Have you tried dumping dish water on your plants just to watch the water flow away from the plant? If so, try using the castle and moat plant basin method. Whether watering your garden by capturing water from your kitchen sink or installing drip irrigation, good plant basins make a big difference. Basins capture water, rain or otherwise, and allow it to sink in around the plant’s roots. It is conceptually similar to mulch basins used for “Laundry-to-Landscape” grey-water systems or rain gardens. With the continuing drought it makes sense to give our plants all the tools we can to make the best of the little water available.
When working with people unused to building basins when installing plants, I like to compare the structure of the basins like a castle surrounded by a moat. The moat is then backfilled with mulch. The mulch leaves space for water to fill up and soak into the soil around the roots. Basins can take a variety of forms depending on your soils and slope. For example, if you have heavy clay soils then your plant should be set on a hill about one inch overlooking its moat above the surrounding soil. For most soils though, the plant should be set at the same elevation as the soil around it and the moat is dug 3- 12 inches from the root ball depending on the size of the plant and your soils. I like to dig my moats wider than deeper but adjust to the space available and your site. Castles and moats work for sandy soils too. In that case, the organic matter backfill ends up being the source of moisture holding. The most important thing is to avoid putting your plant at the bottom of a bowl. Even with the little water available, it can rot your plant. The same is true if your soils are poorly drained and are left to create a berm, impeding water flow.
For illustrations of this method, I like Caltran’s details for plant basins (2010 Standard Plan H3 ). They are simple and available to the public. You can also find out more at the Arbor Day Foundation and from Master Gardeners. In fact, here is an El Dorado Master Gardeners slide presentation (link opens as a large pdf) on harvesting rainwater and greywater use from CNPS El Dorado Chapter president Alice Cantelow.
As always, experiment and adapt to your site and needs.