There are a number of steps you can take to conserve this precious commodity and to save money while keeping your garden growing and healthy.

Mulches

The best defense is a good offense. Placing mulch around your trees, shrubs and plants cuts down on water loss and helps to prevent weeds that compete with your plants for moisture. In addition, many types of mulch can improve the condition of your soil.

Natural mulches include bark chips, pine needles and kitchen compost. Inexpensive and high-quality organic mulch can come right from your lawn mower. Save time and money by spreading grass clippings and ground-up leaves on your flower and vegetable gardens. The spongy consistency of compost soaks up water, retains it in the soil and slows down evaporation. As a result, plant roots grow deeper into the soil in search of moisture.

For container gardens and patio plants, try covering the top of the soil with fine gravel or slate chippings to keep pots from drying out between watering.

Water sources

Be aware of "free" sources of water for your garden. Capture rain water from your roof by placing rain barrels under your home and garage downspouts. Even during a moderate rainfall, a 25-by-40-foot roof can shed up to 600 gallons of water per hour.

Do you use a dehumidifier in your basement? Instead of pouring all that water down the drain, use it to water your plants. Try keeping a bucket handy near your humidifier to transport the water to your garden.

Another way to grab some extra gallons for your garden is to use a shower bucket. Simply place a bucket under the shower head the next time you are waiting for the water to come to a comfortable temperature. You'll be surprised at how much water you will save.

Plant and water effectively

You can conserve water by using plants in your garden that would naturally grow in your area. The theory is that plants that thrive in your climate are accustomed to the weather patterns there and will not require as much watering. Your local cooperative extension service or botanical garden will have plenty of free information on native plants. Both new plants and transplants require less water if you plant them when the ground is already cool and moist.

Next, you can save water by knowing how and when to water more wisely. Drip irrigation systems target water where you need it without as much waste as sprinklers.
According to the Colorado State University Extension Service, a drip system is 90 percent efficient, when compared to about 70 percent for sprinklers. That means 90 percent of your water will go where your plants can use it. Sprinklers water everything and drip irrigation waters the roots, so if possible it is the better choice.

Many of us use the "little bit of water every day" method of watering, but this practice can be counterproductive. Water will not penetrate deep into the ground and, therefore, plants will develop roots near the soil's surface. A good soaking every few days encourages roots to lengthen and grow deeper into the soil. By using a drip method or a watering can, you also will target moisture to the roots of the plants, rather than losing much of it as it runs off the leaves of the plant.

Timing is important too. When you water in the cool of the morning, you will lose less water to evaporation than in the heat of the afternoon. Avoid watering in the evening, since nighttime moisture can encourage the growth of fungus, mold and mildew.

Container plants will require more water than plants in the ground. Get to know your plants and how they appear when they are thirsty, since there are no hard and fast rules for all plants. A finger poke test to assess dryness can be effective. For your garden, there are tools you can purchase at your nursery to gauge moisture or you can try the spade test. Simply insert a sharp spade into the soil and then remove it. If the soil contains some moisture down to a depth of the six inches or so of the spade, you do not need to water.

Is your garden hose rolled up in the sun all day? You could be giving your plants a hot drink. Uncoil your hose before watering or store your hose reel in the shade to avoid stressing your sensitive plants. That's why they sell so many enclosed hose reels, they look nice and also keep water from overheating.

A final idea is to create porous paths around your garden. Concrete spaces encourage the run-off of water, while gravel, pebbles, bark, non-concrete pavers or space bricks allow water to seep deeply into the ground where it can reach your plants' roots.

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