Create a Water-Wise Garden

Gardens come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you have a small patch between sidewalks, a brimming window box, a wide landscaped yard or a medley of hanging baskets, there’s one thing they all have in common: your plants need water.  

But as our climate changes toward unpredictability and green spaces decrease as human-made infrastructure increases, our precious water resources become more important — and more burdened — than ever. Keeping our watersheds healthy, our sewers free of pollutants and our green spaces thriving all promote a healthier and more sustainable planet.  

You can help preserve water and keep the environment beautiful by simply creating a water-wise garden with these four tips. 

1. Sprinkle some mulch. 

Mulching your garden at the appropriate times of year can keep your soil moist and cool in the warmer months, reducing the need to water. Mulch also keeps weeds from growing and spreading, which will take up a lot of moisture from the soil, as well as nutrients. Be sure to use eco-friendly mulches such as eucalyptus wood, pine needles or straw. Coconut coir is also a good choice but may be harmful to dogs if ingested. Or consider making your own by leaving last year’s autumn leaves and twigs or shredding old newspapers.  

A bit of mulch retains moisture while planters on the pavement can help reduce runoff.
Kathryn Christopher/ANS

Mulch should go down in a layer 2 to 4 inches thick after winter when the ground is a bit warm and should not hug the base of any tree or plant — this will cause rot and suffocation.  

Be wary of mulches made from repurposed wood waste or ones that have added dyes, as these tend to contain unsafe or toxic chemicals that will seep into your groundwater. And if possible, avoid environmentally detrimental mulches from important native trees, such as the slow-growing cypress, that filters water and prevents erosion in wetlands of its native southern United States. 

2. Plant native plants! 

Grass lawns that pervade our landscape are not only an invasive species, but also poor water absorbers. Like impervious asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, lawns have limited capacity to filter or absorb rainfall or snowmelt. So, all that water runs off into the sewers and straight into our creeks, overflowing our systems and introducing pollution to our drinking water.  

Native plant species, however, are adapted to our environments and have more effective root systems that can soak up water, prevent erosion and filter runoff before it makes it to our creeks. Native plants also provide more nutrients back into the soil, attract local pollinators and require less maintenance than turf grass.

A little bit of green goes a long way. Transform a small portion of grass or pavement in your outdoor space into a water-friendly environment by investing in a few native plants.  

Visit your local nursery or plant store and ask about their native plant offerings. You can check out this map and listing from Mt. Cuba’s Center for local nurseries in several nearby states. Many garden or horticultural centers, or nature societies like this one in Delaware, have native plant sales in the spring. If you are in Pennsylvania, you can discover a variety of organizations and locations that sell native plants through this listing of local nurseries. For New Jersey, this native plant listing will be helpful. 

You can also search and identify wildflowers by location or image to determine if a flower you’re considering is a good fit for your basket, backyard or box. 

3. Set up a soaker hose. 

Many plants and trees prefer to be watered deeply and slowly. But this takes time and can result in a lot of wasted water, especially if you use a sprinkler that hits more sidewalk than garden, or you water at the wrong time of day. Soaker hoses, however, are a form of drip irrigation and a low-cost, high impact watering system. They feature tiny pores that gently release less to deeply water the roots. Consider installing a soaker hose, or even make your own, to water wisely.  

Some soaker hoses are made from recycled rubber materials that may leech into the ground, so be sure to look at your options. When using one, turn your faucet only partially, perhaps a quarter turn — turning it all the way may result in a high bill — and set the timer for an hour or less. Place the hose a few feet around the plants as it does not need to cover all the ground surface of the garden. Store your hose indoors to maintain its effectiveness longer.  

Watering in the morning around sunrise prevents moisture evaporation and soaks the roots of the plants well.  

4. Install a rain barrel! 

The perfect way to literally conserve water, even if you live in a water-rich place, is to use a rain barrel! Rain barrels redirect water away from house foundations and help manage stormwater by reducing the volume of water sent to sewers and creeks after rainfall. But rain barrels also save money on your water bill, as all that water collected is free to use!  

Keep your rain barrel on a stand to help increase water pressure.
John Hutelmyer/ANS

As the rain runs off your roof, it flows through the downspout and into a container or drum that features a spigot, which can be used like the one attached outside to most homes. Installing a rain barrel is easy and the returns are worthwhile. You can even build one yourself if you have a level spot, a container and some basic tools. Make sure to empty and disconnect the rain barrels in the late fall — if they fill with water and freeze, they can crack.  

Location of your barrel is also important. Consider getting it up off the ground, whether on a stand or on a stack of cinderblocks, as the extra height can help increase the water pressure coming out of the spigot. Also keeping the barrel on gravel or stones and away from any basement or ground-level windows can help prevent potential pooling, water leaks or damage.  

Since the water collected in the barrel runs off your roof, it is not recommended for use on any plants you may consume. However, you can harvest this rain in so many ways: watering flowers, washing the car or cleaning outdoor furniture. Attach your soaker hose and let it drip into the garden to better manage stormwater and runoff and help keep your native plants thriving. 

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