Tips on Watering

This month’s Golden Spades talk was all about watering, a topic that’s crucial to keeping our plants alive, especially with summer coming on – slowly but inevitably.  Gene Sumi told the group he LOVES this article about watering, and here are the highlights from it, expanded by Gene’s comments and those of the Golden Spaders.

Getting Plants Started

-Amend the soil with compost and mulch on top to hold moisture.  Clay soil isn’t bad soil; it just needs to be broken up with organic matter to create space for air (because roots need air or they’ll drown).

– Dig holes twice as wide and an inch or so deeper than the root ball, mix the fill-in soil 50/50 with compost, discarding any clods that won’t break up.   This is the best (possibly the only) time to fix soil problems, so don’t skimp.

– Most common planting mistake?  Planting too deep.  Better to err on the side of planting high, not deep, which can cause the roots to drown.

– If you encounter hardpan (impenetrable layer of compacted clay), find a better spot, or consider building up some planting soil on top of it.  That’s because hardpan won’t drain and plants will drown in it.  Drainage is key!

– Loosen the roots so they’re free to grow into the surrounding soil. 

– Build water basins around new plants.

– Pat down the soil around the newly planted plants (with hand or a gentle step with your foot) to ensure good soil-root contact.  

– Hand-water new plants their first 1-3 weeks.

– For the first few weeks, especially in summer, it may be necessary to water every day, but the frequency will decrease as its roots spread.

– A plant’s first 5 months in the garden determine its future.  Pay close attention during that period.

– Water needs change over time for plants.  Adjust watering as conditions change and as plant matures.

 – The goal of “establishing” new plants is to encourage roots to grow deeper.  After the first few months, a tree should be able to go a week between waterings.  The next year, a month.  By the third season, it should be self-sufficient and only need watering during extreme droughts.

How to Water and How Often

– Water deeply when you water.  Why?  Roots go where the water is, so deep watering makes the roots go deep, too.  Thus, the plant becomes more and more drought-tolerant.

– Water infrequently, letting the soil close to the top dry out between waterings.  Allow as much time as possible between waterings.  Plants need AIR and it’s between waterings that they can breathe. Overwatering means watering too frequently, not too much at a time.  

– What’s the right frequency?  When the plants need it.

– Maximum self-sufficiency comes from deep roots.  Daily watering creates dependent plants.  Shallow watering = shallow roots.

– Use buckets, not teacups.  There’s no such thing as too much water at any one time.  

– Water slowly and deeply.

– For larger plants what’s recommended isn’t hand watering but a slow trickle of water for 20-30 minutes around the drip line of a plant.

Gene told us about the tall Lavender growing in his garden that’s been there 8 years now and never, ever needs watering.  The key to success with Mediterranean plants like Lavender is good drainage, which Gene accomplished by growing them over crushed rock.

Sometimes it’s the gardener who needs watering.

More Watering Tips

– Group plants with similar water needs together.

– Mulch conserves water.

– Best water meter?  Your Finger.  Though asked about soil moisture meters, Gene says they work fine, as long as they’re used correctly.  He suggests inserting them into the soil at different levels because the reading is for only the tip, not the length of the probe.

– LOOK at your plants regularly, at least weekly.  This is wonderful pay-off for all our efforts – the pleasure of strolling through the garden with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, noticing and admiring.

– Most plants will wilt to show us they need watering, but what about evergreens?  They don’t wilt, but they will lose their luster when they’ve dried out, and appear  a shade lighter.  (I’m so nervous about my evergreens, which are large and the most expensive plants in the garden, that I water them regularly, regardless of their appearance.) 

– “Drought-tolerant” plants AREN’T drought-tolerant until they’re established. 

–  For trees, Gene says that TreeGator bags are very effective.  They hold 20 gallons and take 6 hours to empty, so the tree is watered slowly and only where the water needs to be.  So unlike sprinklers, which typically waste half the water they’re spraying around, through evaporation.  Efficient watering puts it directly into the soil, not up in the air.

Photo credits:  Man watering face, little girl, and nozzle.

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