The newest techniques for conserving water in the garden are over 1,000 years old! And if they worked for ancient people around the world, these water-saving ideas are sure to help keep your garden healthy even when it’s dry.

Waffle garden

This demonstration waffle garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is planted with the “three sisters” vegetable combination of corn, beans and squash.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Clay pot Dennis Mail

A sunken, water-filled unglazed clay pot can provide a continuous source of moisture for plants in difficult-to-irrigate areas.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Native Americans survived for centuries in the desert by harvesting rainwater to grow their crops. Three of their ancient traditions continue to provide lessons in water conservation because the message remains the same: Collect all the moisture you can, and hold onto it for as long as you can.

The Zuni in New Mexico used sunken beds called waffle gardens for growing high-value crops like tobacco and chili peppers. It’s easy to rebuild these prehistoric gardens today and benefit from their water-retaining capacity. Waffle gardens have sunken 2-square-foot planting areas surrounded by ground-level berms. These berms are several inches high and made from unamended soil. Each depression in the waffle catches rainfall and holds water close to plant roots.

Buried clay pot irrigation is another ancient water-saving method used in areas of perennial drought like Mexico, Central America, Asia and Africa. This method is estimated to be two times as effective as drip irrigation and 10 times more efficient than conventional surface irrigation. Large earthen jars were used 2,000 years ago, but unglazed clay pots work just as well today.

If you’d like to try this method in your own garden, here’s how to do it: Select any size clay pot and cover the hole at the bottom with masking tape. Fill in the drainage hole with silicon caulk and let dry. Then bury the pot to its lip in your garden. Next, place plants or seeds near the container. Fill the pot with water and cover with a simple lid, like a planter saucer. Continue to fill the pot with water as needed throughout the season. The water will slowly seep through the pores of the pot, keeping the surrounding soil moist.

Delivering water directly to plant roots like this has two advantages: Plants receive a constant supply of water during the growing season, and weeds are kept to a minimum. You can use this buried clay pot irrigation method to grow annuals, perennials and even container gardens.

Another gardening method borrowed from the ancients is companion planting. For example, Native Americans understood the benefit of planting corn, beans and squash together. This vegetable combination is called the “three sisters” because the plants complement each other. The corn provides tall stalks for the pole beans to climb, and the beans help replenish the soil with important nutrients. The large squash leaves serve as a living mulch to maintain soil moisture and choke out weeds.

You can plant the three sisters in your own garden in the same hill, or try it in a waffle garden. Simply plant the corn in the middle of the hole, with the beans surrounding the corn and the squash planted in one or two corners.

Native Americans survived for centuries in the desert by harvesting rainwater to grow their crops. Today’s smart gardeners can still tap into these ancient strategies to make the most of every drop.