Work the soil
Rich soil with plenty of organic matter, from regular additions of compost, soaks up rainwater better than barren, compacted dirt that shrugs it off.
No garden should ever flash bare dirt because a layer of mulch over the soil does so much: It insulates the soil from temperature swings, reduces weeds and feeds the soil ecosystem as it breaks down. But one of its greatest powers is to prevent water in the soil from evaporating under the hot sun.
Use a rain barrel
Many attractive designs are available—in shapes to fit tight spots (and a range of prices). For all you need to know when buying a water barrel, see 5 Things, Page 2.
Consider a cistern
A century ago, many houses had cisterns—big tanks to collect rainwater. The idea is coming back. A 2,500-gallon model has now been installed as part of the sustainable landscape surrounding the Smart Home at the Museum of Science and Industry (msichicago.org). And Lake Street Landscape Supply in Chicago (lakestreetlandscapesupply.com) is trying out a new product: A collapsible bladder that can tuck under a porch or crawl space and can hold 1,000 gallons. Cost: about $3,000 installed.
Plant a rain garden
Any low spot that stays wet for a while after rain is a good candidate for a rain garden—a bowl-like depression where water from gutters can collect and soak in slowly. Rain gardens usually are planted with native plants with long, deep roots that can absorb a lot of water from the soil and rarely need watering beyond rain.
Read up before you start digging a rain garden (find many links at raingardennetwork.com).
Create a bioswale
Basically, it’s a wide drainage ditch designed to slow water down. A bioswale is planted with deep-rooted, wet feet-loving native plants. The ones Jaime Zaplatosch of Chicago-based Openlands (openlands.org) chose for the Smart Home bioswale included prairie ironweed, swamp milkweed and sweet black-eyed Susan.
Opt for permeable paving. A greener option for walks, patios and driveways is permeable paving, with spaces for rain to drain through into a deep layer of crushed rock where water can collect until it soaks into the soil. Belgard Hardscapes (belgard.biz) is among companies with an expanding line of permeable pavers. And Ozinga Concrete of Mokena has FilterCrete, a ready-mix concrete that cures full of little holes to let water percolate down to be filtered by microorganisms (ozingagreen building.com).
Use soaker hoses. Wind these porous rubber hoses between your plants to dribble water slowly right to the soil without wasting as much to evaporation. Cover the hoses with mulch and you’ll never know they’re there. Another option: drip irrigation systems, which are even more efficient than soaker hoses. Many companies offer kits for beginners (provenwinners.com, leevalley.com).
Zone your garden. Gather the thirstiest plants near the faucet, so you can run a soaker hose among them (maybe from the rain barrel) or water them by hand. Farther out, plant durable, drought-tolerant perennials, shrubs and grasses.
Do a leak check. Scout for drips, leaks and cracks. Replace rubber-hose washers to keep connections tight.
Use containers wisely. Containers near the house are a good choice for your thirstiest plants. But you can reduce containers’ water needs in several ways. First, buy big pots. Use potting mix that holds moisture but drains well. Because porous materials such as terra cotta let water evaporate through their sides, slip a plastic pot (with drainage holes) inside. And always mulch the surface of a container. Bill Doeckel, manager of innovations for Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, recommends MagniMoist liners for pot bottoms that hold moisture but allow drainage (thinkmint.net). Water-absorbing crystals that allegedly reduce watering? Mostly useless, scientists say.
Pick up a broom. Sweep rather than use the hose to clear walks and decks.
Think less lawn. “I’m not saying get rid of the whole lawn,” says Shirlee Hoffman of Openlands. “Reduce it by a quarter.” That not only saves water, it reduces fertilizer usen and emissions from mowers. Don’t overwater the lawn you have.
Pay attention. The simplest way to water less is to make sure it’s really necessary before you reach for the watering can or sprinkler. Don’t water on a set schedule. Get a rain gauge so you know how much rain has fallen. And check, with trowel or fingertip, that the soil is dry 3 inches down (2 inches in pots) before you water. .
Water deeply. When you do need to water, let the soaker hose run long enough so that the water goes deep, to invite roots of plants such as lawn grass and perennials to grow far down into the soil. In the vegetable garden, plants such as tomatoes don’t like to seesaw between wet and dry. So mulch and check frequently to maintain even soil moisture in the root zone.