants and nowhere else, we have to know how water behaves in and around soils. The following terms and their definitions are vital to understanding, which is built upon these concepts.
Percolation rate: Percolation rate is the speed at which water is absorbed by the soil. Water percolates instantly through porous sandy soil. But, it is very slow to percolate through dense clay soils. This dictates that we should apply water differently for each soil type.
Surface evaporation: The surface of the soil contains moisture that gradually evaporates into the atmosphere. In hot, dry climates the evaporation speed doubles. If evaporation is checked, little moisture is lost to the air and the rest remains available to plants for a much longer time within the soil.
Root zone: The root zone is the area of underground soil that is accessed by a plant’s root system. A plant cannot draw moisture from anywhere else but this vital zone, so keeping moisture there is a primary goal.
Deep rooting: Plants are more able to survive drought if they develop deep roots that can reach moisture trapped far underground. This is vital to maximizing the drought resistance of a plant. But if a plant is encouraged to root on the surface (through shallow watering), even a famously drought-resistant species may lose this quality altogether.
Drought-tolerant plants originate in climates that experience a long dry season or extended seasons of periodic drought. The plants indigenous to these climates have evolved coping methods. For example, they may grow quickly after brief rains; they may develop massive, deep-root systems; or their leaves may be a certain color (such as grey-green) or have a fuzzy surface that helps reduce moisture loss.
In nature, a drought-resistant plant species will begin deep rooting immediately after sprouting from seed. These early deep roots, which can reach three feet deep, are there to get a plant through the first dry season. But when that same species is grown in a container, its roots hit the bottom of the container very soon. Plus, its roots can’t extend outward, either. So when your new drought-tolerant plant goes into the garden, it’s not really drought tolerant — yet. It can take up to two years for roots to grow out and down to begin their natural hunt for moisture. The way you water and the depth to which the soil is saturated during those first two years contributes heavily to the ultimate size of a plant’s root zone.
Think twice before you switch out all your garden plants for less thirsty species. The resources to grow all the new plants, the waste from the plants that were removed from the garden, and the transportation used to do it all may cost more in dollars and resources than you’ll ultimately save from watering less. It’s far better to figure out where the major water wasters are, such as the lawn or growing cutting roses, and swap them out for something a little less thirsty.
When water is in short supply, traditional spray sprinkler systems are far too inefficient to be sustainable. This is partly because fine mists of water are vulnerable to evaporation and can be blown off course by the wind. The drip system prevents this problem by delivering water to the root zones of the plants and nowhere else; the flow rates are so low that each drop soaks directly into the soil. Thus, there is little moisture lost to surface evaporation. Deep saturation of the soil encourages adventurous rooting far below the soil surface. Since drip systems function at low pressure, fittings don’t have to be securely glued together, making it easy to fit it all together.
There is a newer version of this system called micro-spray that works a bit better with ornamental landscapes. It combines the visibility of a spray system with the low-flow efficiency of a drip system. It is simple to install, but there is more evaporation loss because it does spray. Its pencil-sized heads don’t water as deeply as a true drip system, though. They do provide a small-scale alternative for watering groundcovers and other low, spreading plants.
You can install a drip or micro-spray system in an existing landscape, although they are not suited to large areas of lawns or groundcover. Each plant may require one or more emitters, so creativity may be required to ensure everything is adequately watered.
If a standard spray system is present, you can adapt it to a drip system, but there may be some problems with water pressure. The simplest way to adapt to a drip system is to replace the spray head with a drip system manifold cap. This is a screw-on fitting that is studded with nipples that fit easily into plastic drip system tubing. The final product can somewhat resemble an octopus. Be sure to install the emitters as indicated by the manufacturer’s manual because they are essential to pressure control.
Where there is no existing system, it’s simple to set up a drip irrigation system by setting up drip lines from a nearby hose bib. With low-flow systems, you can serve many more plants on a single line than a spray system.
Consciousness of how you use wastewater from your kitchen is part of the new awareness of the environment. Whenever you end up with a leftover glass of water, don’t pour it down the drain — take it outside and pour it into your potted plants. Though it is a small thing, it does save water and money in the long run and demonstrates a reverence for this most essential resource.
Amid the conveniences of modern-day living, we have developed a casual attitude about water use. If you had been born a hundred years ago and had to draw water from a well one bucket at a time, your awareness would be quite different. In fact, in the ancient gardens of desert regions most plants were grown in pots, where indoor wastewater could be readily poured into them. Just as we have become aware of recycling and reusing, so must we wake up to our wasteful patterns of water use and incorporate ways to save water.
