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You know your plants need water – all living things do – but how do you know when to water and how much to give them?
Although these seem like straightforward questions, watering a garden involves some nuances you might not expect. In fact, watering issues top the various lists of common mistakes all gardeners make.
To help you keep your plants healthy, we’ve put together a list of the top garden watering mistakes and how to avoid them.
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When it comes to water, many beginning gardeners think the more, the better. However, too much water can arrest root growth, damage root systems, and expose plants to disease.
Some people think the solution is to follow a strict watering schedule, but this can backfire. Rainfall and changes in sun and temperature can affect how much moisture your plants need.
The best way to avoid overwatering is by checking the moisture in the soil with a simple finger test. All you do is stick your index finger two to three inches into the ground. If it feels moist, you can hold off on watering; if it’s dry, you need to water. If you’re still not sure, you can use a soil moisture meter.
Another option is to squeeze a handful of soil in your hand. If the soil sticks together, it is moist. It needs more water if the soil crumbles or remains in a loose pile in your hand.
Not giving your plants enough water is also a common mistake gardeners make – especially when growing seedlings, container plants, and raised beds.
Newly planted seeds and young seedlings need a steady supply of water to become well-established. And plants in containers and raised beds do not have the same extensive root systems as in-ground plants. So they need more frequent watering.
Just take care that the soil remains moist, not wet and soggy.
3. Watering Frequently, Not Deeply
Sometimes giving your established in-ground garden frequent shallow watering can lead to growth problems. Especially in the summer heat, frequent watering may perk up droopy leaves and stems temporarily. But the plant will dry out again just as quickly.
On the other hand, if you water less frequently but more deeply, you give the roots a chance to extend down into the soil. This practice of watering deeply – maybe only a couple of times a week – helps promote healthier, more productive growth.
4. Not Keeping Track of Rainwater
Depending on the soil in your garden, most in-ground vegetable plants require an inch of water each week. When you keep track of rainfall, you’ll know whether you’ll need to supplement with watering or not.
You can use a rain gauge or place small cans (a tuna or cat food can works well) in the garden to measure rainfall.
Speaking of rainwater, it’s a precious commodity. Try collecting as much of it as you can use on your plants on dry days. Not only is it cost-effective and environmentally friendly, but rainwater provides the minerals many plants need to thrive.
5. Watering At The Wrong Time Of Day
Are you guilty of watering your plants when the sun is at its hottest? Although your plants may appear parched, this timing provides only a short-lived boost in moisture levels.
That’s because the afternoon heat and evaporation will prevent your plants from fully absorbing the moisture. Watering at night can attract slugs and other pests and lead to mildew and black spots.
Instead, aim to water your garden in the early morning when cooler temperatures allow plants to thoroughly soak up the moisture to prepare for the heat later in the day.
6. Watering the Leaves and Tops of Plants Instead of Their Roots
It may be convenient to spray the tops of your plants with a hose nozzle, but this practice can damage your plants. One reason is that droplets that remain on the leaves can cause scorching in the sun. And another is that the leaves may prevent the bulk of the water from reaching the root system.
Plants take in most of their moisture through their roots. So, a more efficient way to water is by aiming directly at the base of the plant so that the moisture reaches the roots.
Using a soaker hose or a drip irrigation system can help you save time and water and help you better direct the water where it needs to go.
7. Not Knowing Your Soil
Not all types of soil compositions absorb water in the same way. For instance, sandy soil tends to drain more quickly than clay soil, which retains moisture longer. Loamy, crumbly soil holds water better than dense and loose soil.
You can familiarize yourself with the soil type in your garden by getting a soil test. The test will evaluate the texture – sand, silt, or clay – and determine its pH level. You’ll also learn about the soil’s magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and potassium levels and any corrections you need to make for optimal growth.
Here’s a link to a list of state cooperative extension services that offer soil testing. You also can purchase DIY soil test kits at garden centers.
8. Not Learning The Needs of Different Plants
Not all plants have the same requirements in terms of light, humidity, temperature, and moisture. And vegetables often need different water levels depending on their growth stages and their specific variety.
For example, legumes (peas and beans), sweet potatoes, and corn require more water when they are flowering. Tomato, pepper, and squash plants need extra water when their fruit is developing. Leafy greens and root vegetables require regular watering throughout their growth.
Consider grouping the thirstiest plants in the same area to make watering them easier.
9. Not Using Mulch
Adding mulch to your garden does more than add to its appearance and help prevent weeds. Mulch helps your garden retain moisture.
Mulching helps keep soil moisture levels more consistent, reducing evaporation and breaking water down gradually after it rains or after you add water. Mulch serves as an insulating layer on top of the soil, helping to keep root systems cooler in the summer heat.
You can purchase mulch at your garden center, or you use compost, straw, leaves, pine needles, or even shredded paper as other forms of mulch.
10. Planting Too Far From a Water Source
If you are guilty of underwatering or watering inconsistently, there’s a chance it’s because of your garden’s location.
It can be difficult to lug heavy watering cans or have enough hose length to water out-of-the-way beds. Be sure to consider the proximity to a water source when planning a new bed.
Rescuing Over-watered or Under-watered Plants
Unfortunately. the symptoms of overwatering and underwatering can look the same. Leaves turn brown or yellow and wilt.
However, you might notice a textural difference between the two. Leaves on an underwatered plant tend to feel dry and crispy. On the other hand, an overwatered plant may have soft, limp leaves.
Here are some steps to save your plants:
- Inspect the soil. If the soil is dark and moist, you do not need to add water. However, if the soil is light in color and dry to the touch, you may be underwatering.
- If the soil is soggy, look for ways to add better drainage. If possible, create additional space around the roots to allow for better airflow. Consider adding mulch.
- If the soil is dry, water the base of the plant, not the leaves.
- Consider the time of day when you are watering. Remember, early morning is the optimal time.
- Do not allow container plants to sit in standing water. Check for proper drainage.
- Remove any dead or dying leaves. These should be easily recognizable.
If your plant is going to recover, you should see results within a week.
An Art and a Science
As with all aspects of gardening, proper watering is a bit of an art and a science. If you’d like to learn more about watering techniques for your garden, here are some resources.
- How to Water Your Garden (video by The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service)
- Essential Watering Tips for Your Garden (video by Canadian Permaculture Legacy)
- Gardening with Less Water by David A. Bainbridge
- Self-Watering Garden by Richard Dowson
- Harvesting Rainwater for Your Homestead in 9 Days or Less by Renee Dang
- Think Like An Ecosystem by Amélie des Plantes
- Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert and Dry Times by Maureen Gilmer
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