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5 ways to use less water on your food garden

Thursday 09 November 2023 | 7 min read

Growing your own food can be a great way to save a few dollars – but you’ve got to be smart about it. Check out our steps to be water-wise and save cash.

watering tomato seedlings
Photo: Fotokostic, iStock.

Growing your own food goes hand-in-hand with the reward of self-satisfaction and achievement – yep, you can be smug about those tasty, nutritious veggies and herbs you load up on your visitors’ plates.

But it’s also a great way to save money, gives you control over what pesticides and herbicides are used on your plants – if any, helps you avoid the plastic that store-bought produce often comes wrapped in, is a great activity to do with children, and is an excellent way to help green and cool the city, helping tackle climate change. Are there really any downsides?!

Food gardening can be expensive or cheap depending how you go about it – and we tend to think that people like it cheap. I mean, who doesn’t want to make the most of their money?

Being smart about your water usage, and therefore keeping your water bill down, is part of that picture – and luckily, it’s not really that difficult.

Here’s 5 ways to use less water on your new veggie patch:

soil in hands
Photo: Canva.com

1. Boost your soil with extra ingredients

What you put in your garden bed or pots can make all the difference.

Pearlite – an all-natural, lightweight product made from volcanic glass – is a great addition to your potting soil because it absorbs water like a sponge and will help stop your pots and even your raised garden beds from drying out.

Coir – coconut fibre – is another option to help your potted plants make the most of the water they receive. It can hold as much as 10 times its weight in water and is easy to wet again if it dries out.

Person adding compost to soil.
Photo: Andrea Obzerova, iStock.

Compost will also help your soil retain more water and it also provides added benefit of extra nutrients for your plants. Best of all, you can make it yourself for free.

Pearlite and compost, like most things, are much cheaper to buy in bulk. Explore your options and see if you can share the costs with friends or family.

Watering lettuces with a metal watering can.
Photo: Canva.com.

2. Don't let your soil dry out

Who would think that keeping your soil moist would actually help you save water? Well it’s true.

If you forget to water your garden and it completely dries out, you might find that your soil has become hydrophobic – or water repellent. It can be really hard to get it wet again when this happens, so it’s best just to keep it moist in the first place!

When watering your plants, it’s a great idea to dig down into the pot or soil to check that it is nice and damp. If your garden beds or pots have dried out, you may be surprised to see that what you thought was a big drink has only wet the top layer – and so a lot more water is needed.

For pots that have become really dry, get a bucket or tub that is bigger than the pot and submerge for a few minutes. Don’t leave it in the water for too long though, as it’s possible to give pot plants too much water and rot their roots.

If growing your herbs and veggies in pots, remember that smaller pots will dry out much quicker than bigger ones. Where possible, it can help to block sunlight from hitting the pots directly – the plants still need it though, so arrange your pots in a way that the biggest pots block the little ones or use a cardboard shield on really hot days.

A hot sun.
Photo: Canva.com.

3. Water before or after the heat of the day

Watering at the right time of the day makes all the difference. If you water right in the heat of the day, your plants will be in a race against the sun to absorb the water – and spoiler alert: they will not win.

They stand a much better chance if you water them early in the morning or evening, when the sun isn’t really in the race. It depends on how hot the day is going to be, but generally water plants when the soil is in shade, or only in the gentle morning or early evening sun.

Make it part of your daily routine – especially given the wellbeing benefits of getting out into nature.

4. Use drippers

Drippers are a great way to be efficient with your water use as the water will absorb slowly into the root zone with no run-off, making them more water-wise than overhead sprinklers.

You can buy dripper hoses and all the relevant connections from your local hardware store, but they can get a bit pricey. An alternative is to use an old garden hose (or find a second-hand one online) and drill small holes into it and cap the end to create your own dripper system.

If you’re buying them from the shop, you will be able to find out exactly how much water they use – for example, 2 litres per dripper per minute – but if you’re making your own you’ll have to be more cautious with water pressure, and err on the side of a gentle flow.

It can be harder to weave a dripper system through your pots but it’s not impossible. It will make it difficult to move the pots around if you need to though.

Whichever option you choose, using a timer with a dripper system is a must, as it’ll save you from accidentally leaving it on!

Person mulching their vegetable garden.
Photo: Canva.com.

5. Mulch, mulch, mulch!

Mulch insulates like a blanket, keeping what’s under it cooler and damper. Soil that is exposed to the sun dries out a lot faster than soil under mulch, so it really is a no-brainer for saving water.

Common mulches include pea straw or regular straw. Some people use sugar cane but it’s not the most environmentally friendly because it comes from Queensland – that’s a lot of carbon kilometres!

A really cheap and convenient mulch option is your own lawn clippings! Some people even use leaf litter. A mix of these two is great.

Mulch should be applied thick – about a 5 cm layer is ideal. You do need to be a tiny bit careful though – leave a gap between the mulch and your plants’ stems, to avoid the stem rotting from too much moisture.

It’s also a good idea to wait until your plants are established before mulching around them, as mulch is a great home for little critters that can attack baby plants. These bugs are actually good for your garden soil, so as long as your plants are big enough and healthy, having them around is not a problem.

Also, keep in mind that mulch is organic and will break down over time, so will need a top-up at some point.

Another option though is planting a groundcover near your veggies. Explore species that will thrive in your local conditions in our Adelaide and coastal gardens planting guides – like tom thumb (Dichondra repens).

Back to drippers – if you’re using mulch around a dripper system, set up the drippers first and then put the mulch over the top of it for the absolute most water efficiency.

How do I prepare my garden for a hot day?

When a heatwave is coming, in addition to all the steps above, you can also protect your veggies by using shade cloth or even an umbrella to shield your plants.

If they are in pots and not too heavy, you can manually move them so they get a bit of morning sun and afternoon shade and are protected through the hottest part of the day.

If you’re worried that you don’t have time to put shading up and down, or move your pots several times a day to avoid the heat, bear this in mind: it’s better for them to be in the shade for a week than get scorched by 40-degree sun.

Why is it important to create gardens that conserve water?

Aside from minimising your water bill and keeping your food gardening cheap, there’s another big reason why conserving – or saving – water is important, and that’s because it’s a limited resource.

In Adelaide we experience low rainfall and droughts, and climate change will increase pressure on our water supply. Conserving water is part of having a resilient and sustainable system.

If you’re interested in being water-smart beyond the veggie patch, check out Water Sensitive SA’s resources.

Find out more local gardening tips

Just beginning your food gardening journey? Head to our food gardening hub for more tips and tricks.

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