Watering Wisely in the Garden

June 21, 2021
watering the garden

To perform its very best, your garden needs to be watered properly, especially in the heat of summer. Get the hang of watering plants with these tips!

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?

Watering Plants Properly

First, let’s focus on the watering itself. What’s the smartest way to water our plants?

  • Water deeply not superficially!  This encourages roots to grow down in search of water and nutrients. If you water too frequently, the plants will not develop the root system needed; they will become stressed if they don’t get their frequent drink of water and it can take weeks to recover. 

    To “water deeply” means to water with a hose or watering can at least 6 to 8 inches below the soil surface level! Watering deeply is far superior to watering often in a shallow manner. In normal weather, water deeply about every 10 days—and 2 to 3 times that in high heat. Container plants may need to be watered every single day when it’s super hot.

    In the beginning, you will need to test the soil. Wait half an hour. Dig 8 inches down into the soil with a trowel to see if it’s wet. It may take a few tests but once you get to know your soil, watering the right amount will become second nature.

  • Or, get a drip irrigation system which does give your plants water daily but it’s slow and constant so this is fine.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • Avoid mid-day watering to discourage evaporation. If you use a sprinkler, water in the morning so that the foliage will dry early and quickly to minimize disease risk.

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

  • Sprinklers are fun but waste a lot of water. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation use much less water and deliver it close to the plants’ roots where it is needed. The hoses are made of a porous material that allows water to slowly seep through it. Drip irrigation uses flexible tubing with tiny outlets called emitters that slowly drip water into the soil. After laying out the tubing or hoses in your garden, cover both systems with 2 inches of an organic mulch or use landscape fabric or plastic mulch. 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.
  • Once you have figured out the right watering schedule for your garden, automate using timers. Make every drop count but be aware, overwatering is just as damaging to plants as drought. See our chart on when to water vegetables.

Photo: If you don’t have an irrigation system, it’s better to water crops at the soil level with a hose than use sprinklers

Keep the Soil Moist

  • Healthy soil with added organic matter 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.
  • Mulch is the gardener’s friend in many ways but in a dry season it slows evaporation. 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.

Photo: We’re not sure Fido is helping out much here, but he’s awfully determined!

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.