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All Things Garden,  Irrigation

17 Ways to Save Water in the Garden and Landscape

Water is necessary for all living things to survive and thrive. It’s what makes life on Earth possible! Yet fresh water is a finite resource and becoming increasingly scarce. 30 to 50% of all residential water is used for landscape irrigation, but the EPA estimates that half of the water used outdoors goes to waste due to inefficient watering practices! Not good. 

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be using water outdoors though. Trees, shrubs, flowers and edible gardens are all very worthy of water! Plants help to feed us, absorb heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, provide shade, stabilize soil, and offer habitat for wildlife. We just need to do better with how we maintain them.

Read along to learn 17 different ways to save water in the garden and increase drought resilience. Whether your goal is to cut your water bill or be more eco-friendly, many of these water-saving tips are actually best for plant health too! A water-wise garden doesn’t necessarily mean xeriscaping with rock and cacti either. It’s possible to grow lush, vibrant, beautiful gardens while still being conscious of water use.



Ways to save water in the garden, a glance:


  1. Stop overwatering
  2. Reduce or eliminate grass lawn
  3. Mulch, mulch, mulch!
  4. Use drip irrigation
  5. Water deeply but less frequently
  6. Adjust with seasons and weather
  7. Choose drought tolerant and native plants
  8. Repair leaks
  9. Amend soil with organic matter
  10. Use ollas
  11. Water at night
  12. Plant densely
  13. Automate, timers, and valves
  14. Collect rainwater
  15. Swales, berms and land contouring 
  16. Prioritize and compromise
  17. Greywater systems


Now let’s briefly discuss each of these water-saving techniques, one-by-one!


A two way image collage, the first image shows DeannaCat and Aaron standing in front of their newly purchased house in August of 2013. They are standing in grass in front of a brown house, there is a tree in the corner of the yard that has bright red foliage. The second image shows the same yard but the year is now 2019. The yard are has green rock hardscaping with lined paver walkways. There are garden beds overflowing with vegetables and "pollinator islands" full of flowering perennial and annual plants. The perimeter of the yard is lined with trees, shrubs, and perennial plants as well.
Our old front yard. Little-by-little and over several years, we removed all the grass lawn from the front and back yards, replacing it with beneficial plants and hardscaping instead.


1) Stop overwatering


Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes in the garden. Even the most well-intended plant parents sometimes give their plants more water than they actually need to get by – houseplants and seedlings included! Plants breathe through their root systems, and most of them do not like to be constantly soggy. Rather, most plants prefer only modestly damp soil and will tolerate when the soil dries out just slightly between watering. So, err on the conservative side rather than being heavy-handed with water!

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly how much and how often to water. That varies greatly depending on your climate, soil type, plants, and more. Finding the perfect watering schedule for your landscape will take a little research and experimentation on your part. But get in there and feel how damp or dry your soil (check several inches below the surface) is before watering again!

If you’re trying to cut back and save water in your garden, gradually reduce the water and see how the plants respond. Watch for wilting, yellowing, dry or crisping leaves – all signs that a plant may need more water again.


Aaron is holding a watering can above a garden bed of freshly planted bok choy and kale seedlings, the bok choy seedlings are the first to be watered as the light brown soil turns dark after being saturated with water.


2) Reduce or eliminate lawn areas


Lush green lawns are a thing of the past. Once a sign of prestige, grass lawns scream “wasteful” nowadays – especially in dry climates like California. Maintaining a green lawn requires an exorbitant amount of water, and isn’t doing the environment many favors in return! Lawns don’t offer food or habitat for native wildlife and pollinators, and instead, usually rely on chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep up their neat appearance. 

With over 40 million acres of lawn in the US alone, watering grass accounts for literal trillions of gallons of water used per year. Plus, lawn sprinklers are notoriously the most wasteful type of irrigation you can use due to overspray, runoff, and evaporation. On the other hand, woody plants, shrubs, and other non-turf plants can thrive with 55% less water than that needed to maintain typical fescue lawn. 

If you would like a small patch of green space for kids or dogs, consider using native low or no-mow grasses, or even clover. Otherwise, eliminating lawn areas will help you save a ton of water in the garden! Please see this guide to learn how to kill, smother, or otherwise remove your lawn – so you can use valuable water to grow more beneficial things like food, flowers, and shrubs instead.


