Creating a water-efficient garden

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., Mar. 21, 2012
- Contributed Photo

During last year’s rainy growing season, not much thought was given to conserving water, as many of us were actually hoping the rains would stop and the soils would dry out. Right now soils are drying out nicely for early plantings. But our lack of winter snowfall and the warm, sunny weather we are experiencing at this time of year may see soils drying out too quickly. As you head out into the yard this spring, think about ways to make your landscape more water-efficient; reducing water consumption, but at the same time, maintaining healthy and attractive plantings.

Some strategies to employ include building a healthy soil, selecting plants best suited to a particular site, grouping plants together that have similar watering requirements, using drought-tolerant turf species, mulching, and efficient irrigation techniques.

Your soil’s texture, which is the relative proportions of sand, silt and clay it contains, determines to a large extent how much water is absorbed, retained and made available for plant use. Light, sandy soils absorb water well, but little is held. Heavier soils with more silt and clay absorb water more slowly, but much is retained. In soils with high clay contents, water may be held too tightly in the tiny pore spaces to be available for plant needs. Both of these extremes can be amended by the addition of organic matter.

Ideally, soils for planting should have a nice, crumbly appearance, much like chocolate cake crumbs. This type of structure or soil particle arrangement is best for water absorption, retention and availability to plants. Whether planting a lawn, flower bed, vegetable garden, or shrub border, adequate amounts of organic matter is the key to good soil structure and water-holding capacity. Most plants do well in soils with between 4 to 8 percent organic matter in them. Sources of organic matter include peat moss, compost, leaf mold and organic fertilizers. Do keep in mind that some sources of organic matter, like manure or compost, are also sources of nutrients and should not be over-applied for both plant health reasons and environmental concerns.

Before purchasing plants, look into their water requirements. If you have hot, sun-baked areas that you know you’re not going to water much, invest in drought-tolerant species. Most plant books and some websites have lists of these. Also, think native. Many native plant species are adapted to our climatic conditions and can easily handle periods of drought.

Group plants together according to their water needs. Moisture-loving plants can be placed together in oasis-like blocks where watering efforts can be concentrated.

Bluegrass lawns, for all its aesthetic appeal, is a large consumer of water. Consider replacing some of your turfgrass areas with native trees and shrubs that, once established, require less water. Select drought-tolerant grasses, like some of the fescues, and leave your clippings down to increase soil organic matter and water retention.

Perhaps soaker hoses or drip irrigation would be a good investment in areas where plants need to be watered regularly. Both apply water to the root zone where it is needed. Set up rain barrels under gutters to collect rainwater for hand watering.

Mulch to conserve moisture, keep soil temperatures cooler, retard evaporation, and reduce erosion and runoff. Mulch also reduces soil compaction from raindrops, permitting greater absorption of water by the soil.

While the old adage of 1 inch of water per week still runs rampant in gardening books, in truth, the amount of water a plant needs depends on the type of plant being grown, soil conditions, air temperatures, relative humidity, wind speed and natural precipitation.

The only way you can tell if you are watering too little or too much is after irrigating, dig down 6 to 8 inches and see if the soil is moist. Depending on the weather conditions, you may have to alter your watering schedule. If you are using a timer for your irrigation systems, don’t just set it at the beginning of summer and forget it. Change the settings as needed throughout the growing season or at least get a rainfall detector that shuts off the system when natural precipitation is occurring.

Water is essential for plants, for wildlife, and for us. Use it in a wise, timely and resourceful manner. For questions about supplying water to plants or any other gardening query, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (toll-free) at 877-486-6271, visit, or get in touch with your local Cooperative Extension Center.


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