June, for most of us, was a very dry time. When weeds and established perennials started to droop, I knew it was time to water. And I did. But watering done well takes time and, done poorly, wastes a lot of water — or doesn’t do the job. I have no crystal ball to know what the rest of the summer will be like — July started well with plenty of rain — but it’s good to plan ahead
First, how much rain do we need each week to be able to avoid watering? About an inch. If you have sandy soil, water runs right through it, so you need more. Clay soil has tiny soil particles and holds onto moisture nicely. But if clay goes bone dry, it can turn into something like cement that will let water run off the surface and downhill instead of soaking in.
In either case, you can make watering easier and your plants more vigorous by adding compost to your soil. That is easiest to do before planting, of course, but you can top dress the soil with compost and let earthworms, roots and rain work it into the soil over time. Half an inch of compost on the lawn each spring and fall will help a lot. And mulching with compost — an inch or so — will help your flowers and veggies considerably.
In general, I don’t like overhead watering systems. Yes, they do mimic a rain storm, but they waste a lot of water, and water the walkways and weeds as well as the plants. So long as the soil is not parched, I like to water plants using a watering wand.
The watering wand I use is a 30-inch long aluminum tube with a watering rose on the end and a shut-off valve that allows me to increase or decrease the flow of water. I like those made by Dramm, a company that specializes in watering devices and has figured out how to deliver lots of water while not disturbing young plants.
In the vegetable garden, I walk up the rows directing the water around my tomatoes or irrigating the lettuce. The wand allows me to spray water close to the ground level — it’s not falling from waist high, the way a nozzle on the end of a hose would. I place hardwood grade stakes at the end of each row to guide the hose and keep it from damaging plants
But during an extended period of hot and dry weather, I know I need to water each bed entirely, from side to side, but not the walkways. If I just water right around the tomatoes, for example, the surrounding soil will wick away the moisture that you gave to your plants. So you need to soak the soil around your plants, not just at the stem.
When watering newly planted trees — or those planted last year — water in a circle around the tree or shrub that extends at least to the drip line. Later on, when a tree is mature, the roots can go far beyond that. If the soil is dry, you might be surprised how long you need to water around a tree in order to get water to get down 6 or 12 inches — which is where the roots are.
Another way to keep your plants happy in dry times is to mulch them well. This will keep the soil moisture from evaporating and will minimize those thirsty, greedy weeds.
In the vegetable garden I put down four to six layers of newspapers or a single layer of cardboard or large brown paper bags, and then cover that with straw. To make sure a light rain gets to my plants, I don’t mulch right up to the plants. Or I’ll mulch with chopped fall leaves or grass clippings right next to the plants. Leaves or grass let rain pass through more easily than paper and straw, but keep down weeds.
Why use straw instead of hay? Straw generally costs more than straw — $10 a bale or more versus $5 or less. Mulch hay has seeds, that’s why. Straw is not supposed to have seeds, though occasionally it does. I was told that even if you see seeds in straw, they are immature and won’t germinate.
I don’t like to use black plastic in the garden. It does keep down weeds and holds in moisture, but it ends up in the landfill a year later. And it may interfere with the beneficial microorganisms in the soil — it gets pretty hot under the plastic. It can also create pools of water, a good breeding place for mosquitoes. So I avoid it.
In flower beds I prefer to grow plants so close together that few weeds grow there. But in new beds I use finely ground bark mulch. Never the colored kind, orange or black, as they have chemicals I don’t want.
For big areas of new plants or lawn, a sprinkler of some kind is good. I like a Melnor brand flip-flop sprinkler, model XT360 M. It is easy to use, and comes with a lifetime warranty. For small areas, I like a fixed sprinkler like my brass frog that waters calmly in a 20-foot circle.
Plants will usually recover from getting dehydrated, but it takes a week or more, so you lose valuable growing time. I want my tomatoes sooner, not later. So I make sure they don’t dry out too badly in dry times.
If you pay attention to your plant, if you really look at them, you will see when they start to wilt. That’s the time to water. So get a good watering device, and be ready!
Henry Homeyer’s blog appears twice a week at gardening-guy.com. Write to him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you wish a mailed response. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.