A three part image collage, the first image shows a traditional yard with a lawn and empty terraced area in the back. The second image shows the front half of the lawn removed, leaving barren soil, the back half of the yard is transformed into a graveled area with raised garden beds. The terraced area has filled in with various pollinator plants. The third image shows the same space after the barren earth area has been converted to gravel hardscape with pollinator plants in island type sections with paver pathways leading between them.
Once the grass is gone, replace it with drought-tolerant plants intermixed with edibles, herbs, flowers and alternative ground cover such as bark, wood chips, gravel, wood decks, stone and/or pavers.


3) Mulch


Mulch, mulch, and more mulch! Okay, more isn’t *always* better, but providing 2 to 4 inches of mulch over bare soil is absolutely essential to save water in the garden. Naked soil is just begging to dry out! Mulch protects and insulates soil, reduces evaporation and runoff while simultaneously buffering the soil (and plant roots) from temperature extremes. The top few inches of soil especially will stay damp far longer when mulched than when exposed to air and sunlight.

Popular organic mulch options for the garden include wood chips, bark, compost, straw, and leaves. Gravel acts as mulch too, but is usually used in pathways and open spaces rather than directly around plants. Learn more about mulching best practices here, and explore the pros and cons of 8 different mulch types in this article. 


Half inch drip tubing is shown running along a bark mulched border, two drip emitters are watering the area around a pineapple guava shrub.


4) Switch to drip irrigation


Compared to overhead sprinklers, drip irrigation can save significant water in the garden! According to the UC Master Gardener Program, drip irrigation is up to 90% efficient while sprinklers OR hand-watering are only 50 to 70 percent efficient. Drip emitters disperse water only where needed at the base of each plant. Specialized emitters, bubblers, and other attachments enable you to tailor your drip system to a wide variety of plants, applications, and flow rates.  

Drip irrigation systems eliminate wasted water that goes hand-in-hand with traditional sprinklers, avoiding overspray, runoff, watering walkways, or space between plants. Not watering unnecessary areas also helps reduce unwanted weed growth! When water is sprayed up into the air, it also evaporates much faster – sometimes before it even hits the ground.

Drip irrigation also saves water in the garden by delivering smaller volumes and more slowly. Slow drip irrigation gives the water more time to soak into the soil, which reduces runoff and nutrient leaching – ideal for sloped or flat gardens alike. It also means the water penetrates the soil more deeply, which results in deeper root systems, healthier plants, and moist soil for a longer period of time. 


A raised garden bed is in the forefront, outfitted with four rows of drip tape with various peppers, and cucumber planted int he bed. Beyond lies many other garden beds, some of the drip tape is visible int he other beds that are planted out with leafy greens, peppers, and eggplant.
All of our landscaping is watered via automated drip irrigation, including our raised garden beds. Learn how to set up drip irrigation (drip tape) for raised garden beds here – video included! (Don’t worry, we added mulch to the beds shortly after too.)
A garden bed is shown planted out with fresh vegetable seedlings. A soaker hose winds in a snake like pattern to fully cover the the garden soil area. A hose is hooked up to the soaker hose, this area will soon be covered in mulch which will hide the soaker hose and help save water in the garden.
Before we had a larger garden and automated drip, we used BPA-free soaker hoses in our raised beds. You can also see a GrowOya watering vessel tucked in the soil, discussed more below! Learn more details about how we used both in this article.
A hose spigot with a timer and 3-in-1 pressure reducer, filter, and back flow preventer piece connect to drip tubing which disappears underneath bark and leaves as it goes towards a pollinator plant area full of lavender, salvia, lantana, milkweed, scabiosa, artichokes, and various other plants.
We’ve also set up several easy DIY drip irrigation systems connected to faucets with hose timers. This one waters the nearby pollinator border. See the step-by-step tutorial here.


5) Water deeply and less frequently


If they had to choose, plants will always prefer deep, slow, and less frequent watering sessions over frequent bouts of shallow water or flooding. For instance, we run the drip irrigation in our raised beds, orchard and general landscape for about an hour twice per week, which is far better than turning it on for 20 or 30 minutes every day or two. 

By offering slow deep water, the soil stays damp longer – reducing overall water demand. Even better, plant roots will grow nice and deep, following where the water goes. Deep-rooted plants are more drought tolerant, resilient to temperature swings, and grow larger. In contrast, offering shallow water more frequently encourages plants with shallow root systems that are generally less healthy. 


A plants roots are shown as a side view growing deeply into moist soil. Water deeply to save water in the garden.


6) Adjust with seasons and weather


Adjusting your irrigation schedule with the seasons is another important way to save water in the garden. For instance, we change our irrigation timers to reduce both the duration and frequency of water during the cooler months of late autumn, winter and early spring – even if it’s not raining much here! Most plants go dormant or semi-dormant during the darker days of winter, so they need less water overall compared to when they’re actively growing, flowering or bearing fruit. The same applies to houseplants!