If you are watering with a traditional spray system, the best way to conserve is to cut the rate at which water is delivered. Do not reduce the coverage of the sprinkler head because this will leave parts of your garden dry and the plants will die. But, slower delivery means that the soil has more time to absorb each drop, which also limits wasteful runoff. If you have dense soil or clay, this may prove better for your plants and they will thrive because water penetrates deeper.
A low-flow sprinkler head sprays the exact radius and pattern as its predecessor. For example, a standard spray head may deliver two gallons per minute while a low-flow system might distribute just 1 or 1.5 gallons per minute. This savings not only can cut your water bills, it will work better in soils with slow percolation rates, particularly where lawn foot traffic has caused heavy compaction. Simply remove the heads, note the kind of head that is used on each riser, and go shopping for low-flow substitutes.
Forgotten garden hoses left running or not completely turned off will trickle unnoticed until someone uses the hose again. In some cases they may run for days before being discovered. There is an easy solution: purchase an automatic timer for each hose’s bib that automatically turns off the water even if you forget.
Keep your sprinkler system in good repair. Water can leak from broken water lines, sprinkler lines, or risers, reducing efficiency and possibly delivering water where there are no plants. That affects the spray heads at the end of the line that need the water to ensure adequate coverage.
Leaking garden hoses, couplers, and hose bibs waste a lot of water. Leaks occur when the rubber parts inside a faucet deteriorate. Repair or replace with new parts when water begins seeping out just below the knob. The same thing occurs when the washers inside hose couplers are lost or fail. Keep new rubber garden hose washers on hand at all times and replace them promptly.
Poorly adjusted sprinkler heads water unplanted areas guaranteeing 100 percent runoff in those areas. Heads that are blocked by plants or weeds can also restrict delivery and cause wet spots and encourage weed growth. Be aware of the sprinkler heads at all times because poor adjustment may also shortchange plants elsewhere within its coverage radius.
Watering on a schedule, especially when the soil is already moist, is not only wasteful but it’s unhealthy for the plants, too. Be aware of the weather every day and adjust your automatic controller in a timely fashion. Reduce or extend watering times and turn off the watering system altogether in wet weather.
Avoid watering in the heat of the day or in windy weather. In the heat, water evaporation rates skyrocket. Wind-blown water won’t fall where it should, leaving those spots in the garden overly dry. Watering very early in the morning or late evening are ideal times during the growing season.
Pay attention to the weather every day. Those who work in controlled environments are often unaware of what’s going on outside. They fail to realize factors such as dry wind, excessive heat, and lack of rain can greatly influence plants and the amount of water they need. Become as weather aware as a farmer so you can adjust your system in a timely fashion. This not only saves resources but optimizes conditions for the plants.
Fixed Riser Sprinkler: This is how most sprinkler heads appear underground. The feeder line is constructed with a “T” fitting that supports the riser. Risers screw into the “T” whereas the other two connection points are permanently glued. If a fixed riser is run over, hit, or crushed aboveground, the impact may crack the “T” underground. If there is any sign of water, dig down to the “T” to inspect for breaks or hairline cracks, which can waste a lot of water if they go undiscovered.
Pop-Up Head on Swing Joint: This detail shows how a pop-up head functions and at what level it is set in the soil. Since these heads can be expensive, a swing joint helps to reduce impact damage.
These checklists will help you to keep your water systems operating at peak efficiency so you’ll never waste a drop.
Spray System: Turn on the system manually to ensure each head is working properly. Observe where accumulated minerals from the water may restrict flow or interfere with the delivery pattern. Watch the pop-up heads, which may not be extending as they should. Often grains of sand can become lodged between the housing and the movable core. Watch the gear-driven heads that may jam when particles of sand or soil enter the central rotor. Silt buildup anywhere in the garden can be a clue that a line or fitting is broken or cracked underground. Silt buildup around a head could indicate a broken riser or T-fitting underground.
Drip System: Inspect your emitters often to ensure they are flowing properly. These little parts are cheap, so if there is any chance of malfunction, replace the emitter immediately. Follow each supply line from the valve to the last head and inspect for signs of moisture (which will indicate unusual seepage). In very hot, dry climates or very cold ones, the lifespan of plastic is shorter and becomes brittle sooner. Seepage from cracks can alter the system-wide pressure that will reduce water to plants at the ends. The flush plug or end clamp at the far end of each line allows you to flush the system of any debris, algae, bugs, or minerals that may build up inside to potentially clog emitters. Simply remove the flush plug, open the valve to let it flow freely for a few seconds, then replace.
