Establishing and maintaining a garden without wasting water is easier than you might think
Story: Natalie Raad
Photos: Patrick Redmond
Basking in the Aussie sun while you tend to your garden sounds like a great way to spend your days. However, strict water regulations are forcing us all to reconsider the way we conduct our favourite pastime.
The good news is that all gardens can be planned and managed in ways that significantly reduce water use and wastage, without impacting on the joys that gardening brings.
Ensuring we don’t over-use or waste water in the garden is simple. Things like watering at night or early in the morning to minimise evaporation; mulching garden beds and adding compost made from green waste to the soil; using water-efficient irrigation systems (such as drip lines with automatic controllers); and recycling the water from ponds and water features are just a few of the ways in which we can all garden without wasting water.
If you want to create a water-smart garden (or convert an established one), the first step is to spend some time walking around your garden to give some thought to the various ways you might save water. Aspects you should consider in an analysis of your garden are the types of soil present; your garden’s layout; different garden surfaces; your irrigation system; the direction of prevailing winds; and the range of microclimates present around your house.
To ensure you don’t waste water while you garden, the following points should be considered:
1. The proper soil preparation
Keeping soil healthy and moist will enable water to penetrate more easily. If your soil is sandy, it will dry out quickly and become difficult to re-wet. To improve sandy soil you should incorporate broken-down organic matter such as compost and/or manure; apply mulch to the soil surface; and mix in soil wetting agents that help to keep water at the roots of the plants for longer.
Clay soils, especially if they are dry and compacted, can also resist water penetration. To open them up, you should work Gypsum through them, as well as incorporate broken-down organic matter such as compost or manure.
2. A smart landscape layout
With a little planning, you can shape your garden areas to reduce the amount of water running off your property and into the stormwater system. By shaping paths, beds and lawn areas appropriately, you can harvest water for re-use or direct water to garden areas where it is needed.
Things to consider include: shaping paths so that water runs off into adjacent beds or spreads out across lawns; shaping paths to direct water to a central area where you can grow a range of moisture-loving plants; ‘dishing’ rather than ‘doming’ garden beds and lawns to help trap water; and using drains to trap water running off hard surfaces and then direct the water back into the garden for re-use.
3. The careful use of lawn
Lawns require large amounts of water, especially during a dry summer. You can either reduce the area of your lawn or reduce the amount of water you use on it. You can do the latter by: allowing your lawn to dry out from time to time (it will usually recover without any problems and it teaches the lawn to survive dry periods); aerating your lawn to reduce compaction and increase water penetration and retention; applying a wetting agent to your lawn to help water get to where it’s needed most; allowing your lawn to grow longer between mowing days; and increasing the mowing height.
4. Layering on the mulch
Using mulch can save you time and water. Applying mulch to the soil surface works to reduce moisture loss through evaporation, which helps your soil stay moist and cool for longer, and makes it easier to re-wet.
All mulches help to reduce weed growth although placing horticultural weed mats under a layer of mulch can be useful. There is a variety of mulches available, including composts, straw, wood chips and gravels.
Organic mulches (like straw) break down and help improve the soil structure. Non-organic mulches (like gravels) last longer, are lower maintenance but contribute nothing to soil health. Another option is carefully chosen groundcover plantings that function as a living mulch.
5. Watering more efficiently
When deciding on an efficient way to water, look for options that direct water to the root zones of plants — where it is needed most. This is why drip-line systems (surface or sub-surface) are considered the most water-efficient.
Irrigation systems that have broad cover but lack control should be avoided and all systems should be regularly checked for leaks. It is also a good idea to fit timers to an irrigation system as it’s easy to waste water through forgetfulness.
Irrigation systems should apply water to garden beds with minimal overlap onto hard surfaces. To avoid water run-off in difficult areas, apply a regime of short repeated water sessions to allow water to soak in gradually.
6. The right time to water
You should avoid watering in the heat of the day when evaporation will drastically reduce the amount of water available to your plants, which means it is best to water in the evening or early in the morning.
And if it’s windy, defer watering the garden until the wind dies down.
7. The right amount of water
Most of us tend to over-water plants, which is not good for them or our dwindling water supply, so only water as required. You should also avoid excessive water run-off. If run-off proves problematic, consider ways to improve your soil.
To create deep-rooted plants capable of surviving with less water, in the early days of their establishment you need to water for a sufficient period to ensure the soil is thoroughly soaked.
8. Choosing the right plants
There are many attractive plants, both native and exotic, that will grow well with minimal water. Your local nursery can give you a list of drought hardy plants or you can simply look for the labels that tell you the plant needs minimal water.
When selecting plants, you should choose ones that suit your local climate. Have a look around your neighbourhood for plants that are growing best under dry conditions. Also choose plants that will match the specific soil and growing conditions in your garden.
Water harvesting and re-use
To reduce your reliance on town water, install a rainwater tank and use it for garden irrigation. Tanks come in so many shapes, sizes and options (from slim-line tanks for the side of the house to bladder-style tanks that can go under an elevated deck) that fitting a tank even into a garden has become much easier.
Also consider installing a greywater system to make use of water from showers, basins and washing machines that would otherwise be wasted.
As you can see, gardening without wasting water is easy and affordable. And it’s about exercising some good old-fashioned commonsense. By planning and managing your garden in a water-wise manner, not only will you continue to enjoy the pleasures associated with gardening, you’ll also be helping to conserve our most precious resource.’’