Sunday, June 08, 2014

9 Easy Ways to Save Water in Your Desert Garden

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways to save water in the garden. (Actually, I've been thinking about how to save water in general. WarkaWater anyone? But this is a garden blog, so maybe I should just stick to gardening, huh?) Not only do we live in a desert in Arizona, but we share water supplies with California, which is experiencing a severe drought. So I want to do my part to conserve while supplies are low.

There are millions of ways to save water, and a lot of them are pretty easy. You just have to be in the right mind set. So without further ado, here's nine of the easiest things I could think of to save water in the garden.

Idea #1: Prune Less

The Idea: I listed this one first because even among easy ideas, it stands out for how easy it is. Plus, it's free, it makes your garden look better, and you can easily start doing it right now. In other words, it’s a no-brainer. The idea is that if you let your bushes and trees grow into their natural shapes rather than pruning them into cubes, mushrooms, and other weirdo shapes. You use less water because 1) you need fewer plants in your landscape because your plants you have are allowed to fill up a lot more space, and 2) you can water the plants less because they're not expending as much energy trying to grow back all those branches and leaves you just chopped off. What's not to love?

My Personal Experience: I admit that I have landscapers who help maintain my front yard, and they've been pruning a few of the hedges into cubes and domes. I hate the look of it, but I just haven't gotten around to asking them to stop. I think it's time for me to stop being so lazy and talk to them about pruning less. (Even better, I can pull out the plants that they've been pruning and replace them with cactii or something with lower water needs.)

Looks totally natural, right? (Ug!)

Where To Find Out More: Noelle Johnson of fame has a great article about the perils of over-pruning, called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It talks about over-pruning uses too much water and harms your plants and gives some great advice on how to help your plants recover from over-pruning. The Water Use It Wisely website also has a good article on this subject with the very exciting title Prune Sparingly.

Idea #2: Change Your Watering Schedule

The Idea: Like the previous entry, this one is free, but it might require a teeny bit more planning. I first heard about this idea in Dave Owens book Extreme Gardening, but many other experts say the same thing. I think that many of us water our plants a lot (particularly in the summer) because we think that they need a lot of water to survive the desert heat. However, if you water correctly, you can get your plants and trees to grow deep roots, which won’t be as affected by our sweltering summers. Then, they will require less water. However, if you haven’t been watering your plants this way up until now, you might need to go through a transition period to slowly get their roots to grow deeper. 

My Personal Experience: Right now, I have my trees and shrubs on a twice a week watering schedule. According to everyone who talks about water deeply and infrequently, that's far too often. My plan for now is to not bump up my watering frequency in the summer, but possibly bump up my watering time. Then in the fall, I might cut back to one day a week, once they've developed some deeper roots. I've still got some more research to do on the right way to transition from a frequent to infrequent schedule. I'm pretty sure cold turkey isn't the way to go, but I'll keep you updated as I learn more.
Where To Find Out More: Once again, Noelle Johnson explains things so well. Check out her blog post: Too Much Water Equals More Pruning, a Backache, and More $ Spent in the Garden. The Landscape Watering Guide has a really cool interactive feature to help you figure out how much water your plants need. If you sign up for the City of Chandler Water Saver Newsletter, you'll get monthly recommendations on how to adjust your irrigation based on the weather.

Idea #3: Check for Leaks in Irrigation

The Idea: The idea of fixing leaks in your drip irrigation can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but trust me, it's really not that hard. If I can do it, so can you! And if you have ever dug a hole for a new plant in your yard, inserted a line for a new emitter, had someone come through your yard with a weed whacker, or otherwise come close to your drip emitters or drip lines, there's a really good chance that you have leaks that need to be fixed. This is an inexpensive and easy way to save water and money in your garden. You just have to be brave and learn how to do it.

My Personal Experience: I have fixed a lot of leaks in my drip irrigation system. The first time I went through looking for leaks in the system, it took me a long time to fix them all because I had never checked for them before and lots of them had built up.  But now that I've got through that initial slog, I just takes a few minutes (literally!) now and again to fix a leak here or there, and everything is fine.

