Have you ever noticed after a good rain that the flowers and plants in your garden seem to perk up and take on new life? Many think that the only way to have a healthy, thriving garden is to use irrigation or to hand-water plants on a regular basis. But there are several ways to make your garden self-sufficient so that you can practice water conservation and have more time to enjoy your garden!

Rain barrel

A typical rain barrel can be used to collect rainwater from gutter downspouts.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Water polymers

Water polymers help decrease the frequency of watering needed.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning


Mulching around plants helps retain moisture and reduces watering requirements

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Rain Barrels

By positioning a barrel under your gutter downspouts, you can collect rainwater that runs off the eaves and roofs of buildings. This water can then be used to water plants and containers. In some designs, the barrel sits on a low platform, and a spout at the base of the barrel allows for easy access to the water, much like a spigot. The top of the barrel should be sealed around the downspout so the water doesn’t become an insect breeding ground. Your local Cooperative Extension Service is a great resource for information on obtaining or constructing rain barrels.

Water Polymers

Water polymers are often viewed with skepticism by old-school gardeners, but they’re a unique tool for water management in the root zone. Usually sold as rocklike “crystals,” these water-absorbing polymers turn into gel when wet. The gel holds the water around the root system of the plant, and the plant roots pull the water from the gel as it’s needed.

The polymer helps a plant establish roots more quickly and reduces the frequency of watering. Water polymers should not be used on rhododendrons, laurels and conifers due to an increased risk of root rot. They work great on hydrangeas, which require a lot of extra water when they’re in the establishment stage. They’re also great for groundcovers, ferns and dry, shady areas.


Mulching plants is extremely helpful in reducing the need to water frequently. Mulch retains moisture, which will keep the plant from drying out quickly. Mulch also suppresses weed growth by inhibiting weed seed germination. Weeds have water-needy roots, too, that compete for water and nutrients available to the desirable plants.

Native plants

Planting natives in your garden reduces the need for water in the garden as well. Why? Because these plants are native to the natural environment of an area. They have survived in the wild without additional water or fertilizers. This means that when you use a native in your garden, you’re introducing a plant that’s tough and able to handle drought-type conditions more easily than cultivated plants.

“Teaching” Self-sufficiency in the Garden

It’s important to understand one aspect of plant physiology that contributes to drought tolerance: The more you water, the shallower the plant roots will be. The introduction of water at the surface level does not encourage a plant’s roots to grow deeper in search of water. Instead, the roots grow happily at the surface, waiting for the next “drink.” Don’t “teach” your plants to depend on an irrigation system – teach them to be self-sufficient by using water sources found deeper in the ground.