Micro-Spray System: With a micro-spray system, turn on the system and inspect every head for full water delivery. Often plants grow up in front of them, which will block coverage, so add new heads or move existing ones to restore even coverage. For both types of low-pressure systems, clean out the filter at least once a month. It’s located close to the valve or hose bib that supplies the water. In areas where water mineral content is high, the filter can fill up quickly and restrict flow, compromising the efficiency of the system.
Gardeners overcome their water challenges with creative solutions. Some are truly new solutions and some are rediscoveries from similar challenges faced by our ancestors.
Long before the availability of sprinkler systems and pressurized water, farm wives were forced to water their gardens with well water. But if that was in short supply, they resorted to rain barrels. Rain barrels would catch the water draining from the roof and store it for future use. With our new emphasis on water conservation, the rain barrel is making a comeback with modern designs that easily attach to downspouts from gutter systems. The new rain barrels are fitted with an easy-to-use spigot system that eliminates the need to ladle or siphon out water as they did in the old days.
The use of gray water is another old idea that’s being resurrected. Before rural homes had septic systems, homeowners piped used house water (“gray water”) to pastures and orchards. Many a nineteenth-century farmhouse garden was supported by gray water as a year-round source of irrigation water. As communities became less agrarian and homes were located closer together, problems arose from excess concentrated gray water, which can become a health hazard if it’s not properly managed. It is particularly problematic if water tainted by dangerous bacteria from kitchens or bathrooms is drained this way. This is why gray water use is banned in many residential areas.
As we reconsider old ideas for new water conservation practices, gray water remains controversial, but it can be a real lifesaver in arid regions of the West or where extreme drought threatens the survival of a home garden. However, while its use is discussed, breaking the law is not condoned. Check your local ordinances.
The simplest way to experiment with gray water harvesting is to utilize water from the washing machine. It features an easy-access drain that can sometimes be piped through a wall or under the floor to the outside garden. Although washing machine water is ideal for ornamental areas, it should not be used in the food garden.
One example of gray water usage is illustrated by the ingenuity of a California woman. She lived in a rural area where her septic system was barely able to accommodate her household needs and her well was a poor producer. Whenever she did laundry the system backed up into the house. Since she didn’t have the money to redo the septic nor drill another well, she put together a simple laundry gray water system. It bypassed the house drainage and augmented her meager water supply. She utilized a roll of two-inch-diameter flexible black pipe and duct-taped it to the washer drainpipe. It ran out to her antique roses that lined the edge of an extensive wood deck. Then she carved a channel under the deck so that the water could flow to each of the rose bushes. Later she utilized a larger diameter perforated pipe that distributed water more efficiently to the foundation planting of roses. The system worked exceptionally well because she used baking soda laundry detergent that lacked dyes and perfumes. The roses grew into enormous sizes, not only due to the consistent water but because the soap contained nitrogen and phosphorous, two common components in fertilizer. Each time they were watered they were fed, too. There wasn’t a problem with accumulations of soap or minerals because the annual rains washed it all away. Fresh rainwater also leached through the soil surface so the soap and minerals were not overly concentrated there. Her garden proved that necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the roses plus their nutritious hip fruits in fall offered beauty, fragrance, and natural medicine in the form of the hips. There are no better ways to save water and budget garden than this.
The palm has always been a sign of water in the desert and few plants are as valuable in drought-stricken regions. Palms that hail from desert ecosystems such as those of North Africa, the Canary Islands, Mexico, and California can be surprisingly cold hardy, too. The palm is the signature style maker for gardens that feature an exotic Moroccan style or lush tropical look, but they also do well amidst Mediterranean-inspired architecture.
But the palm is far more valuable than its aesthetic or shade-giving value. It can produce raw materials that are useful in many ways — and free! For example, those palms with fan-shaped fronds are the source of valuable fiber that can be torn into thin strips to tie around a gift wrapped in recycled paper bags. Weaving the palm fronds into decorative crosses and flowers is an old-time craft that originated to preserve Palm Sunday sprigs. The history and directions on how to weave the fibers can be found online at many different sites searched under the keywords “palm + weaving.” Palm fronds can also be wired to a sparse overhead arbor to give it seasonal shade or to lend a more tropical look. The frond stems known as petioles can be cut and woven into a rustic picket fence. Those palms that bear fruit can be the source of thousands of easy-to-grow seedlings you can sell. If you live in a good palm-growing region you may find some rare old specimens around town. Keep an eye on them for seed production because there can be a real demand for blue leaf types or other oddballs. Gather the seed, identify the parent, and put your seeds on eBay to sell for extra cash. (It’s important to harvest seeds in a legal and neighborly fashion and never take anything from federal or state parks.)
Reprinted with permission from The Small Budget Gardener by Maureen Gilmer and published by Cool Springs Press, 2009. Buy this book from our store: The Small Budget Gardener.
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