8 Worry-Free and Remarkable Tricks to Managing Water in Your Garden

Watering your garden can look drastically different depending on your local climate. When I lived in Portland, OR, the majority of precipitation fell in the winter months, leaving the summers completely dry (with almost guaranteed beautiful weather all summer long - perfect for vacationing!). But for gardeners, this posed a problem. Either you needed to plant a xeriscape garden or plan to water your garden regularly.

Now living in Wisconsin, I’m in a climate that receives some rain throughout the summer. My garden loves these natural rains and once I set up my rain barrels, they will be recharged with fresh rainwater throughout the summer.

In this blog post I’m going to talk about a couple different non-traditional watering techniques and some on-site water-saving techniques. The water saving techniques don’t necessarily mean collecting the rainwater in a container; instead, you can actually store rainwater in the soil!

Non-Traditional Watering Techniques

Watering your home garden often takes the form of hand-watering, sprinklers, or some sort of drip irrigation (which can be a simple DIY setup or a fancy custom installation by a professional). These can all be great options depending on your situation.

My personal favorite is to simply set up a sprinkler attached to a timer so that my garden gets watered without me having to do anything. Lazy? Yes. But it also makes life soooo much easier, especially if you have a busy schedule, kids, etc. This setup is also really affordable (low cost to set up), though not necessarily the best use of water.

If you’re looking for other irrigation options, here are a few non-traditional ways to water your garden.

Gravity-Fed Irrigation

One of my favorite unique watering systems was something I saw as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, West Africa. We spent a few months in training before being sent out to our villages. There were some food gardens at the main training center, and within one of those gardens, this setup immediately caught my eye.

watering cistern in Mali West Africa.jpg

This is a small cistern that can be filled by hand (or by hose in locations where there is the luxury of running water), then the water slowly drains out through the clear hose on the left side of the cistern. This hose takes the water to a nearby garden.

I’ve been tempted to set up a similar system in my garden, though haven’t done so yet. I think it could be a great system for watering a smaller area, like a balcony or patio garden. I love the handmade bricks and pot in this photo, though I imagine the American equivalent would involve a plastic bucket that isn’t quite as beautiful. Either way, this watering system could be great for certain gardens. It could save you time since all you need to do is add water to the bucket, rather than hand-water each plant individually.

Flood Irrigation

In Mali, it was common to build up the edges of garden beds and fill the entire garden beds with water. Watering in the Sahel (the area just south of the Sahara desert), needed to be super efficient. The soil is very sandy, the weather hot and dry, and water is a precious commodity.

Flood irrigation is a common practice in other locations as well. It can be used on farms and even home gardens. This method is great for really soaking the soil. It provides a thorough watering to the plants and encouraging the roots to grow deep into the ground. This helps make the plants more drought tolerant since they have deep root systems. Though I don’t have experience with this type of irrigation outside of Mali, I imagine it would be best suited for sandier soils since too much water could drown plants in heavy clay soils.

If you’re planning to try out this method, make sure that your garden beds are level so that all of the plants get watered evenly. Also, make the beds a manageable size so that you can easily reach the plants without walking on the garden bed soil too much.

flood irrigation in Mali.jpg

You can see that this garden has been watered recently, due to the darker brown soil color. The raised walls around the garden beds are lighter brown. They also double as paths.

Watering with Built-In Nutrients

I’ve written about this in another blog post, but it’s so amazing that it’s worth mentioning again. I went on a tour of Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee, WI (totally worth it if you’re in the area - they have other locations, too) and was amazed by their productivity and creative use of space and resources.

Basically, this multi-layered garden takes care of itself. The bottom later is a fish pond. The nutrient-rich water from the fish pond is pumped up to the top garden layer, which is planted with watercress or filled with potted plants. These plants are watered (and naturally fertilized) from the water below. The water then goes down to the next level, where more plants are watered. As the water flows through the two laters of plants above, it is filtered by the plants. The water is then returned to the fish pond, cleaner than when it started. It’s a win-win situation!