I think my irrigation might have sprung a leak 

Where to Find Out More: I have a blog post about fixing leaks in drip irrigation: Don't Forget the Routine Maintenance. It contains links to YouTube videos for more info. If you have a different type of system than me, just do a quick Google search or YouTube search to look for different videos. The information is out there!

Idea #4: Use Low-to-No Water Plants in Your Landscape

The Idea: OK, we all know this one right? Replace thirsty plants like hibiscuses with lower water plants like native shrubs, cactuses, and agaves. Surely we've all seen examples of beautiful landscapes done entirely with native plants? Pick up almost any issue of Sunset magazine or Phoenix Home and Gardens for examples. Or maybe just take a nice stroll down the street. It's really not hard to find examples of beautiful native low water landscapes done well.
My Personal Experience: Over time, I have been replacing the shrubs that were planted in my front yard when we moved in with cactuses. I don't put them on drip irrigation (because, Hello!, they're cactuses). I just put a reminder in my phone to water them once a month or so if it hasn't rained. I'll admit that my front yard looks a little barren right now. I think I need to put some hardscaping in there to add some interest, but it has definitely cut back on the water used by my garden.

Agaves: Like Beautiful Desert Flowers (But a Little Bit More Painful to Arrange in Bouquet!)
Where to Find Out More: Where do I start? There is so much information out there about creating beautiful, low-water landscapes (which quite frankly makes my barren front yard even more of a travesty). Noelle has been talking about it a lot lately. Here's just one of her posts: A Jewel In the Desert: Sustainable Landscapes Part 3. Mary Irish has written a series of books about desert plants, including the Arizona Gardener's Guide.  Or maybe you could go visit the Desert Botanical Gardens to get some in-person inspiration. 

Idea #5: Plant Short Season Edibles in Your Vegetable Garden

The Idea: The idea here is simple. If you pick vegetables that have a shorter number of days before they reach maturity, you'll water them for less time over the course of their life. You can determine how long it takes a plant to reach maturity from its seed packet. For instance, the Pink Bumble Bee Tomato takes 60-70 days to reach maturity, whereas the Tappys Heritage Tomato takes 85 days.

Water concerns aside, it is generally a good idea to go for quick maturing edibles in Arizona anyway, because most of our seasons are short (except for summer, which lasts foreeeeeeeeeeeever). If you plant vegetables that take a long time to mature, the seasons could change before the vegis have a chance to fully develop, and they could freeze or fry before you have a chance to chow down. 

My Personal Experience: I try to pick vegetables with short maturation periods, but I admit that I sometimes forget. Like most gardeners, I sometimes get so excited about picking that perfect vegetable, that I completely lose sight of whether it's adapted to my climate, how much water it needs, whether it's the right season to plant it, etc. Sigh.

Where to Find Out More: Mother Earth News has a great article about edible gardening in drought conditions called Coping with Heat in the Garden: Drought Tolerant Crops, Resilient Perennials, and More. (The paper version of the article also included a nice list of heat-tolerant vegetables, but unfortunately, the online version doesn't seem to include that list. If you're interested, check out the June/July 2014 magazine for the list.)

Idea #6: Mulch

The Idea: Add mulch around your plants to help keep the water from evaporating so quickly.

My Personal Experience: In the summer, I generally add alfalfa hay around my vegetables. One bail of hay costs about $15 and is more than enough to last me the year. I just mound it up all around and make sure that the hay isn't touching the stems of the vegis. (My daughter kind of gets a kick out of helping me with this task.) I got mine from Cactus Feeds, but I'm guessing you can find suppliers all over the valley.

Little okra nest. I think Big Bird would be proud.

Where to Find Out More: I heard about this idea in Dave Owens book Extreme Gardening. (He also recommends mulching with compost.)

