How To Wet Your Plants

Irrigation is crucially important during the hot summer months. How you water your plants could make or break you during this difficult time. Is it too late to be thinking about this? Nah. We’ll get you sorted out.


It’s hot y’all. I live in Texas, so right now feels like Satan’s butthole out there. Anytime I have to go outside, I either have to scurry from one shady spot to the next until I (finally) reach an air conditioned building OR I have to wait until dusk to emerge from my home, only to be viciously attacked by giant swarms of mosquitoes.
If I’m struggling to stay cool and hydrated, I know my plants are too. Understanding when to water and how is one of the most important parts of maintaining a garden.

Watering Schedule

What time of day you water can have a big impact on the garden. Common practice is to water early in the morning, before the heat of the day. The reason for this is that once it starts getting really hot out, the water is likely to evaporate and get wasted. Another reason is that if you get water on your plants’ leaves when it is already hot, it will burn them. 

While watering in the cool of the evening sounds like a good solution, it can cause more problems than it fixes. Moisture related issues such as fungal growth and rot can occur. That doesn’t mean you can’t water in the evening, just that you should do so cautiously. Try to make sure that you are getting the soil (not the leaves) wet.

 Your watering schedule is going to vary depending on what plants you have, what kind of soil you have, and what the climate is like where you are. When you were in the planning stage of garden development, you should have gotten a vague idea of how often you would need to water. But, to keep everything running smoothly, it is best to check every day.

When you go out into your garden, check the soil. The top couple of inches can be misleading, though. Take a hand spade and dig several inches to really see how dry it is deep down there. If it is dry all of the way, it is time to give your garden a good drenching! Also, frequently examine your plants for signs of water stress during heat waves.

Water Stress

Heat and water stress are as bad for your plant babies as they are for humans. Let’s talk about the signs that your plants are stressed out. The most obvious sign is also the trickiest. Leaf sagging. When you go out and see that all of your leaves are droopy and sad looking, it can be easy to overreact. 

Don’t panic. Floppy and wilted looking leaves are a sign that your plant is thirsty, but not necessarily. Plants will also lose rigidity in their leaves if they are getting excessive amounts of light, so they droop their leaves to decrease the surface area that is exposed to that sunlight. To see if your limp leaves are due to lack of water, check again in the evening. If they haven’t perked back up, then it is a sign your plants are feeling poorly.

Another sign that your plants are dangerously dehydrated is when their leaves turn yellow, look scorched, or fall off. It is not good for your plants to be pulling their hair out. When that happens, there is some kind of deficiency going on. Whether that be nitrogen or water, the plant is not doing ok. 

On the other end of that spectrum is overwatering. If the plant’s leaves droop and don’t recover in the evening, but they feel soft instead of dry and crispy, then they are getting way too much water. Just like with dehydration, the leaves will turn yellow and fall off. Not good. Too much of a good thing and all of that. 

Both types of water stress are terrible for your plants and need to be remedied immediately. Stunted growth, lack of production, and ultimately death can result if the problem is not handled in a timely fashion.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska: https://www.pexels.com/photo/watering-process-of-thin-green-sprout-4207907/

Irrigation Techniques

Now that we know when to water and why it is important to keep up with, we’re going to talk about how to do it. There are a few different ways people tackle this task. First decide what water you want to use. Tap or collected rain?

City Water

Tap water is a simple solution when your garden is screaming for hydration. No muss, no fuss, no set up required. Just hook up a water hose and go. There are a few downsides to using water from the spigot, however. 

First, there is the issue of water conservation. Whenever there are water restrictions in your area, officials might take issue with you watering a big garden space. Last year, the water restrictions where I live were intense. You don’t want to get into a fight with the city. That’s never fun, trust me. 

The other issue is that city water tends to have a certain amount of salt and chlorine in it. In my experience it isn’t enough to damage the plants, but they don’t thrive as much as when I use rainwater. The salt has a tendency to clog drip systems as well.

Recycled Rainwater

Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

If you are looking for a way to provide water for your garden that is less likely to get you into trouble for water restriction violations, that would be collecting rainwater. I have a big barrel under my gutter downspouts with a bedsheet secured to the top with bungee cords. That way mosquitoes can’t get in there. There are lots of really cool set ups available online.

However you set it up, collected rainwater can save you a lot on your water bill. Also, rainwater can be more acidic, which some plants prefer. Another neat thing is that it can provide nitrogen and other micronutrients.

The downsides to recycling rainwater are important to consider. Know the laws in your area. It might be illegal to collect rainwater where you are. Another potential problem is the possibility of passing pathogens into food plants from the water. It has never happened to me, but a lot of sources suggest you use caution.

Overhead Dispersal

Photo by Laney Smith on Unsplash

A watering can is a tool that is simple to understand, if impractical for larger garden spaces. It is pretty easy to keep track of how much water you are using and control where the water is going because you ARE the watering system. Watering cans are also really helpful when feeding plants. I like to use fish emulsion, but it is too thick and gooey to go through any of the water hose attachments that I have found to spray fertilizer. So, the watering can is the best I have found for that.

