Hard water can be just as damaging to plants as it is to your water pipes and fixtures. Too much calcium, the primary cause of hard water, can hurt plants. Hard water is also tough on soaker hoses, drip irrigation systems, and outdoor spigots and pipes.

Softened water can also be damaging to plants if you use the wrong type of softener. A salt-based water softener uses an ionic process to replace the calcium in the water with softer salt. Salt buildup in the soil can kill plants and eventually render the soil sterile so it can no longer grow plants.

Softener Options

If you have hard water, you will definitely need a softener in your home. If you plan to use the same softener for both indoor and outdoor water, a salt-free system is the best option. Salt-free systems don't replace the hard water minerals with softer minerals. Instead, they alter the chemical structure of the minerals in the water by removing solid particles in the minerals. This works well in pipes, hoses and irrigation systems. It doesn't work as well for places where water is stored before use, such as in a hot water heater tank.

Bypassing the Softener

If you have only mildly hard water, a simple bypass system can allow you to continue using your standard water softener indoors, while allowing non-softened water to run through your outdoor spigots and irrigation systems.

If your water is exceptionally hard and not suitable for garden use, but you still prefer a salt-based system indoors, two softeners may be the best option. This requires both a bypass before the water line joins the salt system, and a second salt-free softener on the bypass line that leads to the outdoor water supply.

Alternative Water Sources

Another option is to use alternative water sources for your plants. Purchased distilled water works well for plants, but it can be expensive unless you are only irrigating a few plants infrequently. Another option is to set up a rainwater collection system using your roof and storage barrels. Rainwater is safe for plants, and you can build or purchase barrels that can be attached to your irrigation lines. If rainfall is a concern, you can safely mix equal parts salt-softened water and rainwater without harming your garden.

If your plants are growing poorly and you've been using softened water in the garden, take the time to leach the excess salts from the soil before replanting. Frequent watering with non-softened water or water from a salt-free system will draw out the salt. You will then need to fertilize and work in compost to replenish the healthy nutrients in the soil.

For more information, contact Johnson Water Conditioning or a similar company.