Water wise in the garden

17 February 2014
It's been a long, dry summer here. The temperatures haven't been nearly as high as those down south, we've had only two very hot spells, but the rains didn't come this year and that was worse than the hot weather. Summer is our wet season and when it passes with very little rain in January or February, then it doesn't look good for the rest of the year. Our average rainfall in February is 405mm, so far we've had 99mm. We have town water and tank water here. We installed two water tanks to use on the garden. They hold 15,000 litres/quarts. We have a smaller tank on the front verandah that holds 500 litres, that water usually keeps my ferns and plants alive. Our annual rainfall here is just under 2000mm, and about half of that falls in summer.

I believe that if you're growing a garden full of vegetables, then you need to be collecting water to enable you to do that. Water is a hidden cost in vegetable and fruit gardening but if you're serious about supplying some, or all, of your vegetables, then you should think carefully about how much it will cost you to grow them. If you don't harvest your own rain water, watering will be your biggest cost. In Australia the average water use for two people is 360 litres per day. Hanno and I use much less than that at around 200 litres between us and that costs us around $200 every three months. If we used town water on our garden, I suspect we'd use the average of 360 litres and that would cost us just under $400 per three months. We save that amount of money because we harvest our own water. We want to be as self-reliant as we can be so buying tanks and being thrifty with the water we do have is just part of gardening for us. If we can grow a lot of the food we eat, taking no water from the communal dam to do it, then we see that as sustainable gardening. Saving vegetable seeds, recycling household and garden waste into compost, making home-made fertilisers and harvesting water is part of the closed system we try to maintain here.

And then the question of managing the harvested water comes into play. I used to be a bit obsessed with the rainwater. I'd check the water level by tapping on the side of the tanks and I'd water with miserly amounts of water on the vegetables. I was fearful of running out of water. A few years ago I decided to stop watering the front gardens all together. I'd planted up gardenias, wisteria, roses, camellias, magnolias and a few drought-hardy species like callistemons and sage. To my surprise, most of the larger plants survived and it was only the smaller roses and daisies that died. We never water the lawn. I don't care if that dies or not. Grass is so resilient, it always comes back after a bit of rain.

Over the years I changed my ideas about conserving our tank water. I realised that even though the tanks got low, they've never been completely empty and even in drought years, rain would often come when we needed it most. Instead of being miserly with it,  now I water almost every day and the garden has survived summer and the drought quite well. I no longer have that feeling that we'll run out of water. I changed from a glass half empty to a glass half full and I'm happier for it. I never waste water, but I am giving all my plants and particularly the vegetables, the water they need to thrive, not just survive. I don't know if there will be a time in the future when we run out of tank water but I'm not worrying about that till it happens. I have plants here that need the water we have, I have to live this day, not worry about next month or next year.

We're still practising all the water-wise techniques such as planting vegetables with similar water requirements next to each other, making sure the drips from hanging baskets flow into the garden, using thick mulch to conserve water already in the soil and water storage crystals in the ornamental plant pots.

Those tanks have been one of our wisest investments. I'm pleased we can share the water we harvest with our chooks and all the visiting birds that fly though here as well as the wildlife that live here. I'm grateful I have a husband who could rig up the system of pipes, drains and tanks that makes our water harvesting a success because without those tanks I doubt I'd be as enthusiastic about backyard food production as I am.  What is your watering setup at home?


  1. At the moment we have 3 x 250litre water butts leading into each other, then the last one flows into an old dustbin. After that it goes into the pond. Our rainfall is such that this amount sees us through until the next rainfall but being on a water metre, this helps save money. If things get too tight, we save our bath water and use that.

  2. Rhonda,
    I live in the desert southwest in New Mexico, USA. Our annual precipitation is 11.75 inches and if I have converted correctly that is 298.45 mm a year. I am extremely frugal with the water and have many rain collection methods. We do plan at some point to dig a cistern but everything in time. For now I have hundreds of buckets to catch water, and once filled, I put a lid on it and begin filling another as we do have torrential rain in June and July, and then pretty much nothing for several months.

