Watering your garden

Barbara Mrgich
Adams County Master Gardener

Believe it or not, there is a lot to know about watering your garden! You say you just turn on the sprinklers, or stand with the hose in the evening and sprinkle your gardens? Sorry. Wrong on both counts!

Overhead sprinkling is one of the worst and most wasteful ways to water a garden. Much of the water is lost through evaporation before it ever gets to the soil, and you are wetting the leaves, which only encourages mildew and disease. Watering in the evening is especially bad because the leaves stay wet longer than they would in the morning. The longer they stay wet, the more problems you are inviting.

In our area, if you are careful about what you plant, you can get away with rarely ever watering an ornamental garden. I recently submitted an article to this paper called "No Water Gardening" in which I mentioned our three trial garden beds at the Gettysburg Ag Center which we absolutely never water. The many plants we have there are healthy and thriving. You are welcome to visit our trial gardens anytime.

If you enjoy our articles, you may also be interested to know that you can search www.emmitsburg.net/gardeners and you will find most of our articles which are organized either by author or topic. There is a wealth of good information in those articles including mine that lists a number of nice garden plants you never need to water.

Whether a plant is healthy or not usually comes down to the quality of your soil and the size of that soil's pores which are vital for holding both air and water. Clay soil does not allow water to drain properly. Its pores are too small to hold air, and too close together to allow water to pass through often resulting in root rot. Sandy soil has pores that are too big and allows the water to run through too quickly, not allowing the roots to absorb their fill. Both conditions make it difficult or impossible for most plants to thrive. Like Goldilocks, we need to find the soil that is just right! The solution is the addition of organic matter. It will help the sandy soil to hold water longer, and it will improve the drainage abilities of the clay while keeping it friable (workable, not rock hard).

Where do you get this "organic material"? You get them through such things as adding compost, leaf mold (rotted leaves), old manure, or mushroom soil to your beds. I bought a lot of mushroom soil to help create my first gardens. Now I add compost regularly, and also a mixture of mulched leaves and grass in the fall.

You need some type of mulch to conserve water and help with weed control. Anything that shades the ground, including ground covers will help. Just be sure the mulch is not too deep as to actually block the water from reaching the soil. Two or three inches of mulch is enough.

Knowing the importance of the correct size of your soil's pores makes it easy to understand why you shouldn't walk on or work in soil that is wet. You will be squashing those pores making it very difficult for them to hold the air and water your plants need.

Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb' is a nice, long blooming native to eastern U.S. that will grow nicely all season without having to be watered

Whatever system you choose for applying water to your plants, remember that the water should be added at the root level, never on the leaves. A vegetable garden is going to require more consistent watering than a perennial garden simply because your vegetables, percentage-wise, are mostly water. However, all the good gardening principles concerning soil remain the same.

A soaker hose which allows the water to ooze through it, works well. You can snake it through your garden, then cover it with mulch. For myself, I bought one of those hose-end watering wands designed to reach high, hanging plants. I use it to apply the water at ground level without having to bend down. (I guess it helps that I am short!). Hand watering gives me the chance to personally interact with my plants, checking for insect damage, disease, and weeds.

Shallow watering encourages shallow roots that won't hold up to any kind of stress. Many people simply sprinkle the surface, and feel they have done the plant a favor. It's important, whether the water has come from rain or from your hose, to check how deep it has penetrated into the soil. Most of your garden plant roots, or at least their feeder roots, are in the top six inches of your soil, so when you finish watering, dig down to see if the dampness extends six inches or more. You may be very surprised to find how dry it actually still is.

In our area, an average guideline is an inch of water a week for an ornamental garden. It's easy to check and record rainfall with the help of an inexpensive rain gauge. Remember, a vegetable garden needs considerably more water than an ornamental garden, and anything newly planted needs consistent attention for the first year.

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