Water is one of the most precious resources we have. Literally the source of life, if nourishes us, the planet and all of nature, including the food we eat. It is, as such, a necessary part of permaculture gardening. We need to provide the plants we grow with sufficient water to survive, grow strong and develop healthy crops. However, to preserve as much water as we can, permaculture design should always seeks ways to minimize water use where possible and, above all, to avoid water wastage. Below are some techniques permaculture gardeners can employ to save water on their site.
Good water use in the permaculture garden starts with the quality of your oil. Get a healthy soil that is rich in organic matter, and your have the basis for a very water-efficient plot. Organic matter, typically added in the form of compost, helps keep the soil balanced in terms of texture – meaning its not too sandy, which allows water to leach through quickly, or have too much clay which holds onto water and keeps it from the plant roots – and structure, giving plants room to branch out roots and access moisture.
Mulching your garden has many benefits, such as allowing the slow-release of nutrients into the soil, and inhibiting soil erosion by the wind. Another positive effect is that mulch helps prevent excessive evaporation of water from the soil, as well as limiting surface runoff, meaning more stays within and can be used by plants. A coarse mulch will allow rainwater to percolate through and penetrate the soil, although when laying mulch, ensure that the layers get a good soaking as you go for maximum effectiveness.
Choosing native plants means planting species that are most suited to the climatic conditions of your location. They will be adapted to conserve water during dry periods and maximize moisture uptake when it’s wet. Native plants are also likely to be complimentary to one another, having existed in the same locations together, so using natives in guilds where plants have beneficial functions for one another – where one species, for instance, might provide a deep rooting system to allow another to access water, and which provides shade to the first plant in return – is even more effective at saving water.
When you design your permaculture plot, you can utilize design and planting techniques to enhance water use efficiency. For instance, planting cover crops and low-lying species to avoid bare soil minimizes moisture evaporation, while planting tall species besides smaller ones offers shade and so limits excessive transpiration. Planting species that require a lot of water in low-lying areas where water gathers, and less water-hungry varieties at the top of slopes from where water drains more quickly, means you are designing with their natural needs in mind. You can also create swales to hold water on the land and allow it to percolate into the soil, and contour land to divert runoff to areas where it is needed.
Rain is nature’s way of watering your garden, but not all rain falls where it can be most useful. Catching rainwater that falls in areas where doesn’t benefit plants, and then using it to irrigate your plot, avoids this waste. Doing so can be as simple as installing a rainwater barrel into which you divert the runoff from the roof of your house, rather than allowing the guttering to take it down the drain.
Reuse Household Water
One of the principles of permaculture design is that one thing can serve multiple functions, and that reusing and recycling material and resources should be pursued wherever possible to limit waste. This can be applied to water use as well. Some permaculturists may consider installing a greywater system to reuse bathroom water in the garden, but even on a smaller scale, water can be saved. For instance, when you steam or boil vegetables, save the water, allow it to cool then use on your garden.
It can be easy to get into a routine when irrigating your plot, but always water to suit the weather conditions of the day. For instance, watering when it’s raining obviously seems inefficient (let nature do the job) but also when winds are strong, as this can evaporate the moisture before it has a chance to percolate into the soil.
On warm days, water early in the morning to allow maximum absorption by the plants before the sunshine starts to evaporate the moisture. Avoid watering too late in the evening, as plant foliage needs time to dry out before nightfall to minimize the risk of fungal diseases.
It can be easy to overwater your permaculture plot. If you see the surface of the soil looking dry, it can be tempting to irrigate immediately. However, it is always a good idea to check beyond the surface to see if watering is really necessary. As a general rule, the first couple of inches of the soil should be dry, and then below that the soil should be moist. This helps to encourage plant roots to grow deeply into the soil, making them more efficient at sourcing water and more strongly rooted in the ground. Soils that are waterlogged leave no room for other essential elements to plant health, such as oxygen.
Install Drip Irrigation
One of the most efficient ways to water your plants is to install drip irrigation. Rather than using a hose or a watering can, which can easily lead both to overwatering and to watering areas where plants may not be able to access the moisture, drip irrigation delivers the water directly to plants in a slow, sustained manner, saving water and making sure all of the moisture is available to the plants. Drop irrigation uses pipes or tubing with nozzles adjacent to each plant that allow water to trickle on to the plants. Such systems can be installed either above ground, with the nozzles by the base of the plant, or below the soil, delivering water to the roots. And you could combine a drip irrigation system with a rainwater catchment barrel for more water efficiency.