Watering Wisely in Drought or Hot Weather

Hot Summer Trips for Watering the Garden

August 9, 2021
watering the garden

Water your garden wisely, especially in the heat of summer or in areas with drought. See 12 ways to avoid wasting water in the yard and garden—and help your plants survive and even thrive!

An inch of water a week, is that too much to ask for? It doesn’t seem like much but that is the optimum amount for growing most vegetables and ornamentals. If you spread that inch of water out over a 10x10 foot space it equals 62 gallons! What’s a gardener to do, especially when some areas have restricted or even banned outdoor water use?

Drought across the West has gardeners rethinking their use of water so it’s not wasted. Let’ consider how to water as efficiently and effectively as possible, while ensuring our garden plants thrive!

12 Tips on Watering Wisely

What’s the smartest way to water our plants?

  • Water deeply, less often.  Water must go way down to the roots! Soak your garden thoroughly when the soil is dry; this encourages a strong, deep root system that grows down in search of water and nutrients. Sprinkling or lightly watering daily will result in a shallow root system; they will become stressed if they don’t get their frequent drink of water and won’t be resilient with changing weather.
    • To “water deeply” means to water with a hose or watering can at least 6 to 8 inches below the soil surface level! In normal weather, water deeply about every 10 days. However, you’ll need to water 3 times a week in high heat! Container plants will need to be watered every single day when it’s super hot; water gently until it flows from the container.
    • Only water the plants that really need it. Not all plants are the same so check different areas of the garden for soil moisture at root level if you’re unsure by digging a small hole with a trowel, or simply by poking your finger in. If it’s cool and damp, just move on.
    • We also recommend a cheap water meter; they come on a spike that you quickly put into the ground in different areas and will tell you when to water! 
       
  • Avoid mid-day watering to discourage evaporation. It’s best to water in the morning. (In drought areas, avoid watering between 10 A.M. and 8 P.M.) If you use a sprinkler, water in the morning so that the foliage will dry early and quickly to minimize disease risk. 
     
  • Trap water. Plant into natural depressions where water pools. Or build up soil around plants to capture water. Another idea is to build up small berms to create miniature reservoirs that hold the water in place so it has a chance to soak into the soil and avoids run-off.

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Or, sink a plastic pot into the ground up to the rim next to especially thirsty plants (example: squash). Water into the pot which will then feed the water directly to the root zone.

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  • Look for “indicator” plants. Droopy plant leaves are an easy cue that it’s time to water. (The first crops to wilt are usually squash or cucumber.)
     
  • Water at the plants’ roots, not from above! Avoid wetting plant leaves! Aim water at the base of your plants. Keeping foliage dry has the added benefit of reducing disease problems. 

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Photo: Aim water at the base of the plants, not leaf level, to avoid wasting water as lower foliage disease risk.

  • Weed! Unwanted plants in your vegetable bed is simply competition for soil moisture, so keep on top of them. Annual weeds can just be hoed off and left on the soil surface, but take the time to dig out the roots of more pernicious perennials such as bindweed or ground elder.
  • Protect plants from water loss by using shade clothes in hot weather and protecting plants from wind with windbreaks. Use taller crops such as corn to also cast shade and protect smaller plants. Sprawling vines also protect the soil.

  • To automate watering, look into drip irrigation or leaky hoses over sprinklers which waste a lot of water. These types of irrigation deliver water closer to the plants’ roots where it is needed. An inch of water slowly dripped onto the soil over a six hour period will soak in and not run off. Dig into the soil an hour after watering to see how deep the moisture went. Adjust the flow and timing accordingly.
    • If you already have an irrigation system, be sure to check the emitters each year as the may watering plants or shrubs that no longer exist; cap them off or move them to avoid waste. 
    • If you are using a sprinkler, use a rain gauge or tuna can in different parts of your garden and measure the water. This helps you test the spread of water over your lawn and see if the sprinkler is watering evenly, so you can make adjustments. Once you get a sense of the watering schedule, consider using timers. Also look for sprinkler heads that use larger droplets (vs a finer spray), as you will be less likely to lose water due to evaporation.
    • If you are watering with a hose, avoid wasting water by using a long watering wand with a push button or easy shutoff lever. This way you can carefully water each plant at ground level. 

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  • Over-watering plants can be just as damaging to plants as drought. See our chart on when to water vegetables.
     
  • Incorporate lots of organic matter. This is critical for a good garden and even more important during a dry season. Build up your soil by adding lots of compost. Good soil absorbs water like a sponge and improves water-holding capacity.
     
  • Mulch around the base of your plants to conserve water. Place straw, bark, pine needles or leaf mulch around your plants to help slow the evaporation of water from the soil.
    • It takes 1 inch of water 8 times longer to evaporate from mulched soil than from bare soil.
    • Mulch prevents compaction and acts as a cushion during heavy rainfall helping water to soak in rather than run off. Runoff not only wastes water but can pollute nearby streams. Bare soil can lose up to 3/4 of the rain that falls on it to runoff and evaporation.
    • Mulch moderates soil temperatures and also squelches those weeds that compete with your plants for precious moisture.
       
  • Collect rainwater off your roof, greenhouse, shed, and gutters into water barrels close to where you’ll most need the water. Learn more about rain barrels.

Have a lawn? Be sure to keep the grass longer. Why? It dries out faster when short; long blades will shade and cool the lawn. It’s also best to mow at a higher height to control weeds which steal water from other plants.  

Here are more tips on a water-wise garden.

Related Features:
Click to watch how to water plants for healthy growth.
Click to watch how to plan irrigation for your garden.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

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