It’s May and the heat is on. Your garden, potted plants and windowsill greenies are going to need watering on a regular basis. Before you march out with watering can in hand, know this: All watering is not created equal. Mastering how to properly water is a vital skill in the path toward becoming a garden guru.
I know it sounds painfully boring. How to water. You’re thinking, “What a waste of time reading an article about something that I obviously already know how to do,” right? Before you move on to watching cats sitting on dogs videos or reading up on the latest Kardashian scandal, let me ask you this question: Have you ever had a plant die (indoor plants count too)?
Second question: Is this your first garden project?
If the answer to either of these questions is even maaaaaaaybeeeee, then I urge you to continue reading.
Listed below are the general fundamentals of proper watering practices. These guidelines will help you grow a bountiful culinary oasis and, if followed, will likely save some of your beloved little seedlings from a doomed fate.
One of the wacky scientific principles of water is that it evaporates. Furthermore, deep, dark, rich soil attracts and incubates heat so when you apply water to your soil it evaporates at an accelerated rate. With this in mind you need to ensure that you are really soaking the soil so the water doesn’t just turn into steam within an hour. You also need to water deep enough to reach the plant’s roots, where they take up water and nutrients. What happens far too often, and what I was guilty of once upon a time, is the common practice of watering until the soil’s surface looks wet. This is rarely sufficient, especially in the blaring, mid-summer heat. If you have just planted a new perennial or veggie start, stand at each plant and count to 10 while watering. And I mean the real counting to 10, not the expedited “I’m holding side planks and I hate side planking” 10 seconds.
SHOWER VS SOAK
Running a sprinkler is okay once your plants are established. However, when you are planting newbies or transplanting, you need to ensure that you’re really penetrating deep down and keeping those babies alive. Setting your hose head to ‘shower’ is effective to avoid disturbing new little delicate plants like lettuces and chard. However, for a rose or a blueberry bush, set that hose head to soak, aim for the base of the plant and count to 10. If the water is just running off to the sides, go water something else close by and come back. Once the soil has been prepped and wetted, it will absorb better for the next application, just like a sponge. A sponge needs a full soak before it can function properly and clean surfaces like a dream. If you skip the soak and in stead just sprinkle a dry sponge with a little spatter of water, you’ll be scraping your counters with a crusty old brick.
DRIP IRRIGATION & SPRINKLERS
Sprinklers are an easy fix to the water issue. But as you may have gathered by now, sprinkling the top of your soil isn’t always the best method to keep a thriving garden. Sprinklers are perfect for seeding as seeds need the SURFACE of the soil to be wet at ALL TIMES when they are germinating. So if you are seeding, sprinkle away. However, once you have plants established, emitters or drip tape is a great watering method. Emitters are little sprinklers that post up right next to your garden beds and water the area about 3-5’ around it. This alleviates evaporation issues, soaks the soil better and softens some water bill damage. Another option is drip tape - tubing that has little holes poked along it. Lie this ‘tape’ or ‘tubing’ along your garden beds snuggled up right next to your row of plants. The little holes in the tube will let out water right at the base of the plant and soak the area where the roots are. This reduces evaporation and the ‘how long to water’ guessing game. The best part is that you can set your irrigation emitters or drip tape to a timer and practically forget about it. You are only required to check up on it occasionally to make sure that there are no clogs in the system. Those holes are quite tiny, so debris can really reap havoc on them if it gets in the lines. If you run into this issue, just poke it out. Or call your handy irrigation expert.
This one really gets a lot of folks’ panties in a bunch. Watering all willy nilly at any given time of the day is sadly not the most effective way to tend to the health of your garden. The most opportune time to water your plants is early in the morning. This is when they really have a chance to absorb all that watery goodness. Watering early will also prepare your plants for the onslaught of sunbeams that will feed them throughout the day. Water again in the later afternoon when the sun has passed its maximum. Why? You guessed it. Evaporation! If you wait to water your plants till lunch time, first off they will be parched and sad by then, and second, the water you offer them to quench their thirst at this time of day will be short lived. They simply won’t be able to drink as much for as long. Again, this is why irrigation systems can save you. Set the timer properly and you won’t have to march out with the watering can in hand before work with a banana in the other hand and one eye of mascara left to do.
OVERWATERING & THE FINGER TEST
The take home message about watering is that the soil needs to be penetrated at the root level to give established plants adequate moisture to live. It can be really tough to gauge whether the soil needs water or not as weather is a constant variable. In addition, over-watering is a serious issue and often times is the cause of plant failure rather than under-watering. Some plants like more water than others but generally, most plants, apart from aquatic varieties, don’t like to have their feet wet. Standing water can be just as detrimental to a plant’s health as dry, parched, dusty soil. A simple method to check whether you have sufficiently watered your plants is the finger test. Dig your index finger in its entirety down into the soil to test the top two inches for moisture content. If it feels soaked, skip watering and check again in a few hours. If the soil is slightly moist to dry, water away.
THE GARDENING JOURNEY
These watering guidelines can certainly help a beginning gardener get a better feel for proper watering practices, but that is exactly what gardening is; a feel. Because we are dealing with living systems, there are no real hard fast rules to growing food, just as there aren’t for raising a child or a puppy. You can get some help and advise from the experts, but the most important exercise is spending time with your garden and getting to know who your plants are - and that takes time. In your first couple of years, you will inevitably over water or under water some of your plants, and some of them will die and give their nutrients back to the earth. That is a part of the learning curve. However, if you begin with these guidelines, you will eliminate a substantial chunk of the guessing game that we all run into at the beginning of any project in unknown territory. This will help you immensely to begin feeling for your plants’ needs and the overall rhythm of your garden. With these guidelines in your watering knowledge basin, you will begin the path to successful gardening and will soon know when to water instinctively. Less questioning means more confidence and as we all know, confidence is the key to success - boring watering practices included.
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