R.J. Ruppenthal
January 18, 2016

Watering the garden

Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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For more effective watering, put the watering can aside and use a drip irrigation system to hydrate your garden crops. To make the job even easier, hook the sytem up to an automatic timer. 

When the summer sun is sizzling, don’t feel like you have to make the decision of running up a high water bill or letting your plants fry. Use these five tips to maximize your watering potential and keep your crops hydrated.

1. Mulch, mulch, and mulch some more!

Cover your soil with a blanket of organic material such as straw, leaves, shredded paper or cardboard, coconut-fiber husks, or coco-bean mulch. This will moderate soil temperature, prevent runoff and evaporation, and hold moisture in the soil for longer periods between waterings.

2. Water deeply.

Less frequent, deeper waterings are more effective for most plants than frequent, shallow waterings. Plant roots will grow stronger and healthier, and you will not need to water as often.

To check whether it’s time to water, push your finger down into the soil. If it is still moist a knuckle or two deep, then it doesn’t need water yet. If it’s dry, then give the soil a nice long, deep soak so that the water reaches the root zone.

3. Use drip irrigation and an automatic timer.

Large amounts of water tend to run off the soil surface rather than being absorbed into the lower layers. For this reason, it’s best to water slowly, allowing the moisture to soak into the soil and permeate down to the root level of the plants.

Drip lines, which are available at nurseries and home centers, provide very slow and effective irrigation. If your plants suffer from various leaf diseases, drip watering may help to prevent these diseases by keeping the leaves dry.

An automatic timer can be used for watering your garden plants, as well. Whether you use a drip system or a sprinkler, both can be attached to timers, which you can set for automatic, daily or regular watering cycles.

4. Mix water-absorbing materials into your soil.

Organic material, such as coconut coir, peat moss, leaf mold or even plain old compost, will absorb a few times its own weight in water, thus retaining moisture that plants can use during dry spells. Organic material also improves the structure, aeration and overall health of the soil, resulting in better long-term success for your garden.

Alternatively, most nurseries sell water-absorbing polymer crystals under one or more brand names, such as Terra-Sorb, Hidrogel, Soil Moist, Aquasorb or Zeba. By mixing even a handful of these crystals into the soil, you can greatly increase its water-holding capability. Some of these, like Zeba and Soil Moist Natural, are made from plant starches rather than synthetics.

5. Try a self-watering container.

Self-watering containers have a water reservoir at the bottom of the container, which will keep your plants well watered for a few days. The size of the water reservoir varies along with the size of the planter, but it will provide the plant with anywhere from a few ounces to a few gallons of water on demand. This cuts down on the frequency of watering, allowing you to skip a day or two in between.

During cooler weather, the water in a reservoir may last more than a week, but in the heat of summer, you’ll want to check it more often. Most vegetables thrive in self-watering containers because they allow plants to grow their roots toward the water and drink as they need it.

You can make your own self-watering container or purchase at a local nursery or online. Gardeners Supply Company sells many different sizes, and Earthbox is another safe bet.

About the Author: R.J. Ruppenthal is author of the book Fresh Food From Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). He is a licensed attorney and college professor in Northern California.

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