When it comes to watering, Mother Nature generally does it best. But as I write this, we haven't had any rain in over a week and the soil is dry. Bone dry, and I am watering my vegetable garden most evenings.
In general, I don't like overhead watering systems. Yes, they do mimic a rain storm, but they waste a lot of water, and water the walkways and weeds as well as the plants. So long as the soil is not parched, I like to water plants using a watering wand.
My watering wand is a 30-inch long aluminum tube with a watering rose on the end and a shut-off valve that allows me to increase or decrease the flow of water. I like those made by Dramm, a company that specializes in watering devices and has figured out how to deliver lots of water while not disturbing young plants.
In the vegetable garden, I walk up the rows directing the water around my tomatoes or irrigating the lettuce. The wand allows me to spray water close to the ground level — it's not falling from waist high, the way a nozzle on the end of a hose would.
But in times like this, an extended period of hot and dry weather, I know I need to water each bed entirely, from side to side. Why is that? Imagine taking a sopping wet kitchen sponge and dropping it in a bucket of clean kitty litter. Then pour more litter over it. What happens? In five minutes the sponge would be dry. All the moisture would wick away. Your soil is a bit like that litter. It will absorb the moisture that you gave to the roots of your plants. So you need to soak the soil around your plants, not just at the rootball.
If you're going to plant anything now, water the soil deeply several hours before doing so. It is easier to drench an empty bed than one with tiny seeds that might wash away, or little seedlings that can be harmed by a deluge.
Another effective way to keep plants moist in times of drought is to mulch. Mulch will keep the sun and breezes off the soil so that moisture does not evaporate so quickly. In the vegetable garden I cover most everything with newspaper — four to six sheets thick. I generally put the papers in a wheelbarrow and soak them first so they are less likely to blow away as I spread them out. Then I cover the papers with a thick layer of mulch hay or straw.
Straw is supposed to be seed-free, while hay is not. Straw is the by-product of threshing a grain — oats or barley, perhaps. But it comes from far away on a truck and costs about $10 a bale. Mulch hay, on the other hand, I can buy from a local farmer for $3 a bale. The hay is grown as feed for dairy cattle, but if it gets ruined by rain and the cows won't eat it, it's sold as mulch hay. Since I use five to eight bales of mulch every year I rarely use straw.
One of the great things about the newspapers is that they keep most of the hay seeds out of the soil — or at least until late in the season when most plants are big and less threatened by weeds and grasses. I know that my earthworms love to eat the newspapers and maybe they eat the hay seeds, too.
I get e-mails from readers every time I suggest using newspapers in the garden. "What about the inks?" they write. In the old days inks were dangerous — they contained heavy metals. But now the inks are made from soy products. And yes, the paper making process might leave some stray chemicals in the paper itself, but I haven't seen anything scary about it. I have read that one should avoid glossy colored inserts to the paper, or magazines. Cardboard is fine.
How do you know when you've watered enough? Dig down in the soil. It should be dark and moist for six inches after watering. In general, plants do fine with an inch of water a week, either from the sky or from your hose. But if you are using an overhead watering device, you probably will not get an even distribution of water. Put out cat food cans all over the garden to catch the water to see if areas got less water.
If you see your plants starting to droop, you know they're thirsty. Today my bee balm, a perennial flower, is wilting. I didn't rush to water it as soon as I saw this, as I know the plant is resilient and the roots are well established. Tonight, if I have time, I might give that bed some water. But if I saw my tomatoes wilting, I'd water right away. They've only been in the ground for about three weeks, so the roots are not extensive yet.
Always try to keep water off the leaves of plants. On a hot sunny day, drops of water can act like a magnifying glass, burning spots on leaves. And some fungal diseases require moisture in order to penetrate leaves andWatering is not rocket science. Keep the soil from drying out, particularly if you have seeds in the ground waiting to germinate. But don't turn your soil into mud, either. Plants did fine before we invented hoses — but hoses sure are handy in times like this!