There were even mushroom logs suspended above the fish ponds in some spots. The logs were inoculated with mushroom spored and dunked into the fish ponds via a pulley system, then pulled back up out of the water where they happily sprouted edible mushrooms. It’s such an amazing use of space!

I’ve seen a home garden setup similar to this inside a greenhouse, so a smaller scale project is possible, too. Although this type of project takes much more effort up front, there’s no doubt that it is an amazing self-contained system that will increase your production and even reduce your time, nutrient, and energy inputs.

If you live in a warmer climate, this type of system could be constructed outside. Otherwise, it’s a great option for inside a greenhouse. The one I saw in Portland, OR was in a small-ish greenhouse on an urban lot, which was likely around 50’ x 100’. The pond provided fresh fish for the two homeowners and they were able to extend their vegetable harvest by growing more food during the winter months in their greenhouse.

growing power milwaukee wi.jpg

On-Site Water Saving Techniques

I have to admit that I'm actually kind of excited to have a yard that's not flat.  That means I can do some fun experimenting with rainwater management on my property.  Kinda nerdy?  Maybe... but perhaps these five water saving techniques will be helpful in your yard, too. 

French Drains

A French drain is trench filled with a perforated pipe, gravel, or rock, that is often used to direct surface water to another location.  This can be especially helpful installed alongside buildings to capture surface water that may otherwise damage a building. 

We bought our house a year ago and quickly realized that any significant amount of rain just poured directly into our basement. It was literally like a waterfall in heavy rains! Instead of hiring a contractor to fix our leaky basement, we addressed the water itself.

My husband installed a French drain a few feet away from the uphill side of our house. He dug a trench a couple feet deep, installed a perforated pipe and ran that pipe underground and into the backyard, where it naturally emerges on a hill within a garden. He topped the pipe with gravel and some river rocks that were already on our property. This simple trick was enough to keep our basement dry during even the heaviest rain storms. 

In addition to saving our basement from flooding, french drains can simply help move surface water from one place to another. In our case, I’m planning to build a rain garden where the perforated pipe emerges in the backyard. This will prevent any additional runoff from the extra water that now enters that area and it will help encourage the rain water to soak back into the soil.

Rain Gardens 

Rain gardens have become popular over the years.  They are basically human-made low spots in a landscape that collect surface water and are planted with plants that tolerate occasional standing water. Rain gardens provide a place for rain water to stop and soak back into the ground. 

What are some benefits of rain gardens? 

  • Groundwater is recharged

  • Less stormwater runoff (which is often polluted) into nearby waterways

  • Less stress on stormwater systems because more water is diverted away from those systems

  • Manage your stormwater on your site (to prevent flooding your neighbor's basement, etc.)

  • Creates beauty in your yard

  • Increases wildlife habitat


Swales are similar to rain gardens, but they are long and narrow and follow the natural contour of the land.  Swales capture surface water that is moving downhill to slow it down and sink it back into the soil.  A neat technique is to plant trees or shrubs on the downhill side of a swale.  The water captured in the swale will help to deeply water these plants. 


Cisterns are like oversized rain barrels.  They can be located above or below ground and can use a pump or gravity to release the water as needed for watering your garden during dry spells.  A huge benefit of cisterns is that they store much more water than rain barrels.  This is especially useful in regions that receive most of their rain in winter months and very little rain in summer months. 

Rainwater collection in Portland looked much different than it does in Wisconsin. There, any attempt at rainwater collection required nothing smaller than a large cistern, which holds significantly more water than a couple small rain barrels.

Pervious Pavers

Pervious pavers are bricks or other hardscape materials that are designed to let water through to the ground below.  Picture a typical concrete driveway.  All of the water runs off, right? 

With a pervious driveway, a percentage of the rainwater that lands on it will actually go right through and soak back into the ground.  I know, a new pervious driveway isn't in everyone's budget, but keep the concept in mind if you're adding a patio or pathway to your yard.  You could even opt for a DIY version that is created with irregular flagstones or urbanite (broke pieces of concrete) interplanted with small ground covers. 


I’d love to hear from you! Add your comments below. Tell us all about your favorite watering and water-saving tricks!