Gardening with less water: Try low tech irrigation

By , on April 6, 2016

(Photo by Paul Harrison/Flickr)
(Photo by Paul Harrison/Flickr)

Lingering drought and restrictive water-use rules don’t mean you have to give up gardening. Instead, try some down-to-earth approaches like planting in smaller areas, using containers, buying fast-growing plants, applying mulch and compost, and installing efficient irrigation systems.

Any of these can help produce labour-saving and cost-effective harvests, even in arid regions, said David Bainbridge, author of “Gardening With Less Water” (Storey Publishing, 2015).

“Low-tech, low-cost irrigation is all about saving time in the garden, growing healthier plants and doing less weeding,” he said. “It’s optimizing the food you can get from a small plot of land.”

Bainbridge subscribes to the “water on demand” school of gardening, or using simple things like terra cotta pots and pipe buried in the ground to irrigate vegetables, ornamentals and fruit trees.

“This will save 90 per cent of the water commonly used with surface irrigation, which also encourages weeds and all too frequently evaporates,” he said. “It’s directed more closely just to the plants you want to water.”

Buried clay pots or “pitcher irrigation” is thought to have originated in China thousands of years ago, Bainbridge said. “Filled with water, a buried, unglazed porous pot of clay provides controlled irrigation by capillary flow to plants planted near it.”

Pores outside the pots dry as the soil dries out around them, he said. “The sticky water molecules quickly refill the empty pores, and the water inside is drawn out for the plant to use.”

“Getting water directly to the crops minimizes weed growth, making it time-saving,” Bainbridge said. “You don’t have to do any weeding, and you can wait a week before refilling the pots. It’s perfect for container gardening or people without any land space.”

Lucy Warren, co-author of “The Drought-Defying California Garden” (Timber Press, 2016), believes that emulating nature by using drought-tolerant plants is the productive way to grow, especially in Mediterranean climates.

“Go with plants that are adapted,” she said. “They have a very specific ecology that lets them thrive in this (Southern California) area.”

Most vegetable crops require 1 inch of water or more per week during the growing season, equaling three-quarters of a gallon of water per plant, a University of California-Davis/Marin Master Gardeners fact sheet says.

Here are some additional methods the fact sheet suggests for reducing water use or collecting it:

– Plant small. Grow only what’s needed.

– Locate gardens away from prevailing winds, and use fences or tall plants as windbreaks.

– Group plants with similar water, soil, sun and root needs. Go native.

– Design your layout in blocks, not rows, to shade roots and reduce evaporation.

– Choose fast-maturing edibles – 50 to 60 days – and dwarf cultivars that use less water.

– Cultivate high producers like chard, salad greens and strawberries.

– Build swales and berms for water collection. Add rainwater catchment systems. Use grey water.

– Fertilize less. Use mulch and compost.

– Know the signs of water and heat stress, and irrigate only when needed.


For more about gardening with less water, see this University of California-Davis/Marin Master Gardeners fact sheet: