Dustin Bajer's backyard. Ondergrond water harvesting swales and wicking beds

5 Ways To Water Your Garden

Water Your Garden Without Turning On The Tap

Actively and continuously needing to water your garden is a sign that you may have overlooked some simple but powerful water harvesting techniques. Here are five ways to water your garden without turning on the tap.

1. Plant Your Water Before You Plant Your Garden

Most people decide where they want to plant and then try to figure out how to get water to it. That’s backwards. Before putting a seed in the ground:

  • Spend time observing the landscape to determine how water interacts with it.
  • Plant your garden where your water will be, or
  • Develop strategies for bringing the water where you want it to go.

Identify the high and low spots in your garden. Where is it wettest after heavy rain, and where does it first dry out? Knowing how water interacts and moves across your landscape is the first step in designing a garden that doesn’t need as much watering.

Dustin Bajer. water Your Garden. Plant your water before you plant your garden. Weeping tile swale under raised beds. Wicking beds.
Plant your water before you plant your garden. Weeping tile brings water to the raised beds.

2. Store Water In The Ground

Rain barrels, sprinklers, and micro-irrigation are great ways to store water, but they’re far less effective than storing water directly in the ground. Organic matter is a crucial ingredient in storing water in the soil. No gardener has ever complained about having too much organic matter in their soil. If the garden is too dry, add organic matter to hold onto water when it rains. Add organic matter to soak up the excess water if a garden is too wet. Organic matter is the great equalizer. With enough water in the landscape, you can even mitigate extreme temperatures.

“Turn Over the Muffin Tin”

3. Change Your Garden’s Topography

As demonstrated in Brad Lancaster’s video above, it’s possible to capture literal tonnes of water by changing the shape of your garden. One strategy is to establish a rain garden. A rain garden is a planted basin designed to slow down and capture runoff from your house and yard. Epcor has a good guide for designing and installing residential rain gardens.

Before installing a garden bed in my front yard, I dug a 100+ foot level trench called a swale to collect water from my downspouts and bring it to my fruit trees and front garden bed. The level swale is a very long and skinny rain garden that pacifies and spreads water along its entire length. The swale is then mulched over with wood chips and other organic matter before being planted on top of and directly beside. Mulched over and planted, nobody will know that there are water harvesting features under your garden.

Dustin Bajer, Garden Design. Installing a water harvesting swale with weeping tile to move water from the house to the garden.
Weeping tile swale collecting water from the house and moving it to the front and backyard gardens.

4. Mulch and Plant Your Garden

The soil is the best place to store your water, but it’s vulnerable to wind, sunlight, and erosion. Protect your soil with organic mulch, such as wood chips or straw, and heavily plant. Avoid exposing your soil for any length of time. The gardener’s obsession with exposed black earth is the soil is the last thing you want.

Check out ChipDrop to see if they operate in your area. ChipDrop connects local arborists with gardeners looking for mulch. A word of caution, when you request a load of woodchips, you will get a truckload of woodchips. Since moving into my home, I have mulched the entire yard twice, front to back, with four inches of chips.

In addition to protection, mulch breaks down and feeds the soil – adding organic matter that holds water like a sponge. Reapply mulch regularly. I add a few inches of leaves gathered from my neighbours each fall.

Dustin Bajer, Water Your Garden, Mulched front yard water harvesting swale. A hole dug for a fruit tree.
A mulched garden swale surrounds a hole for a fruit tree.

5. Don’t’ Treat Your Soil Like Dirt

Avoid walking on your soil by creating dedicated paths and building beds that are accessible. Walking on soil compacts it and destroys important channels for water and oxygen. The more you step, till, and dig, the less healthy your soil will be. You want your soil to be light, full of organic matter, and moist enough to hold its shape when squeezed loosely.

Plants growing on top of a weeping tile swale
Plants growing on top of a weeping tile swale

6. What Comes Out Must Go Back In

It’s easy to forget that harvesting a one-pound of vegetables removes a pound of water and nutrients from your soil. Over time, this will deplete the organic and nutritional content of the soil, that’s so important for water retention. One solution is regular mulching; another is tending a compost pile and top-dressing your beds with compost each spring. I add a few inches of compost to my vegetable beds and directly sow my seeds; no tilling is required.

Dustin Bajer's backyard. Ondergrond water harvesting swales and wicking beds
Backyard garden with weeping tile swales and wicking beds

Take The Ecologically Inspired Garden Design Course

If water harvesting and ecological design interests you, consider joining the Shrubscriber Community and taking my five-part Ecological Garden Design Course.

Shrubscriber Ecological Garden Design Course, Online
Join the Shrubscriber Community to Access the Ecological Garden Design Course