    I salvage every drop and use gray water for much of the natural grass that we raised to have a lawn of sorts! After much research, we opted to use tires for raised beds for our garden as the water is controlled and the tires create a sort of green house for the soil in the lower tires. We use three tires high.

    Even our water for the critters is reused, when we dump their buckets to wash and refill, we take those buckets and water our fruit trees. For me, like you said, I enjoy that my farm has become a place for the desert wildlife to consider a watering/feeding ground, as I do toss slops/grain out in the desert for them. It has become an amazing wildlife study to see the variety of critters that visit.

    Thanks for sharing your water conservation methods,

    1. Hi Jennifer, it sounds like you're doing a great job with such a small amount of water. Well done.

  3. So interesting and informative, Rhonda.. Thanks.. xo

  4. Our new home must have been built just before the regulations that say all new homes must have water tanks (is this a NSW thing, or Australia-wide?). I'd love to put one in, but the challenge is where to put it.

    In the meantime, we water the lawn using the watering system that was already here. We know how much water it uses, and how much it costs, so we do it as a conscious decision to keep the lawn alive in this drought. We are slowly putting in ornamental plants that are drought-hardy - Australian natives - so we shouldn't have to worry about them once they are established, and reducing the amount of lawn we have.

    But by far, the most water goes on the vegie patch and the fruit trees. I have no system, really, so your post today will really help. Thank you.

    The title of your post just grabbed my attention, because I really think of you as the Wise Owl I can go to when I need advice.

  5. Hi Rhonda,

    we've been having some good rain over the last few days. It had been so long since there was any decent rain that we all ran outside! It has been so hot and dry, what a relief to have the rain. My back lawn, normally very hardy, has turned to dust - quite unbelievable. But amazingly, with just a bit of rain new green shoots are coming up everywhere - hooray!

    I water with the hose, but as most gardeners know rain water makes the vegetables grow so much faster and healthier. I often use vegetable washing water on my potplants, and water from the start of the shower on my fruit trees. There have been a lot of things on the to-do list for my 'renovators delight', and slowly rainwater tanks are moving up that list. I do feel regret, though, every time it rains and I'm not able to store it.

    Have a wonderful day,


  6. Hi Rhonda we have a 5000 litre rain tank and my clever husband connected it to our washing machine with 6 people in the house here is a ton of washing so I think we safe a few hundred of our water bill


  7. I think we are in for a rude shock when our water bill comes this quarter. Our property does have one tank on it, which collects the water from the garage roof. We haven't really used this water because we can't get enough pressure from that tank to run up to the vege patch - but maybe we need to get better at hand watering to take advantage of the tank. Long term, we plan to put in another tank closer to the house and take advantage of the greater area of tin roof - and fit it with a pump.

    In terms of irrigation, something that I fell across recently was the idea of using terracotta containers to store water which then leaks out at the root level. I am keeping my eye out for unglazed terracotta containers at the op shop so I can try it.

  8. Hi Rhonda,
    I have 22,000 litre tank and use that for house and garden. I don't save a lot doing that as the biggest part of the water bill is the base charges for supply and waste. I do get the pleasure of drinking clean lovely water.
    The tank is however getting low as we've had the hot weather here in the south and little rain like yourself. 0.8mm of rain this month (long term average is 45mm). The poor fruit trees are looking a bit dry but we are expecting some rain this week...

  9. Hello Rhonda - one of the big selling points of our little half acre 'farm' was that it has a private well - we pay nothing for the water other than the electricity to run the pump for our house uses. We pay $32 a year for the right to flood irrigate the whole place once a week which keeps the grass going and most of the non vegetable plants and fruit trees. We consider ourselves very fortunate, we spent 25 years living in the southern California desert and have retained our frugal water ways! I will admit though that right now with all the snow and a couple of days above freezing we are feeling just a little soggy!

  10. Water is so important isn't it? We have no town water where we are, so we have to manage our water tanks carefully. It's been a tough summer for rainfall! Hope you got some in the latest falls.

  11. We installed a 5000 litre rainwater tank a few years ago and it is one of the best investments we've made in my opinion. We don't have a vegie garden or fruit trees (rocky ground, very little soil) but the native plants love a drink when it's hot, and we can shower the aviaries with fresh water on a hot day without feeling guilty about using mains supply water. But for us the main reason for getting it was peace of mind in case of fire. We lashed out and got a pump with the tank, as otherwise it would be impossible to spray the water over the house and yard in case of fire.

