Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Watering Practices

Hanna at This Garden Is Illegal recently posted some good advice on watering in the garden. I have to confess that I follow almost none of it. While I let most of the grass brown, I am watering the newly seeded patch colonizing an area of the yard I regraded. I don’t reuse water from the tub or shower. I don’t have a rain gauge, or measure the water I sprinkle on the lawn. I don’t own a soaker hose. I water at whatever time of day I find it convenient and I do have a few thirsty plants (like hydrangeas). I don’t actively practice water conservation, but I do try to make good watering choices. These are a few of my watering guidelines.

Water the Wilted. I almost always water if I see wilting, although using flaccid leaves as an indicator can have its dangers. On a hot day, transpiration in the leaves may simply exceed the roots’ ability to uptake water, even when the soil is moist, resulting in limpness. Watering in a situation like this doesn’t help, and can eventually hurt, if you flood the plant. Some of my plants, like the hydrangeas, seem to wilt every afternoon, but that doesn’t necessarily signal distress. If the plants haven’t recovered by morning, they need a watering.
When wilting really is a symptom of dry soil, water is needed, but it may be too late. Leaves wilt as the plant’s cells lose water and, hence, turgidity. The cells will bounce back upon watering, but if they become too dry, the membrane within the cell will actually detach from the cell wall and then the death knell has sounded. Like a thirsty human, wilting is often a sign that the plant is already in a water deficit.

Nurture the Newbies. Plantings less than a year in the ground get extra water. I don’t wait for wilting. Because the new plants don’t yet have established root systems, they can be almost as vulnerable as potted plants to drying out. While they need regular watering, first year plants do not need to be watered deeply because their roots are busy establishing. I won’t claim to have a scientific method as to the amount of water the new plantings get. Generally, I just water “some.” If I’m unsure, I stick a finger in the soil to see if it is moist a few inches down.

Tough Love. If watered beyond the first year, plantings should be watered deeply to encourage the roots to dive deep into the earth for moisture. If all they receive are shallow waterings, they will not develop the deep root systems that will last them through droughts or vacations. For the most part, though, I have found that plantings established for even just a year have not needed any water beyond rainfall.

Extra Container Care. Container-bound plants are subject to extremes of temperature and air movement. Many first-time container gardeners are surprised at the amount of care required to maintain life in the tiny oasis of a pot. Container-bound plants don’t have the option of sending roots far and wide in search of moisture and nutrients. Instead, they must have it regularly delivered to them. I water most of my containers daily, especially if the container is porous, like a clay pot or fiber mat. Even plants in plastic containers sometimes need daily watering if they are in full sun. Some plants, no matter how much you water them, just don’t like containers. I either plant those unhappy individuals in the ground or toss them into the compost heap.

Vacation Watering. If I’m going to be gone only a few days, I water all the new plants and containers very well for the two or three days preceding my departure. If I will be gone three days or longer, I follow the above procedure and hire/coerce someone into watering the containers every other day. In this situation, I also take extra precautions with newly planted trees and shrubs. Following Carolyn Harstad’s watering advice in Got Shade, I lug a 5-gallon bucket of water to each newly planted tree or shrub and dump the contents at its base. Even if I managed to get the plant on sale, trees and shrubs are too valuable to lose to drought!

This year, I have many new beds and containers, so I spend a lot of time watering. Fortunately, I enjoy it. I love the smell of the cool water hitting the hot surfaces of the dirt, pavement, or deck. While I water, I examine the garden for other signs of distress, or simply appreciate its beauty. I usually make watering my last gardening chore of the evening, so it is my chance to relax, unwind, and transition into my indoor duties.

Tomorrow: a fascinating, in-depth look at my watering devices.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't ignore your trees. They get stressed in times of drought too.
Losing your perennials or annuals is heartbreaking, but they can be replaced fairly easily. Large trees are irreplacable and if lost, can be expensive to remove.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous thisgardenisillegal said...

I am 100% with you on the containers (I am headed outside right after this to water them, as a matter of fact). I sometimes even have to water them twice a day in extreame heat.

All the other tips are great too. Thanks! :)

7:31 PM  
Blogger Giddy said...

Better to spend a bit of money watering during dry spells than lose hundreds of dollars worth of plantings and landscaping!

6:40 AM  
Blogger LostRoses said...

I agree about making watering a pleasant chore in the evening. It's the first thing I do when I get home from work and it's very relaxing except for fighting those darned "kinky" hoses! Sometimes they knock the can of beer right out of my hand.

9:56 PM  
Blogger OldRoses said...

Hand watering (as opposed to sprinklers)gives me a chance to get a good look at what's going on in my gardens. Definitely a chore that I enjoy.

10:04 PM  

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