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Gardens are good, gardens are great, but gardens, if not managed well, can use a tremendous amount of water and put a strain on this valuable, dissipating resource. As we move (hopefully) towards sustainable food production, it is going to require that we adopt efficient methods of watering our crops.

Current systems, particularly the large-scale monoculture methodology, are water hogs. Far too much freshwater is sourced from underground aquifers (our reserves!), lost to evaporation, and drained away, carrying nitrates and chemicals that then go back a poison the sources from which they came.

While some degree of irrigation is going to be necessary for food production, there are lots of techniques we can employ, particularly in our home gardens, to avoid using water as if there is a ceaseless supply at the other end of the tap. With some simple designs and sensible approaches, many of us can grow our gardens without using a spigot at all.

Mulch is magic.

Before getting into using water in the garden, we have to think about setting the stage for it, and mulch plays a vital role, several actually. When the soil is bare, the sun will sap the moisture from it such that it dries and hardens, becoming inhospitable to plants. Mulch keeps the soil moist and friable, allowing water to penetrate it. Mulching can reduce the water needs of a garden by up to 90 percent.

With a good layer of mulch, two inches (or more) thick, the soil below is protected, and it can remain moist for days without so much as a drop of rain falling. The same mulch helps to mitigate the flow of water when it does rain, allowing it to soak into the garden beds rather than drain off of them.

Rain is king.

Some climates lack rain, going weeks without a shower, but for most places, that isn’t the case. With a well-mulched garden, one good shower a week will likely provide our crops with ample water. The trick, of course, is that, just as we make hay when the sun shines, we have to make the most of the rain when it comes.

This can be done, as we’ve established, by mulching. It can be aided by situating our gardens well, taking advantage of drainage, and spreading that water over throughout the garden so that it (at least some of it) soaks in rather than drains away. And, we can catch rainwater to use later instead of relying on our municipal water when droughts inevitably happen.

Timing is not automated.

When it comes to the point of needing to water a garden, the timing is crucial. First of all, setting up a sprinkler system on an automated timer is a surefire way to waste water and money. The garden could be getting watered in the middle of a rainstorm, just before one, or right after it. It pays to be aware of the weather forecast as rain is always a better choice for the garden, and it’s worth checking the soil to see if it is moist before watering it.

Aside from that, if a garden does need to be watered and nature isn’t going to take care of it, it’s best to do it in the morning or early evening when the sun isn’t at its full force. And, it’s best to do it thoroughly. Watering a little every day isn’t nearly as efficient as water well once a week, save for with young plants—seedlings—with unestablished root systems.

Roots are the key.

When watering, remembering that plants get most of their water via their root systems can help to avoid wasting water. Sprinklers and other irrigation methods that deliver water through the air lack efficiency and effectiveness because much of the moisture is lost to evaporation while en route to the plants and much is lost due to bad aim.

Plants need water to soak into the ground where their roots can access it. In other words, a plant with leaves dripping water doesn’t necessarily denote a well-irrigated plant, and just because the soil looks wet on the surface doesn’t mean the roots are getting any of that water.

Drip irrigation, with lines run out at ground level and water delivered at the base of the plant, provides a steady, slow supply of water at just the right spot so that it can soak in where needed and not lose any moisture to evaporation (assuming the garden is mulched well).

Once we’ve got a grasp on watering the garden efficiently, there are great methods for minimizing the amount of water we use elsewhere and maximizing that water we do use. Graywater systems are fantastic for gardens, and they utilize water that’d be going down the drain anyhow. These are especially useful in dry climates. We don’t need to drain our aquifers to grow our gardens; we just need to value water for what it is: a precious and dwindling resource.

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