Watering: Not too Much, Not too Little

Reader Contribution by Celeste Longacre
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Most new gardeners have questions about how often and how much to water their plants. Vegetables and flowers need about an inch of water a week to survive. And, they must have it right when they need it as well. If you let the roots dry out, the plants will die.

In the very beginning, when seeds are germinating, it’s important to keep the top ¼-inch of soil moist at all times. That’s because this is the entire universe for those little seeds. They are just starting to sprout and they will die off quickly if moisture is not available. On hot, dry, sunny, windy days it is not uncommon to have to water your beds three or four times a day, especially if you have raised beds. When you touch the soil and it feels dry, it’s time to water.

Once the seeds have sprouted and emerged above the ground, the schedule changes. You want to encourage your plants to develop nice, deep roots so you can let the very top dry out a bit between soakings. The way to check to see if your plants need moisture is to insert a gardening fork down into the bed. If it comes up completely dry, you need to water.

Here’s where you can also see if your soil passes the permeability test. When you have sufficient organic matter, the water easily soaks down into the bed. If it puddles on top, you need to add more aged compost or manure.

Watering is best done early in the day. This gives the leaves a chance to dry out before the evening chill arrives. Plants that stay damp overnight are more likely to catch diseases and blights. Midday watering loses more of its moisture to evaporation. However, if you notice that your plants are very thirsty in the hot daylight Sun, water immediately.

Once the plants start to grow, try to water them at the ground level. A hose can be used but it will need a watering wand or spigot at the end in order to give the flow a gentle touch. Water straight out of a hose can erode some of the soil and splash dirt up onto the leaves. Be careful moving the hose around, too. It can become a “killer hose” jumping into beds and knocking down plants. Watch where and how it is following you to avoid such problems.

A watering can may be used instead. This also gives you the opportunity to add fish emulsion or compost tea to the mix. Compost tea can be made by filling a five gallon bucket 1/3 with compost and adding water. If you don’t fill it to the top, you can let the rain fall into it. Stir frequently and let it sit for about a month. Strain and add about a cup to a two gallon watering can. Plants love it, but only once in a while. Once a month is generally sufficient.

Soaker hoses can also be utilized. These are hoses with holes along their length that can be put down on the soil of the bed. It’s always a good idea to soak the soil when watering. This gives the plants a good drink and allows you to do other things the next few days.

Celeste Longacreand her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more information, visit Celeste’s website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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