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Softening Our Water to Save Our Plants?

In this week's edition of First World Problems - we have hard water.

This isn't exactly a breaking development. We knew the house had hard water before we moved in. We didn't think it was going to be a big deal. Both my husband and I had grown up in houses with extra minerals in the water. We'd gotten accustomed to the taste and didn't consider the extra cleaning required to remove the residual scale to be a particular hardship.

We had to use more detergent and clean our shower more often. So what?

What we didn't anticipate, though, is how much of a pain in the keister hard water would be when it came time to grow some plants.

As a general rule, plants love minerals. However, too much of a good thing can encumbering, even deadly to plant growth. Case in point - the indoor vegetable garden we started a month ago is having a rough go at it. Leaf lettuce plants that are supposed to be hardy and robust are brown and kind of sad.

And as much as it pains me to admit it, I'm kind of getting tired of scrubbing out toilet bowls every few days and running our drinking glasses through the machine twice.

So in light of this, we're now investigating water purifiers.

I say investigating because we aren't exactly sold on a permanent water softener yet. Sure, the plants would be happy and our soap would lather like never before, but that convenience comes at a cost. Water purifiers cost money to purchase, more money to install and even more money to maintain.

We contacted our local home improvement store for a quote, and they estimate a softener would run us about $600. On top of that, we'd have to pay an installation fee of $500 including pre-plumbing, because neither my husband nor I feel comfortable performing major plumbing surgery on our house. Then, it would run us about $30 a month to keep the thing running with electricity and fresh salt.

Needless to say, it's quite the investment. So I figured before we plunge in, I should ask how you guys deal with your water. Do you have hard water? Does it affect the way you grow your plants? Would you invest in a water softener if it did?

Let me know.

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Comment by Clare on January 24, 2013 at 12:58pm

Lucy, we just went through this last year. We're on a well here, and have very hard water (12 grains). We finally got tired of chipping limescale off of everything, and wanted to install a tankless water heater, which mandated we install a softener last year.

My understanding has always been that irrigating plants with softened water is NOT recommended. Softeners most commonly use salt (some use potassium). The more calcium carbonate, and magnesium carbonate contributing to the hardness of your water, the more salt is added to the water to soften it. The salt builds up in the soil over time, and interferes with plant nutrient uptake, and growth.

When we installed our softener we bypassed our outside irrigation lines, so that our irrigation water is not softened. I've never had trouble with growing plants outdoors in a hard water situation (our last house had 28 grains of hardness), but in some situations it certainly can affect plant growth, especially if your soils are already alkaline, or if you're growing in containers.

If your soil and/or water are excessively alkaline (high pH), that interferes with a plant's nutrient uptake, especially iron. Leaves yellow, and become chlorotic in appearance, as they're functionally iron deficient in an alkaline environment.

So, hard water can increase soil pH, and make it too alkaline. Softened water can also increase soil pH, and cause salts to build up in the soil. You may simply replace one problem (high pH due to hard water), with the same problem (high pH due to soft water)!

If you haven't done so yet, my recommendation would be to have your water tested, both for it's degree of hardness, AND pH, before shopping for a softener. It's possible that your water pH is causing more trouble for your plants, than the grains of hardness per se. We have very hard water here, but we were surprised to learn that our water pH was actually slightly acidic (it was corroding our copper pipes). That probably helped to mitigate the effects of the hard water on our plants...at the price of damaging our copper plumbing!

It's also possible that your soil pH is too high, so I would also recommend testing your soil as well.

I'd certainly recommend a softener for the house, as it will make your soap go further, and reduce limescale buildup in appliances, and toilet bowls, but I wouldn't install a system just for the sake of the plants, as it's unlikely to fix your problem

Irrigating sensitive plants with collected rain water can help, or amending your soils heavily with compost, or other acidifying mediums, to increase the soil acidity, can also improve plant performance in the presence of hard water used for irrigation.

We focus on soil amendments, adding lots of organic matter to the soils, and replenishing exhausted beds each season with fresh compost, to keep our soils on the acidic side. So far for us that has helped whenever we've found ourselves in a hard water situation. Maybe someone else can chime in with their hard water experiences, and how they've managed it for their gardens. Good luck! :)

Comment by Joan Aschoff on January 27, 2013 at 1:16pm

Hi Lucy, I agree with Clare.  We live in Southern California and have very hard water.  We are often dealing with drought conditions and have mineral build up on our faucets and dishes.  We had a water softner installed years ago and it did help with the build up and soaps did lather nicely.  My understanding is that they always bypass your external water sources when hooking up a water softner.  To soften the water it runs through salt or potassium and you don't want to water your plants with that.  All that said, a few years back our city banned water softners because of the salt run off that was contaminating our rivers and streams.  Since then we have found ways to manage with the hard water.  A couple of excellent solutions for the dishwasher is to add a little citric acid to your detergent and to put vinegar in the rinse compartment.  It really cuts through the buildup and our glasses and dishes come out nice and clear and they are environmentally friendly solutions.


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