Looking to redo your existing garden or planning to grow a new one?

You’ve probably read plenty of magazine articles and scoured Pinterest, saving pictures of your ideal garden or perfect outdoor retreat. Maybe you’ve even filled out a questionnaire on how to pick the perfect plants.

But if you’re just getting started — and if you’ve got big goals on a DIY budget —water-wise gardening can seem more intimidating or complex than it really is.

Relax. You’ve got this.

Keep Calm and Garden On


Water-wise gardening doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. It also doesn’t mean you have to use lot of water or spend too much money. With the right planning and a few simple tips, it’s easy to choose water-wise plants and create an amazing space that is both water-efficient and uniquely personal.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled a few fun and clever tips and garden hacks to make your gardening more successful this year.

1. Get Dirty

Healthy soil is vital for a water-smart landscape. To help retain moisture, cultivating the soil in your garden should be a top priority. If soil is too sandy, water soaks into the ground too quickly and never has time to nourish your plants. Similarly, if the soil is too clay-like, it penetrates too slowly.

Adding compost “waste” to your soil is a great way to improve the overall quality of your soil. While many people buy compost, “homemade” compost may be even better because it fosters diverse life in your soil. The “waste” matter is full of nutrients that support healthy plant growth. At the same time, you’ll be reducing landfill waste.

Pro DIY Tip: Print this handy list of things you can compost. You’re probably used to using veggie scraps or coffee grounds — but surprisingly, you can even compost cat litter (unused!), hair (for nitrogen) and shredded newspaper (for carbon). And don’t forget that leftover water recycled from cooking eggs or vegetables makes great fertilizer.


2. Weeds and Pests Be Gone

Want your plants to thrive? It’s a good idea to get rid of unwanted weeds and pests before they become a bigger problem.

Weeds suck water and nutrients away from your growing plants. But the smaller the weeds are, the easier they are to pull. So nip them in the bud when they’re young and try to hoe regularly or use some type of cover (mulch, fabric, etc.) to discourage new growth.

And while the occasional bug isn’t a big problem, some garden pests can reduce your plants or crops to shreds overnight. If you inspect your garden regularly, it’s much easier to detect a problem. If you don’t want to use bug killer and prefer organic remedies, check out this handy list that helps you identify the “bad bugs” in your garden to manage them using Earth-friendly methods.

DIY Pro Tip: Have a few spare empty cardboard boxes? To convert a grassy lawn area into a water-wise planting bed, you don’t have to dig and buy dirt. Instead, cover the grass with cardboard, overlapping the sheets like roof shingles. Then add 4-6 inches of compost or mulch over the cardboard. Water the area until its compacted. In a few months, the cardboard will have disintegrated, you’ll have new soil and all the necessary nutrients you need to start your new garden.

3. Much Ado About Mulch

Did you know that up to 70% of water evaporates from soil on a hot day if your garden doesn’t include mulch? Protect your plants and cover bare ground with several inches of mulch. It will keep moisture in, suppress weeds, lower the soil temperature and add nutrients to the dirt as it breaks down.

What can you use as mulch? Of course, you can buy both organic or inorganic mulch at your local garden store, but if you’re on a budget, try leaves, straw, rocks, grass cuttings, bark chips, compost, even shredded cardboard or nut shells. At a minimum, it’s a good idea to replace or refill mulch annually.

DIY Pro Tip: Try to mulch before plants bloom and hit a growth spurt. Use enough mulch to cover the soil; a minimum of 3 inches deep is a good rule of thumb. Take care that mulch doesn’t get too close to the stems of the plants because too much direct moisture can cause roots to rot.

4. Have a Swale Time

With gardening and real estate, it’s all about location. But what if you’re trying to landscape on a slope or hillside? On this type of terrain, you want to slow down the rate at which water moves off your site, allowing it to absorb into the soil slowly.

You might want to create a swale, which is essentially a small ditch that is built by winding soil mounds following the contour of the slope. If you plant your garden or landscape within the swale, any rain and water runoff will collect behind it and sink into the soil. Depending upon how much rain you get, you may potentially end up with a small water body that can be used for irrigation elsewhere.

DIY Pro Tip: If the hill or slope isn’t on your property and runoff floods your property, it may be a good idea to build a berm, or small hill, covered with ornamental grasses and other plants that diverts runoff around what you want to protect. You can landscape your berm so that it blends into the rest of the landscape.


5. Go Native

Because outdoor water use typically accounts for at least 50% of the water you use at home, it’s important to choose the right plants for your location. Combine design with the right water-wise plants and you’ll get the most out of your garden without having to spend all your time watering.

Many native and drought-tolerant plants are perfect for water-wise gardens (here’s a fun, guided plant search). That means these plants that have adapted to low water conditions and usually have succulent leaves, stems or roots that store water or minimize water loss.

DIY Pro Tip: Keep it simple, but plant it thick. That means plant fewer types of species in your garden so it doesn’t look too chaotic. It’s recommended that two or three species (out of 10-12) in a 100-200-square-foot garden should be grasses or sedges (flowering plants with a grasslike appearance). These plants can outcompete weeds and provide shelter and nesting materials for birds.

6. Upcycling Is the New Black

Already a recycle champ? Try upcycling, too — it’s simply taking old or discarded materials from a product and creating something useful or creative. It’s not really a new concept. Modern-day upcycling was a necessity during the 1930s and 1940s when there were few economic or material resources. People repurposed items over and over until they were no longer useful. 

With gardening, there’s no limit to your imagination on what can be upcycled. Try a few of these upcycle ideas to make your water-wise gardening easier.

  • Have potted plants or a container garden? Put a non-bleach coffee filter in the bottom of pots or containers to keep drainage holes clog-free and loose soil from sneaking out.
  • Hate digging individual holes to sow seeds? Create a makeshift sower by pressing an old wine cork onto the prongs of an old metal rake. Then push the cork into the dirt as deep as you need. When you pull the rake up, you’ll have a row of holes ready for your seeds.
  • Slugs in the garden? These cute but slimy pests can eat through seedlings, veggies and leaves. To get rid of them without using toxic pellets, try an alternative like beer or oatmeal instead. Make a “trap” out of a shallow tin (like a tuna can) and pour in a small amount of beer. Slugs love the smell of beer. Once they’re trapped, you can either relocate the slugs or dispose of them.
  • Want to add a little personality to your garden? Fill an empty wine bottle (blue ones are pretty) or any old, decorative bottle with water and place it upside down in pots or garden beds. The water will trickle out slowly to keep your plants moist on hot days or if you’re away for a few days and can’t water.