Idea #7: Get a Rain Sensor

The Idea: If you have drip irrigation (as many of us in the desert do), a rain sensor just turns off your normal watering if it has rained recently. Basically, it has a little cup to collect rain water. If it senses that there is water in the cup, it doesn't turn on the drip system. If it senses that the cup is dry, it turns on the drip system. 

My Personal Experience: We have a wireless rain sensor, but it broke quite a while back. I have to admit that's it has been low on our list of priorities to fix it, because whenever I hear that rain is coming, I just go and manually turn off the drip irrigation system. Then I put a reminder in my phone to turn it back on a few days later. So I guess I'm the rain sensor. :)

Where to Find Out More: I recommend going to and looking through the reviews there for a rain sensor. I did a quick check and found one highly rated sensor for less than $20. Not bad!

Idea #8: Create Basins or Furrows Around Your Plants

The Idea: To help water from flowing away from your plants and trees (where you need it), you can build up furrows and basins around the plants' root zones to keep in the water. Ideally you would do this when you first plant the seeds, seedling, or tree, but you can always do it after the fact if necessary. simply build up dirt around the plant and press it down hard enough to keep it firmly packed. The next time you water the plant or tree, make sure the basin or furrow that you created is holding in the water sufficiently.

My Personal Experience: I have built up these furrows around all of the vegis in my garden bed and around some of the trees and shrubs in my garden. I have found them particularly useful in the vegi beds keeping the water where I want them instead of running off where there are no plants. (For trees, it's a little bit less of an issue, since they have a wider root base.)

Basins at the base of trees and shrubs keep the water from running away

Furrows around rows of vegetables keep water in

Where to Find Out More: This isn't exactly the same thing, but if you want to learn more about the concepts of collecting water efficiently in furrows, basins, swales, and other recessed areas of your garden, you can read about rain gardens in books like Edible Landscaping with Permaculture with a Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat it Too. (This book makes rain gardens and other permaculture concepts extremely accessible.)

Idea #9: Create More Shade

The Idea:  Frequently, us desert gardeners end up having to water our plants a lot more in the summer because they are baking in the direct sun all day long. Although we probably won't get away without giving them at least some extra water during 110+ weather, giving them some shade might cut down considerably on how much extra water we have to give them. There are many, many ways to create shade for plants:
  • You can move potted plants to a more shaded area, like a porch. 
  • If you only have one or two plants that need shade but can't be moved, you may be able to do something as simple as place a lawn chair in front of them to create shade.
  • If you have a lot of plants that need shade but can't be moved, you can construct a structure such as a hoop houses or pergolas and attach shade cloths or sheets to the structures to shade your plants. 
  • You can plant tall, heat-loving plants (such as sunflowers) to the south and to the west of plants that are less tolerant of heat to shade them. 
My Personal Experience: For the most part, I try not to keep plants that can't handle our heat. Or when I find ones that can't take it, I plant them in a shady part of my yard. However, I am running out of real estate in the shady part of my yard and I still find that there are a few "must haves" that I couldn't pass up. For most of those, I have either planted them in pots that I can move to a shady part of my patio for the summer months or a part of my vegi garden that gets shaded by the house in the late afternoon. That doesn't keep me from planting some sunflowers anyway though, even if I don't need them for shade. Because who doesn't need sunflowers?

On the move: Vacationing in the shade for the summer months

Where to Find Out More: Noelle Johnson has a great blog post about using sunflowers to create shade in the summer: Natural Shade for Tomato Plants

More Ideas for Saving Water

These are only nine ideas for saving water. There are many, many more ways to conserve if you are interested. Here are just a couple of resources I recommend for finding ideas:


Noelle Johnson said...

Hi Claudette,

What a great article with easy to follow tips for the desert gardener. I appreciate the links back to my blog - thank you!


P.S. I love (hate) your photo of the badly pruned rosemary ;-)

claudette said...

There's the real sign that you're a pro--you can actually tell that that pruned monstrosity is rosemary! Ha!