How to Manage Water in the Garden
While most animals (including us humans) and plants can tolerate a range of water and nutrient consumption, there are times when there’s simply too much or too little. This article will address some solutions when your garden has too much or not enough water.
Too Much Water
The symptoms of too much water in the garden are usually fairly obvious standing water can rot the roots of some plants and rob the plants of much needed air. And, standing water can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes and just plain unpleasant for gardening.
There are several things you can do to combat having too much water in the garden:
Change the Slope
If your garden has a valley or if it’s bowl shaped, change the slope of the garden by adding additional soil or re-grading the soil.
Change the Soil Composition
If you have mucky clay soil that doesn’t drain well, you can improve the drainage by adding coarse sand to the soil and tilling the top eight to ten inches to create a more permeable soil bed. The Mantis tiller is great for this purpose, especially when the soil is moist not too wet, and not baked dry.
Add Plants that Soak up Extra Water
Areas that suffer from excessive moisture can be improved by adding plants that will take up the excess water and return it to the atmosphere by their natural process of transpiration. For a thorough discussion of building a rain garden, see How to Build a Rain Garden
Add Some Compost
Compost is spongy and absorbent; it encourages healthy, strong root systems in plants, which in turn holds water in and decreases run off. Here’s an example of the water-conserving power of compost:
- 100 pounds of average soil (1×10-foot row tilled six inches deep)
- + 1 pound of compost mixed into the soil
- holds an additional 33 pounds (4 gallons) of water!
Too Little Water
For most gardeners, there are usually times throughout the gardening season when too little water is a more serious issue. And, this is one area where Ben Franklin was absolutely right “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
For home gardeners, there are several ways to prevent the problems associated with too little water:
Buy a Rain Gauge
Of course, a rain gauge won’t make it rain; but, at least you’ll know how much water your garden has received. You can’t rely on news reports to determine how much rainfall your garden has received. Summer storms can deliver vastly different amounts of water in areas only a mile or two apart. So, the only way to know how much water your garden has received is to have a good rain gauge. When your rain gauge hasn’t gotten any water over the last week, your garden hasn’t either.
If your area often has watering restrictions, you might consider obtaining a rain barrel or two. Rain barrels can be very useful in supplementing the natural rainfall that your garden gets. Note: rain barrels need to be safely installed, especially if small children are around. Rain barrels should always be covered; and, you may need to use “mosquito dunks” to prevent unwanted breeding of those nasty insects.
To the extent possible, water your garden in the early morning or early evening hours, when less water will be quickly lost to evaporation. For perennial beds and some vegetable garden applications, a soaker hose covered by mulch can deliver much needed water very efficiently. A 25 foot long flexible soaker hose can be installed in less than an hour; and, they cost less than $20. For larger areas, two or more hoses can easily be connected together. One of our owners reports that he sets an alarm on his cell phone when he uses his soaker hose to remind him to turn it off!
Plant “Native Plants”
Local or native plants are generally well adapted to your climate. If you have frequent dry spells, consider adding or changing to plants that are more tolerant to mini drought conditions.
Whenever possible, add a layer of mulch to your gardens. Mulch will help reduce weed growth and weeds will rob your garden plants of available water. Mulching will also help keep the soil moist by dramatically reducing water evaporation. Our favorite mulch for the vegetable garden is a mixture of grass clippings (assuming that you haven’t treated your lawn with any nasty chemicals) and shredded leaves. The grass clippings help keep the leaves from blowing away, and the leaves help to prevent the grass clippings from matting which can actually reduce or prevent water absorption in the garden. As organic mulches break down and improve your soil, you’ll need to continuously add mulch throughout the season. For most of us who maintain lawns, this is not a big problem. Make a mental note to collect and shred all the leaves that you can easily store this fall. Plastic garbage cans with secure lids are great for storing shredded leaves over the winter. Next year’s garden will really appreciate it.