Also keep an eye on the weather forecast. When rain is on the horizon, be sure to turn off all your automated irrigation systems until things dry up again. Many modern irrigation controllers have a rain sensor setting or other seasonal control options too.


A glass rain gauge is covered in rain drops with a small amount of water in the bottom. Beyond there are numerous green plants that are out of focus.
Use a rain gauge to monitor how much rainfall your garden receives, and turn off irrigation systems when it rains.


7) Choose drought tolerant and native plants


Choosing drought-tolerant plants or those native to your area will help save water in the garden. Yet again, that doesn’t mean you need to fill your garden with ONLY natives and extra drought-resistant plants like cacti and succulents. Woody shrubs, herbs, and flowers are already a more water-wise choice than grass lawn. Some of our favorite low-water plants include lavender, rosemary, various salvia and sages, yarrow, echinacea, agastache, catmint, verbena and lantana. We love to grow agave, cacti and succulents too! Avoid water-loving tropical plants in dry, arid climates.

Related: Top 23 Plants for Pollinators to Attract Bees, Butterflies, and Hummingbirds


An image of a garden area, the forefront contains an area with a number of various pollinator plants from yarrow, to lavender, salvia, and milkweed. Beyond there is a raised bed garden area planted out with various vegetable plants and flowers, surrounded by gravel hardscaping. There is a seating area in the center with four chairs and a table, a large fountain is flowing with water just in front of the area. And further beyond that there is an open area with numerous oak trees and native chaparral.


8) Watch for and repair leaks


Stay vigilant and watch for unusual wet spots, runoff, dripping fixtures, or suspicious extra-green patches that may be getting “free” water from somewhere. We’ve discovered and repaired many holes and tears in our drip tubing (usually thanks to gophers chewing on them) after observing an odd bloom of weeds in an otherwise dry area.

The EPA explains that a single leaky faucet that drips one time per second can waste up to 3,000 gallons of water per year! So tighten or replace leaky faucets, and use plumbers tape to help stop dripping threaded connections. If needed, call in a plumber or irrigation specialist for help. Finally, don’t just let your hose run free when it’s on! Use a trusty hose nozzle on the end that shuts off the flow for you.


A large wine barrel planter is shown on a raised patio, it is leaking water all down the patio after its automated water. A cat is drinking some of the runoff that is remaining on the concrete.
Oops! It looks like we have a leaky pipe in that wine barrel. Even though Mr. Badger was thoroughly enjoying the runoff as a drinking fountain, this needed to be fixed ASAP!


9) Add compost and organic matter to soil 


Soil composition plays a significant role in how well it retains water. Sandy soil drains very quickly and therefore dries out fast. The same goes for extra fluffy potting soils, especially those “made for containers” with a lot of perlite. On the other hand, clay soil has the potential to hold a lot of water, but is often so dense and compact the water runs right off instead of being absorbed.  

Amending your soil with organic matter like well-aged compost and worm castings will greatly benefit sandy and clay soil alike. Water is naturally attracted to organic matter, which is perfectly suited to absorb and retain it like a sponge. Organic matter also breaks up hard clay soil, providing more air pockets and space for roots to grow and breathe. We also like to add small ⅜” volcanic rock to our raised garden bed soil. The lava rock is both absorbent and porous, which helps with overall moisture balance – promoting good moisture retention AND drainage. 

Even better, did you know that compost and other amendments can make plants more resilient to drought? The nutrients and beneficial microbes found in compost enhance overall soil and plant health, especially when paired with deep watering practices. Robust, healthy, deep-rooted plants are more resilient to environmental stress, including drought, disease, and pests. Meaning, they’ll be able to hang with a little less water. 

Related:


Two hands cupped together holding freshly harvest worm compost. Below there is a raised garden bed full of various types of lettuce. Using quality compost can help you save water in the garden.


10) Use Ollas


Ollas (pronounced oy-ya or oh-ya) are amazing little tools that save water in the garden! Traditionally made of porous clay, an olla is a container or vessel that’s buried in the soil and filled with water. Via osmosis, water then slowly seeps out through the walls of the vessel to irrigate the surrounding soil.

Much like drip irrigation, ollas have the benefit of delivering water slow and deep. They usually aren’t used as the sole form of irrigation (with the exception of in containers), but can help offset the frequency and amount that you need to provide other water – and also prevent soil from yo-yoing between extreme wet and dry!

