BACKGROUND The objective was to study soil water conservation and physiological growth of corn (Zea mays L.) using water-saving super-absorbent polymer (SAP) at 30 kg ha(-1). The effectiveness of SAP was studied under three irrigation levels (adequate, moderate and deficit) using a new type of negative hydraulic pressure controlled auto-irrigator in the years 2009 and 2010 in a greenhouse at Beijing, P.R. China. RESULTS Eight weeks after sowing, plant height and leaf area increased significantly by 41.6 and 79.6% under deficit irrigation for SAP treatment. The SAP had little effect on shoot dry mass under adequate and moderate irrigation but increased it significantly by 133.5% under deficit irrigation. Similarly, the efficiency of water use also increased by 97.1%. Leaf water potential under adequate and moderate irrigation differs slightly for SAP application, whereas under deficit irrigation the values were exceeded significantly by 27.8%. The superior growth and water use efficiency of corn treated with SAP under deficit irrigation was ascribed to maintenance of higher relative water contents in leaves as well as intercellular carbon dioxide concentration, net photosynthesis and transpiration rate. CONCLUSIONS Our results suggested that plant growth and different physiological activities are restricted by drought stress and the application of super-absorbent polymer could conserve soil water, making same available to plants for increased growth and biomass accumulation especially under severe water stress. Thus, application of SAP is a suitable soil management practice for the locations characterised by severe water stress.