It’s going to be a long, hot summer, which means saving water is more important than ever. In fact, homeowners in states like California face severe water restrictions. But your prized cherry tomato, pepper, and cucumber plants need water to thrive. What does a gardener have to do?
“Remember that water is a valuable resource so we don’t want to waste any of it. We want to apply just enough for the veggies to thrive and have a good yield without being wasteful,” he says Cindy Haynes, Professor of Horticulture and CELT Faculty Fellow at Iowa State University. “Vegetables need more water during the growing season than some other plants, but maybe not every day.”
When starting your vegetable garden for the first time, experts recommend planting garden plants closer together to maximize garden space and minimize water wastage. They also recommend referring to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for more information on your plant’s water needs.
Additionally, here are a few clever ways to keep your vegetable garden thriving while using the absolute minimum amount of water.
1. Mulch the soil
Mulch is any organic material that covers the soil’s surface. The most common types of mulch are wood chips, leaves, and grass clippings.
“Straw or leaves are also great solutions that are readily available or free in most places,” he says Roslyn McCannSustainable Communities Specialist at Utah State University Moab.
Many people tend to shed their leaves, she says, but leaves provide nutrients to the soil when applied as a layer of mulch.
“An inch or two of organic mulch, straw, shredded newspaper, composted grass clippings can do a wonderful job of retaining moisture so you don’t have to water as often,” says Haynes. “Mulch also does a great job of preventing weeds from competing for water and nutrients, so you don’t have to hand weed as often.”
2. Build up a dense layer of compost
Composting is a natural way to recycle organic matter — like leaves and food scraps — into fertilizer that benefits soil and plants.
“No matter what the environment, mixing the soil with compost, natural fertilizers, and then covering it with mulch helps plants thrive with minimal water use,” he says Joe Raboine, Director of Residential Hardscapes at Belgard. “Compost and mulch break down and also encourage healthy bacteria/microorganisms in the natural soil biome.”
3. Water only when necessary
“Some soils hold more water than others. As a result, you may not need to water as often,” says Haynes. “Check the soil and if the top inch or two is dry, it may be time to water.”
And be sure to water between 9:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. recommends Bob Westerfeld, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Consumer Gardener in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Watering during this period will minimize evaporation, which occurs when you water during the day.
And be thorough with your watering technique. The key is to get about 4 inches deep into the ground. Only water the roots, not the leaves, as it is the roots that absorb water.
“Water on the leaves is often wasteful — it usually evaporates — and can help spread disease,” says Haynes. “Sometimes this means watering larger areas with a drip hose or drip irrigation. It could also mean better hand-watering the root system and preventing the leaves from getting wet.”
4. Use drip irrigation
Drip irrigation provides small amounts of water and helps preserve soil nutrients and minimize water wastage.
Chris Gornealso known as Plant Dr. on Thumbtack says a drip system is the best way to conserve water while caring for your vegetable garden.
“These systems can save you up to 90% water compared to a standard sprinkler system,” says Gorne. “A drip system waters directly to the roots of the plant, resulting in stronger overall growth.”
The typical drip system dispenses about 0.9 gallons of water per hour, Gorne says. That’s significantly less than a standard sprinkler system, which puts out about 30 gallons of water per hour.
“Some people also use 1-gallon milk cans that are filled with water and have a few holes punched in the bottom. Kind of like a mini-drip system,” says Westerfield.
5. Catch rainwater
It might seem a bit dated, but collecting rainwater is a valuable resource that you can use for your plants.
“Consider collecting water in a rain barrel or something similar,” says Haynes. “Then you have a great free water resource — even if you only have enough to water veggies in containers.”