Using a water hose and a spray nozzle to manually water is another option. With both a watering can and hand watering with a garden hose, it is important to remember that plants need a LOT of water. You have to be out there spraying for at least an hour. Shallow watering can be as bad for the plants as not watering at all. When you provide small amounts of water each day, you are encouraging shallow root growth and that is not good for your plants.

Sprinklers are a handy option because they can be left out there for however long you need to soak the soil deeply. You just leave it out there for an hour or so and then go out and move it to the next area. Easy peasy. And cheap. 

The downside to this method is that sometimes it can be hard to get the coverage everywhere you want it to go. Learning how to control the spray takes some practice. If cost is not an issue and you want to make it even less labor intensive, have an automatic sprinkler system installed. They are usually set up with timers and can be a lifesaver. 

The problem with coverage is still there, but strategic planting can help with that. Just plant more drought tolerant plants along the outer boundary of where the sprinklers reach. Plants with higher water needs go closer to the sprinkler heads.

The problem with overhead dispersal methods is that they tend to waste a great deal of water. Anytime you are spraying water into the air, a lot of evaporation is happening. Another issue is getting water on the leaves when it is hot or about to get hot. When using these irrigation methods, it is important to water early enough that there is time for the water to dry on the plants before the day heats up. Otherwise, your foliage is going to burn and suffer.

Ground Level Irrigation

So, if you are concerned about water waste and want to keep from damaging your plants, ground level irrigation is an alternative. This method is far better for encouraging deep root growth. Instead of spraying a bunch of water on top of the soil and it running off, it slowly drips and is deeply absorbed into the soil.

The simplest is soaker hoses. These are specially made water hoses that slowly leak water all along the sides. They can be moved around the garden wherever they are needed. Easy to set up and move around, easy to connect to a rain barrel, they are a great option. 

The other ground level technique is drip irrigation. This is where a tube or hose is run throughout the garden with little drip emitters installed at the base of every plant. This is a good option if you want to make sure every drop of water is going directly to a plant. It eliminates the wind and evaporation as a waste factor and doesn’t encourage moisture born illness or foliar damage. However, the cost of set up can be a downside. Also, the emitters can get clogged with salt from the city water or sediment from the rainwater.

My sunflowers are so happy this year.

Underground Irrigation

Less common, but gaining popularity is the system of creating little underground reservoirs in garden beds. It is pretty simple and has worked really well for me. The traditional way to go about this is by using specially made clay pots or gluing together two clay plant pots with a tile glued over the bottom drain hole. This is called an “olla” (pronounced oh-yuh). You’re going to want to make sure you have a watertight vessel with an open hole in the top.

The way it works is, you take the olla and you bury it in the garden bed with the top of it level with the ground. When you water your garden, you fill the ollas through the top hole. Throughout the day, the natural pores in the clay will slowly leach water into the soil. The plants within a couple of feet around it receive a small, consistent amount of water all day. This is a great solution to the shallow root problem. It is also a lifesaver if you sheet mulch like I do.

Another way to do this that utilizes free materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill is to use plastic jugs. Milk jugs, plastic juice containers, anything like that will work. Take the bottle and a thumb tack. Use the thumb tack to poke about 8 tiny holes on each side of the container. Bury the jug up to the spout. Fill it like you would a traditional olla and put the lid back on it. The science behind how this material works is different from how the clay pots work, but the result is pretty much the same. It is cost effective, helps save water, and reuses trash. The drawback to the underground system is that it takes up a great deal of space in the garden bed. 

Conclusion

There are so many ways to hydrate your plants. Some are more labor intensive than others and finding what works best for your garden is part of the fun. I hope this helped.

Resources

These are some places that I found really good information when I was researching for this article. Check them out if you want to know more.

Grant, Bonnie L. “Benefits Of Rainwater Versus Tap Water For Plants.” Gardening Know How, https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/watering/rainwater-versus-tap-water.htm.

Osakabe Y, Osakabe K, Shinozaki K, Tran LS. Response of plants to water stress. Front Plant Sci. 2014 Mar 13;5:86. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2014.00086. PMID: 24659993; PMCID: PMC3952189.

Oregon State University. “Watering Tips.” 10-Minute University, https://extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/12281/wateringtips.pdf

Heber, Gretchen. “HYDRATING YOUR LANDSCAPE: WHICH IRRIGATION METHOD IS BEST FOR YOU AND YOUR PLANTS?” Gardener’s Path, 13 Jan, 2022, https://gardenerspath.com/gear/irrigation/methods-home-gardens/#Other-Options

Nickel, Amy. Brischke, Andrew. “Irrigating with Ollas.” The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, May 2021, https://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1911-2021.pdf

Stein, Larry. Welsh, Doug. “Efficient Use of Water in the Garden and Landscape.” Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/drought/efficient-use-of-water-in-the-garden-and-landscape/

Ruttle, Jack. “An Easy Way To Drip.” Organic Gardening, July 1985, P. 30-33.

Lafavore, Michael. “Easy Ways to Water.” Organic Gardening, July 1982, P. 50-55.

Holmes, Roger. Grant, Greg. Texas Home Landscaping. Creative Homeowner, 2016, P. 158-159.

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