  12. Hello Rhonda

    Like you, we are way down our our average rainfall. We have 95,000litres in 2 tanks but no access to town water. Although we never even go close to using half of our capacity we still practice water conservation. I do the handwashing in a bucket and then empty the water onto the shrubs near the verandah. After having spent many years in a low rainfall area, I know that there is a lot more that I could do if things got desperate.

  13. We have a well so our only cost is pumping the water. When we looking for a house to buy we did not look at houses on the city water system because we did not want chemicals in our water. In the 20 years we have been here we have had to replace the pump but it is still very inexpensive water overall. For the last year we have such huge amounts of rain that some planting have actually drowned. It has been a blessing to not have to water anything bu I remember well the drought years and I know they will be back.

  14. Hi Rhonda,
    I WISH we could harvest our rainwater but here in Colorado USA only a few commercial properties are allowed to collect water. We have to let it drain away to the Colorado River which is a major source of water(drinking and irrigation) for much of the south western USA and southern Calif. Water is a big deal here, always has been and many people way down river have older water rights than up here in the Rocky Mountains where the river begins. Seems so odd at first but when you think about all the food production that depends on the river water it is understandable.

  15. This is a very timely post for our family--here in Central California, water has become the main topic of discussion. We only average 11.5 inches yearly (292 mm), and this year we are well below that. Our lawns haven't been watered since last fall, and many of our potted ornamentals are not looking so good. I have been debating whether I want to try a garden or not this year, and I think I have decided to just do some peppers, tomatillos, and maybe a couple of tomatoes. Much of our garden budget this year will be spent on hardscaping, rather than plants or water. It is depressing to look out and see so much brown in the yard.

  16. Hi Rhonda - we do not have a rainwater tank but we realise that we need one if we are to have a good supply of fruit and vegetables in our garden, feeding our family. So I will have to try and source one.

    Our front lawn is looking terrible at the moment and I have been saying to my husband maybe we should plan it out a little better and remove part of the lawn and plant it out with something very hardy and drought-proof. Another project.

    Thanks for the reminder to bring this up the to-do list:)

  17. We installed water tanks about 9 years ago, and being on a surburban block put in 3 smaller ones 7,000 litres in all. The biggest is connected to the kitchen for drinking water. When we built our house in 1980, we wanted to install a very large concrete tank under the driveway for the whole house and the council wouldnt let us.Last year our neighbour across the road did just that with a huge renovation.

    The light misty rain we have recently had did nothing for the tanks, but I did do a huge autumn cleanup in the cooler weather filled up our wheelie bin and 3 of the neighbours. Weeds were easy to pull out but soil
    still dry 2 inches down.Heavier rain predicted tomorrow so hope yet to fill our tanks.

    Chris (kasalia) at Coffs Harbour

    1. Oh Chris, that is too bad of the council. We had a similar situation when we first moved here 33 years ago. Knowing it was on the edge of a bushfire prone area, we wanted to install a rainwater tank then, but the council wouldn't allow suburban householders to do that 'because they would be an eyesore' !@#$%^&!! In the next 30 years with so many severe bushfires, and many changes on council staff, they've finally come to their senses and encourage people to install tanks.

  18. I'm sure we're nowhere near as organised and heaven knows here in the NE of England water is not short! However, we still pay quite a bit for water because of the sewerage issue. Apparently the water company is dealing with a Victorian sewer system that has never been properly mapped and so expensive to maintain. I don't follow all the logic, but I know we pay twice for our water - once to bring it in, another to send it out. So we have a small tank that collects the water off the roof until it fills and then the water continues into the drain. When the rains don't come we have a small supply to fall back on - that's all we've ever needed. I can only remember once in 18 years we've ever watered the lawn, and then only because it was new and tender. Lawns make no sense, really, in any other climate that the cool, rainy one we 'enjoy' here. Crazy that this idea has been exported so many other places. Your tanks are truly impressive, but I know draught is a real problem in Australia.


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