The really neat thing is, water will only seep from the olla if the soil needs it. So, ollas are also a great gauge of how dry your soil is, or how well you’re watering in general. If they empty very slowly over several days, your soil is probably nicely moist. In contrast, if the olla empties rapidly after filling it, the soil must be very dry and thirsty.

Before we had automated drip irrigation, we used ollas in combination with BPA-free soaker hoses to water our raised garden beds. Now, we still use ollas in large grow bags, wine barrels, and other big containers! Save 5% off GrowOyas (our favorite ollas) with code “deannacat”.


Four images showing the process of a large clay vessel, shaped like a pear vase, being buried in a garden bed between plants. It is about 1.5 foot tall by 1 foot wide.
GrowOya vessels in our old garden beds
A stock four part image collage, the first image shows an animated image of an GrowOya in the ground, the second image shows a small vessel and the amount of space it would water around the center which shows 1 foot. The third image shows a medium vessel and the 1.5 foot area it would water around it, the fourth image shows the large vessel and the 2 foot radius it would water.
GrowOyas come in 3 sizes. The large ollas are best for large raised beds, the mediums are great for smaller beds, wine barrels or large grow bags, and the small size is perfect for smaller pots and containers. Use code “deannacat” to save 5% at GrowOya!


11) Water at night


It’s best to set automated irrigation timers to go off sometime between 6 pm and 6 am. Watering plants overnight (including in the evening or early morning hours) helps save water in the garden by reducing evaporation. As opposed to during the heat of the day, providing water when it is cool and dark gives plant roots ample time to absorb water before the sun hits and starts to dry soil out. 


12) Plant densely


Densely planted spaces use less water per plant than sparsely planted landscapes. Meaning, 20 shrubs planted in clusters or fairly close to one another will require less water to maintain than those same 20 shrubs if they were more spread out. Similarly, full garden beds retain moisture better than partially empty ones. Dense plant cover shades the soil which reduces evaporation, while smothering weeds and increasing both biodiversity and yields. 

Yet don’t confuse dense planting with overcrowding! Try to still respect the recommended spacing for each plant species, as crowding plants can lead to issues with disease, pests, airflow, nutrient competition or stunted growth.


A raised garden bed is in the forefront full of large swiss chard plants and celery. Beyond there is a patio are with large pavers, chairs and a table. Further beyond that are many more garden beds full of different vegetables and flowers.


13) Get in control with timers, zones and valves


Using automated timers and controllers is a great way to save water in the garden, and can save loads of time and effort too! Irrigation control systems are set to deliver only the amount of water the plants need, and at ideal times (such as overnight). With timers, you don’t have to worry about turning on the water and accidentally forgetting to turn it off.

We use a variety of controllers and timers in our garden, including a larger Hunter controller for our main 6-station landscape irrigation hub, along with several of these easy garden hose/faucet timers in other areas. Even if you don’t want a timer that turns the water ON for you, these simple hose timers will turn it off after a set amount of time. They operate much like an old school count-down oven timer.

Since different plants have varying water requirements, breaking your landscape irrigation up into different zones is also key. For instance, our orchard is on a separate irrigation zone from our raised garden beds, plus other zones for the perennials and ornamental trees. Then we can run the zones for different days, times, or turn some off completely as needed. We also installed individual shut-off valves at every raised garden bed so we can turn off individual beds to save water when they don’t have crops in them. 


A drip irrigation hose bib set up with an automated timer connected to two 3 in 1 drip adapters that are connecting the drip tubing to the whole system. Automate your watering to save water in the garden.
With one a handy faucet timer, we are able to automatically water two different zones of perennial shrubs and fruit trees along the border or our yard. Learn how to set up an easy DIY drip irrigation system to a faucet here.
A riser and pressure reducer heading is poking out just above the soil line for the start of drip irrigation for raised beds.
Every raised bed has a valve so we can reduce or turn off the water flow to each bed as needed. Learn how to install a drip irrigation in raised beds here.


14) Set up a rainwater collection system


Did you know that you can collect over 600 gallons of water from a 1000 square foot roof in a single 1-inch rainstorm?! Harvesting rainwater is a fantastic way to get “free” water for your garden and offset your water bill. Plus, plants absolutely thrive with fresh natural rain water compared to chlorinated city tap water. 

Rainwater collection systems can be as simple as a 50 gallon barrel at the end of a gutter downspout, or as elaborate as multi-thousand gallon tanks and pump systems. Check out this guide to learn all about setting up and using a basic rainwater collection system, along with frequently asked questions about size, regulations, roof types, contaminants, mosquitoes and more. 


