We really wanted to have a garden. It was probably the main reason why we were so interested in buying a piece of vacant land. It was the only way we were ever going to be able to afford to own a piece of property big enough for fruit trees and a garden.
However, our piece of vacant land was completely off-grid, so getting enough water to keep our young fruit trees alive was difficult. It was something that was made even more difficult by the fact that we planted them out during a year of drought.
Setting up a low-water garden
While winters are fairly wet in the Pacific Northwest, summers are typically dry. So watering is necessary.
Since our property was off-grid, water for the garden came exclusively from the 4 rain barrels we set up to collect rain off our shabin roof. In addition, we weren’t able to spend the whole summer at our property, so our garden needed to be able to go for up to two weeks between waterings.
With this in mind, we set up a low-maintenance, low-water garden. Here are a few of the features:
- Choosing plants that were drought tolerant.
- Providing lots of space between the trees, so they didn’t have to compete for water.
- Using mulch topped with newspaper and burlap to slow evaporation from the soil. (See the picture below of a newly planted apple tree.)
- The main vegetable garden was built on a hugelkultur mound so that the rotting wood could help hold in moisture.
- We recycled our cleanest grey water for watering plants.
- We also used a slow-drip bucket watering system to provide deep watering to the roots of our trees.
Our Bucket Watering System
There are a ton of advantages to using a slow watering system, whether it’s a soaker hose in a vegetable garden or buckets around fruit trees. Here’s why you should consider bucket watering your garden.
- Large 5-gallon buckets are cheap (and often free). They are much more affordable than a purchased watering bag (affiliate link).
- Deep watering encourages deep root growth. This allows plants to survive periods of drought. Surface watering encourages shallow root growth. Since the soil surface will dry out first, plants are unlikely to survive periods of drought.
- Established trees have their root structure at the edge of the crown. That’s because the crown prevents light rainfall from reaching the ground near the trunk of the tree. Bucket watering allows you to water at the edge of the crown, delivering water exactly where the roots are located.
- Bucket watering eliminates run-off and overspray, reducing the amount of water that is wasted.
- It’s an easy way to water with rain barrels. No need to hook up a pump or wait for a hose to slowly drain. We took the top off our rain barrels and filled a bucket by dunking it in the barrel.
We use bucket watering for our herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. Not all vegetables will tolerate extended periods of drought, but we actually had a lot of success with our dry gardening.
How much water do trees need?
We used a combination of resources to figure out how much water our trees would need. First, I looked at what each type of fruit tree needed in my Growing Fruit (affiliate link) reference book. And I cross-referenced it with the information on this website, which has recommendations for how frequently trees need to be watered based on when they were planted, how large they are, and the time of year.
We came up with this rough formula that we used to water our fruit trees during the dry summer months:
- Ideal: 2 gallons of water per 1-inch of trunk diameter, every 10 days. This will allow them to fruit and flourish.
- Necessary: 1 gallon of water per 1-inch of trunk diameter, every 14 days. This is what is necessary to keep them alive.
We did a combination of ideal and necessary. If the summer was wet, then we didn’t need to worry about watering as much. When the summer was dry, then we would try to get out to the property at least every two weeks. Watering when we arrived and again right before we left.
Unfortunately, we weren’t always able to get out there as much as we would like and sometimes our trees would have to suffer 3 weeks of drought. Despite that, the fruit trees and herbs were fine. Only a few more delicate plants (like my raspberry sorrel) struggled through the heat waves.
A homemade watering bucket
The trick to a homemade watering bucket is having the water drain slow enough. Ideally, you want the bucket to water over 5 to 9 hours. However, even 30 minutes is fine for deep watering.
Here’s how to convert a 5-gallon bucket into a slow watering system.
- Drill a single 1/8 inch (3 mm) hole in the bottom of the bucket.
That’s literally all you need to do. It’s also as many holes as you need. I don’t recommend smaller holes because they clog easily. With one hole, it takes about 30 minutes for a newly drilled 5-gallon bucket to drain. However, after a few weeks out in the garden, the hole will get clogged with dirt, increasing the watering time to several hours.
If you want the drainage time to be really slow… then put a lid on the bucket!
The success of our bucket watering really surprised us. Our newly planted garden survived extreme drought and heatwaves with just a few gallons of water from our slow watering system.