Sometimes in the dog days of summer the garden needs a little bit of help in the water department. This is especially true in years like this one when some of our garden went in late due to torrential spring rains. Certain crops in particular, like corn, benefit from having ample water and are not as drought-tolerant as others. That’s one reason you see those big irrigation rigs on commercial farms over corn fields but not so much over soybeans.
In our small garden, we don’t need huge industrial automatic watering systems, but we do need to water our garden sometimes when rain is scarce and temps are hot.
What Time of Day to Water the Garden
When it comes to the time of day for watering gardens there are a lot of old wives tales, myths, and misconceptions. The truth is that plants can be watered any time of the day or night. Being watered at high noon will not kill the plant, but not being watered when its thirsty very well might. There are pros and cons to watering at different stages of the day, however, so lets go over them briefly:
Early Morning: Watering early in the morning is ideal if you can manage it, but not for the reasons we typically think. In the morning there will be less evaporation of the water, meaning the plant will not lose as much moisture and be able to absorb more, but the gradual heating of the day will begin to evaporate water off the leaves which will help prevent fungus.
Mid-Day: Getting water on a plant’s leaves under the high sun will not scorch the leaves. However, this is when evaporation is at its worst, which means that the air is going to take away more moisture from the plant before it all has a chance to soak into the soil and be used by the plant. That doesn’t mean watering at noon is useless or that the plants won’t get any water — they will — it just means that a little bit more will be lost to the atmosphere.
Late Evening: Evaporation is lower in the evening as well, but this can be a bad thing for fungus-prone plants. Excess moisture can encourage fungal growth in some cases, and watering in the evening poses the risk of the plant sitting in wet britches so-to-speak overnight until the sun finally rises and starts to wick the moisture away by heating the air. If watering in the evening, try to do so at least a couple of hours before dark if possible.
Methods of Watering
Of course there is the good old fashioned way of carting water in a bucket or watering can to and fro the plants, but once the garden reaches a certain size that gets a little…tedious, to say the least. Okay, it’s a pain in the butt. There, I said it. So lets look at less labor-intensive (and arguably more effective) ways of getting the liquid gold to your thirsty plants.
Sprinkler: Sprinklers aren’t just for running through like you did as a kid. The big bonus to using a garden sprinkler is that it covers a large area at once time and has to be moved around less. Just be sure you’re using a true garden sprinkler like this one that’s designed to broadcast the spray over a large area of coverage. A standard kid’s sprinkler will not do much for your garden.
The downside is that more water evaporates from a sprinkler and more water lands where you don’t need it — like on plant leaves and on ground away from your garden plants.
Standard Hose: This method simply entails taking a hose down to the garden and watering it. This can be done by using a spray attachment to go plant to plant and give them a soaking. This method gives the more control, but it’s also the most time consuming and labor intensive. There’s also a risk of the hose damaging plants if you’re not very careful as you drag it through your garden.
The second way to use the standard hose is to take off the spray attachment and simply lay the open hose at the end of the row. We use this method a lot to water our corn. The hose simply puts out water at one end of the row and when the water finally reaches the other end, you move the hose. This method applies a lot of water to the rows, but there is a bigger risk of wasting water by leaving it running too long or forgetting to move it to the next row at the right time.
Drip Hose: A drip irrigation hose is another take on using ye olde garden hose to water. These hoses have small holes all along their length that let water slowly seep out onto the soil. You simply lay the house out on the ground along the plants and let it go to work. This is very effective because it puts all the water right at the base of the plants and releases it with more control than an open hose. The cons are moving the long hose around and doing so without knocking down plants with it. It takes a longer time to water as well.
Water Jugs: The water jug method is a good option for smaller gardens. This is basically a DIY drip system that uses repurposed 2 liter bottles to slowly water plants over a period of time. It’s simple to make and waters each plant individually right at the base of the plant. Simply modify the bottles with holes in the lid, fill with water, and partially bury the end securely in the soil next to the plant to let it slowly drip out. Alternatively, you can even buy plastic spikes designed to screw onto the bottle and secure it in the ground!
Whatever method you use, be sure to water deeply — don’t just get the surface layer damp. The water needs to go down into the soil to reach the roots and to prevent evaporation. A good soaking 1-3 times weekly (depending on your soil and the weather) is much better than a shallow sprinkle every day.
Help the Soil Retain Moisture
The best way to conserve water, save money on the water bill, and help the plants is to optimize the soil’s ability to retain the water. Although most plants prefer a well drained soil and will conk out on you if they have wet feet (so don’t try to garden in a swampy spot), the soil still needs to retain some water. The less water the soil retains the more often the garden will need to be watered. Soil that doesn’t retain moisture costs more time, energy, and money.
Keep the weeds down as much as you can. Those nasty little vultures will compete with your garden plants for nutrients, and that includes water. No garden will ever be completely weed free (unless you devote all day every day to weeding and/or use herbicides), but every weed in the garden is leeching out water that your plants need. Be mindful of the effects of allowing a garden to be too weedy. Not that our garden is ever weedy . . . cough hack cough.
Help the soil retain moisture by taking good care of it. Mulch is an excellent way to help minimize weeds, protect against erosion, add organic material back to the soil, and retain more water. The mulch helps block evaporation from occurring so that the plants can utilize more water before it disappears into thin air (literally).
Adding well seasoned compost to the garden will help it retain water by improving the soil quality and texture. Compost is also great for replenishing nutrients back into the soil as well. Healthy soil, healthy garden. It takes time to improve seriously poor soil (like that found in our garden — bleh) but every little bit helps.
Plants in raised bed or container gardens will usually need to be watered more frequently than those straight in the ground.
Creative Ways to Save $$ on Water
Have you ever turned on the hose for something and then forgotten to turn it back off for minutes or even hours? I certainly have, more often than I’d like to admit. The faucet is so far away from where I actually use the hose to water plants and livestock that sometimes by the time I get back to the house I have completely forgotten the water is even running. Hashtag scatterbrained. This is where the nifty little doohickey called a watering timer is a lifesaver. It’s a simple and inexpensive device that mechanically shuts off the water for you after a certain period of time. You simply set the dial to the amount of time you want the water to run and when the time is up the water is shut off. No more flooded gardens, no more unnecessarily high water bills, no more going out at midnight when you hear the water running outside. You can get one here or pick one up at your local hardware store.
Another way to cut costs is to skip the tap water all together. This is something I would like to implement for our garden in the future, and there are a couple of ways to avoid turning on the tap to water the garden.
If you have a natural water source on your land, like a pond or a stream, that can be utilized to water the garden by installing irrigation. If you have a pond at a higher elevation than your garden you may even be able to use a gravity-fed system instead of an electric pump. Responsibly pumping water from your pond to your garden will cut costs and provide a renewable source of water for your garden. Not only that, but the pond water will also contain added nutrients that will then be passed on to your garden soil. Win-win!
No pond? No problem. Rainwater is another natural, renewable source of water that can be used in the garden. Setting up a rain catchment system allows you to collect the rainwater that is falling on the roofs of your home and other structures and capture it for use in the garden. Using anything from simple rain barrels to 275 gallon water totes, installing a DIY rain catchment system can reduce your use of tap water for the garden. (This is the system I would like to install, as we do not have a pond.)
Now, if your plants are thirsty — go water them!