A three way image collage, the first image shows a view from above two slim line water tanks next to a chicken run. A gutter type system is dumping into one of the tanks from a rooftop of a house that isn't visible. The second image shows Deanna standing next to a slim line water tank before it has been installed. Two pallets of concrete pavers are in the forefront, to be used in a separate project. The 3rd image shows a smaller rain water tank  tucked into the corner of a front porch. There is a vintage funnel that is used to catch the water underneath a valley of the roof. The funnel is connected to a large plastic pipe that is connected to the water storage tank. There are many plants surrounding the water tank such as Japanese Aralia, asparagus fern, jade, along with a few others.
Learn more about rainwater harvesting (including our system) here.


We had a pretty sweet little rainwater collection system in our old garden, and it’s definitely on our “to-do” list for the new homestead too! Collecting and using rainwater can be a bit tricky in arid climates like ours though. Since we get all of our annual rainfall over a short span of time (it only rains in winter here), it’s best to have large tanks with ample storage capacity – to be able to capture as much rainwater as possible at once, and have enough stored to hopefully last until it rains once again the following year. Folks with more frequent rainfall throughout the year can get by with much smaller systems since its constantly refilling.


15) Swales, berms, and water-wise landscape design


There are a number of ways to work with the contours of the land to passively increase water efficiency. Swales are a technique used in permaculture that relies on trenches or depressions in the ground (either man-made or natural) to direct and channel water runoff to key areas. For example, swales around fruit trees can concentrate and increase the water each tree receives, rather than the water absorbing in the empty spaces between the trees. Similarly, terracing and/or raised berms help to reduce runoff and increase water absorption on sloped terrain. 

I highly suggest the book Gaia’s Garden if you’re interested to learn more about home-scale permaculture.



16) Prioritize and compromise


When push comes to shove (say, if you’re facing mandatory water reductions or penalties) you may need to simply evaluate and choose what plants in your garden get first priority. For instance, we are fully prepared to let the existing ornamental shrubs in our front yard die if needed, while funneling our water use to our more valuable edibles and pollinator gardens instead. In fact, we already cut all the landscape irrigation in half from what the previous owners provided. I told the plants: “Sorry, but if you can’t hang with this, you aren’t meant for this California garden.” Some have died, and that’s okay.

On that note, don’t feel stuck keeping up a landscape that you inherited and doesn’t jive water-wise! We’ve removed plenty of established plants after moving to a new home.

The existing garden space at our new homestead had a lush catmint border along the center brick pathway. While it was beautiful at first, it became really infested with leafhoppers that were impossible to treat organically. Plus, even though catmint is native and drought tolerant, there were over 60 plants total – with a 1 gallon per hour drip emitter each! Under the previous owners watering schedule, just those catmint plants alone were using 420 gallons of water every week! Again, we’d already cut that schedule in half, but that’s still 200+ gallons of water that could be used for better things.


A four way image collage, the first image shows three raised garden beds beyond a brick pathway that is lined with many catmint plants. The second image shows the same view after the catmint plants had been removed. The brick walkway is much more visible now. The third image shows the view down the winding brick walkway with catmint plants lining the pathway on both sides, all the way down the path. The fourth image shows the same view of the winding brick pathway, after the catmint has been removed. A cat is standing in the forefront of the image in the middle of the brick path.
Before and after removing the catmint border. So much more open, and SO much less water used!


17) Reuse greywater


Last but not least, consider using recycled water in your garden! Sustainable greywater systems capture used water from household fixtures including sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines (but not toilets, dishwashers, or the kitchen sink – that’s blackwater). Instead of sending water down the drain to the sewer, it’s redirected to reuse in landscape irrigation.

Greywater systems are fantastic, but can be costly and complicated to install (especially if you don’t have a raised foundation). Since it requires retrofitting your home’s plumbing, engineering, permits, and skilled professionals are typically involved. So, the first step is to contact your local building department to see what the requirements are! Laundry-to-landscape greywater systems are usually the most straightforward and inexpensive to install, and often do not require elaborate permitting or engineering. 


A sketch showing how a laundry to landscape greywater system would work to save water in the garden. It shows a washing machine and PVC piping leaving the washing machine and going towards plants in one area and trees in another.
A laundry to landscape greywater system. Image via Greywater Action


And that concludes this lesson on ways to save water in the garden.


Well folks, if you made it to the end – good for you! Thank you so much for reading, and for caring about water conservation. If you found this information to be useful, please consider pinning or sharing this post! Also, don’t forget to consider all the ways you can save water indoors, and therefore offset some of your landscape water use too! Check out this great guide on indoor water conservation for some ideas.


Otherwise, you may also enjoy these related articles:



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