A great garden doesn't have to jack up your water bill. Here's how to keep watering costs down.
When you water your garden lavishly, your checking account isn't the only thing going down the drain. Increasingly, landscapes are putting a burden on community water supplies, especially in the West. Even in the South and the East Coast, water rationing is becoming increasingly common. But scrimping on water doesn't have to mean scrimping on your landscaping. It's all a matter of making a little water go a long way.
Gardens in the eastern two-thirds of the country need about an inch of water a week. Gardens in the West may need that much, though a well-planted garden can get by on a half inch or so a week. Really water-savvy gardens need no additional water, other than some extra water for first-year plants. Invest in a rain gauge so you never water too much or too little.
When watering the garden with a sprinkler, set out a pan in the sprinkler's path. When the pan has collected one inch of water, you know you've applied that much.
Water in the early morning -- preferably right before sunrise. Evaporation will be minimal but plant leaves will have time to dry quickly and thoroughly before fungal diseases set in. If getting up at 5 a.m. to water the garden sounds a wee bit daunting, invest in a good timer to attach to the hydrant so it will start the sprinkler automatically.
Avoid watering leaves. Yes, a plant benefits from an occasional shower to rinse off dust and insects, but generally, plants far prefer the water be delivered right at the roots. Watering the leaves encourages fungal diseases.
Water deeply and well rather than shallow and often. Giving plants -- whether they're lawns or perennials or shrubs -- little sips of water now and then does little good. It encourages shallow root development and the soil dries out again more quickly than if you had given it one good deep soak. After a good watering, water should work its way down at least several inches into the soil. Check by taking a trowel and digging down a bit to see if the water has penetrated well. In heavy clay soils, that might mean giving a plant a good soak until the water starts to puddle, then letting it sink in for a couple of hours and watering a second or even third time.
Invest in watering tools that make your job simpler. The easier it is, the more likely you are to do it when needed. Check out soaker hoses, microsprinklers, drip emitters, and bubblers. Each has its place in the landscape and each delivers water right to where the plant needs it -- the roots.
Check out water-conserving crystals. These look like rock salt but swell up to many times their original size and then resemble little blobs of clear Jell-O. Mix them dry into potting soil to cut watering time in containers by as much as half. Or look for potting soils that already have them mixed in.
Lavender, for example, may be a wonderfully drought-tolerant flower for the West, but in the South if it has wet clay in winter and too much humidity in summer, it will succumb to fungal diseases and root rot. Choose the right drought-tolerant plants for your region and your soil. Here's a rough guide according to region: