3 Ways to Water Less and Grow More Food (Effective and Easy Strategies)

I am very excited that this is the first article post on the HuwsNursery website! And what a truly fantastic post I have for you to start off what I hope to be a very useful place for you to learn organic fruit and vegetable gardening.

When it comes to watering your fruit and vegetables, it can be a great pain spending what seems to be hours standing outside with either a hose or watering can during a hot day when you’d much rather be relaxing and eating an ice-cream (or drinking a cool beer!)

I know how that feels, so I decided to write this article highlighting 3 fantastic ways to reduce watering times so you can water more efficiently. Now this isn’t going to be a quick-skim job. I will thoroughly review each method so you can determine which one is best suited for your situation.

Being in West Wales in the UK we rarely have the problem of having to spend hours watering, but there have been times in the past when it was needed, so for those of you who live in warmer and drier areas, you have my deepest sympathy.

So let’s dive in and learn how you can water more efficiently which means saved time and money and effort. You would be crazy not to…

1) Applying mulch

Mulch is my favourite part in the process of growing vegetables and I don’t quite know why but maybe because I know the vegetables really appreciate and benefit from it.

We mulch a lot of our vegetables, especially tomatoes and potatoes with hay and straw.

We mulch a lot of our vegetables, especially tomatoes and potatoes with hay and straw.

The benefit for mulch in this case is that of water retention and absorption. When you apply mulch to the ground it acts as both a sponge and as insulation, the sponge soaks up and absorbs water from watering and rainfall whilst the insulation properties due to it being fibrous captures moisture and helps prevent evaporation.

There are many types of mulches and here are a few of my favourites:

  • Straw and hay
  • Grass clippings
  • Shredded leaves
  • Old manure
  • Wood chips

All these mulches are organic and natural, so when they decompose the nutrients are being returned to the soil which also helps vegetables (and fruits!) to develop.

Now there are other ‘mulches’ such as old carpets and black plastic however these are mainly for preventing weeds however they are still very good at retaining moisture, here is our first early potato bed and as you can see we have black plastic covering the potatoes and not once have we had to water them.

For applying these mulches you need to be generous, a good 2 to 3 inch thick layer (5-8cm) is the ideal amount that I use, this is because it is thick enough to stop water evaporating from the ground it covers, captures water from rainfall and stops weeds growing through.

Over time the mulch will begin to break down, but this thickness means that you only need to top it up twice a year at most, and if you go for a thicker layer then the less you have to top up.

You may be thinking that it takes a long time applying mulch but the fantastic thing is that it is very easy and quick to apply, and it will save you a lot of watering time.

Now don’t feel that this is the ultimate solution to solving all your watering requirements. Because if you have a drought (no idea what that is like to experience) you will eventually need to water your vegetables. The whole idea behind mulch is that is greatly slows the evaporation process down as well as absorbing more water from when it rains.

We effectively mulch our garden for free, all the mulch we use is either by-products like hay, wood chips or grass clippings or made quickly such as shredded leaves. If I was to recommend the three best mulches for reducing watering then I would say grass clippings, old manure and wood chips because they are both dense and fibrous. Shredded leaves on the other hand are light and need to be watered down once you’ve applied them to prevent them from being blown away.

If you yourself don’t have access to sufficient amounts of grass clippings and wood chips then here are some ideas for where you can source them for free. The best way to get grass clippings for free is simply ask your neighbours. Most of them would gladly give you their clippings to save them having to deal with it – just make sure they don’t spray or feed their lawns with any chemical fertilizers.

Woodchips

Wood chips are easy to source and are a very effective mulch material

For sourcing wood chips there are often piles on the side of the road left by hedging contractors as well as contacting your local tree surgeons, many will be willing to let you go and help yourself to wood chips.

I need to give you a couple of important notes about wood chips. Firstly do not use black walnut and eucalyptus wood chips due to being toxic to plants, so go for hardwoods like beech, oak, willow and ash. Secondly there is a big debate that wood chips tie up nitrogen but this video will help explain what is going on. So by all means, like the Eden Project, use wood chips! Grass clippings are slightly acidic but many most fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes like slightly acidic growing conditions of 6-6.9pH.

Manure, such as cow manure with straw mixed in is great mulch and really adds a lot of nutrients into your soil too and the best time to mulch is right after a rainfall so it traps the moisture in the soil

2) Irrigation system

Irrigation is something we do on a smaller scale but really does help us save time. But firstly what is irrigation? It is the artificial application of water to assist in the production of crops. We tend to use irrigation in our solar tunnel to water our tomatoes because that would usually take a big time investment. Our method of irrigation is using a leaky pipe; this is a rubber based tube which slowly releases water through the tubing and into the soil.

What I really like about this is that all you need to do is to turn on the tap and let it water the plants for you. It is also really easy to move the pipe elsewhere to do the exact same job.

This is a rough estimate of how much time it saves me using this pipe to water plants:

15 seconds watering with hose per tomato plant, 12 tomato plants = 3 minutes plus 30 seconds of faff-factor (turning on the hose and moving from plant to plant and trying to not trip over the hose), so 3 minutes and 30 seconds on a good day.

With the leaky pipe you need to place it where you want it to water (30 seconds) and turn the tap on and off (15 seconds) so for watering the tomato plants it will save you 2 ¾ minutes compared to doing it just with a hose. It may not seem that much, but if you continually water the tomatoes (and other plants) the saved time soon adds up.

Think of it like the saying ‘look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves’ – or if you’re in America, ‘look after your cents and the dollars look after themselves’ – or if you’re in Europe… okay you get the idea. Little things lead to bigger results is the message I am trying to put across.

A handy tip for if you’re growing vegetables in a greenhouse is to water the path in the evening so it evaporates and creates a humid environment for growing and this helps plants grow bigger, faster!

There are other types of drip irrigation systems too, which are far more advanced and usually permanent, for example installing an irrigation system below soil level of your raised beds to reduce water lost by evaporation.

The downside about this is that it does take time to install and is the most expensive option here but after that watering is so much easier and will save you hours. How much is your time worth to you? Where I live I don’t need to worry about irrigation but if I lived say in a drier place then I would have an irrigation system set up as well as mulching to be almost twice as effective.

Some people also have time controlled irrigation systems which also helps if you want to go on holiday, but for me personally I wouldn’t invest in one unless I was growing food on a larger scale.

If you do a lot of container growing your can create a micro irrigation system where you get a plastic bottle and cut of the bottom and poke a couple of holes into the cap, then dig a small hole into the container and place the water bottle cap down and firm the soil around it. You now have a slow release water storage device (okay that is a bit over the top) but fill the bottle with water and let the holes in the cap slowly release water right where the roots of the plants are.

3) Create dams and dips to hold water

This is the least known method for reducing watering but it is extremely effective and also a lot of fun especially for those of you who are designers and artists. The idea is that you create dips and damns and pits in the raised beds themselves which slow down and trap water leading to less water running off the surface and more absorption of water into the soil.

This is especially effective for squash plants, after planting out a squash plant you create a quick basin by shaping the soil into a barrier as I demonstrate in this video.

This captures rainwater and makes it sink deep into the soil so the roots get a good soaking to help them grow strong and vigorously. You can also use this method for many other vegetables such as kale, tomatoes and beans. Over time the water will wash away the temporary basins and dips but only take a few seconds to replace.

If you are feeling adventurous (or even bored) it can be great fun designing small channels to affect the flow of water in your raised beds. There isn’t much else to say on this apart from it being a good (but effective) laugh!

Conclusion

These 3 great methods seriously reduce watering times for your vegetable garden which means you can invest more time in other things and not have the thought over your head on a hot dry day that you need to water the plants later.

This is where I can actually count myself lucky living in such a wet climate, but then I soon get jealous when everyone else seems to have longer growing seasons and warmer weather. But that is the great thing about growing food, no two vegetable gardens are the same, it is all about having your own personal touch as you grow your own food and that is why so many people enjoy it.

I really hope you have got a lot of useful information from this article and if it was helpful I would love to hear your views about it or share it with anyone you feel will find it useful. I also have a video outlining these and other tips which can help reduce watering time:

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