There’s a lot to say about watering. And there is definitely enough to put it into a “Watering A to Z” list. I will tell you, though, this was challenging. I could have repeated some letters several times!
Watering is a tricky task. I have overwatered, underwatered, and completely forgotten about that poor plant in the guest room, only to find it a barren stalk in brick-hard soil. I’ve had timers malfunction, friends who forgot to come water the garden while I was on vacation, and I’ve planted water-loving herbs next to herbs that prefer as little water as possible.
That may sound dire, but it usually turns out okay. Luckily, most vegetables and herbs are resilient and can thrive despite my mistakes. And luckily, I’ve learned a bit over my years of gardening. I’ve also been fortunate to learn from more experienced gardeners.
If there’s one thing I love about gardening, it’s that we are a sharing and caring bunch. Almost every gardener and farmer I’ve met have been more than willing to share their knowledge, ideas, wisdom, and even mistakes. That’s my goal here with this Watering A to Z list. I hope to share some of the knowledge and ideas I’ve gained over the years. Now then … let’s get into those A, B, Cs.
Watering A to Z: Important facts, ideas, and lessons about watering fruits, herbs, and vegetables
Always check before you water. Soil may look dry or damp on the surface, but the only way to truly know if you do or do not need to water your plants is to dig in a couple of inches and feel the soil. This is especially true with a container garden, as the type of container can make a huge difference in how quickly water evaporates.
Best watering cans. Watering cans are more efficient than hoses and less efficient than drip irrigation systems. However, they are perfect for indoor gardens, potted gardens, and watering vegetables when you want to add some fertilizer. You can check out some of our favorites for kids and grown-ups in The Best 5 Watering Cans: Gardener Approved!
Clay pots. The clay pot irrigation method is a great way to conserve water and ensure your vegetables get the right amount of water. Clay pots, known as ollas, are buried in the garden up to their necks and filled with water, which then seeps through the clay and slowly disburses water to the surrounding plants, only disbursing water as the surrounding soil dries. You can read more about clay pot irrigation here.
Drainage. When it comes to a vegetable garden, whether it’s a raised bed, in the ground, or a container garden, “well-drained soil” is one of the most regular statements you’ll hear. Your plants do need water, but they aren’t fish. They don’t want to swim in a pool of rainwater. Check out 7 Solutions for Improving Garden Drainage in Vegetable Gardens to learn more.
Efficiency. As we have more and more big changes in our climate, efficiency will be key to watering your garden. Whether you have a super-efficient built-in drip irrigation system or you’re stuck using a hose, there are steps you can take to increase your water-use efficiency. For instance, water the soil, not the leaves. Make sure your plants need the water before you turn on the hose. Water in the morning and not in the heat of the day. And as much as you can, let rainwater do its thing.
Frequency. How often do you need to water your garden? Well, that depends. In-ground gardens require less frequent watering than container gardens. Then there are considerations like how dry or moist a particular herb, fruit, or vegetable likes the soil. For example, rosemary thrives in dry conditions, while basil prefers regular watering.
Go deep. Allowing the water to penetrate more deeply into the soil will encourage deeper root growth. This is especially helpful for your perennial herbs and vegetables.
Hose watering. Spoiler alert: hose watering is not really rocket science. Grab the hose, turn on the spigot, and water your vegetables. But like many simple tasks in this world (I’m thinking of the toast I burned this morning), there are still ways to mess it up! The biggest mistake with hose watering is probably watering the tops of the plants. Remember, it’s the soil that needs the water, not the leaves.
Irrigation. There are a lot of ways to go with irrigation. There’s the clay pot method mentioned above. You can go with a soaker hose for drip irrigation. Or you can get fancy (aka the easy way!) with an installed drip irrigation system. It’s not cheap, and there is some work involved (for example, you need to drain the system before winter), but it will make your life so much easier. Trust me on this!
Just amend it. Is your soil soggy? Do you have a muddy mess amid your mustard greens? You can make physical adjustments to your garden if you have drainage issues, but you can also look to soil additives. For example, sand can help improve drainage and help break up large chunks of soil. Or you can add perlite or vermiculite if your soil drains too quickly. Both of them are absorbent and can retain water, preventing soil from drying and cracking.
Kitchen water. You boil eggs, cook pasta, and steam soybeans. Then what do you do with that water? Instead of pouring it down the drain, let it cool and use it to water your indoor garden. The one caveat is that you don’t want to use salted pasta water.
Less often. You probably don’t need to water as often as you think. It’s better to water more deeply and less often than more often and less deeply.
Mulch. Mulch helps retain moisture and prevent weeds, and some mulch, like compost or straw, will benefit your garden as it breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil.
Never underestimate the power of companion planting. At first, this might not seem like it belongs on a Watering A to Z list. But companion planting has tons of benefits, and efficient water usage is among them. The most famous example is the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The beans add nitrogen to the soil, corn provides a pole for beans to climb, and they both benefit from the moisture retention provided by the broad foliage of squash plants. You can also look at companions that enjoy similar moisture levels and plant them together, such as basil and tomatoes.
Overwatering. The curse of gardeners everywhere! Overwatering is so, so, so easy to do. Here’s a general rule of thumb: Larger and younger plants need more water. More established plants with deeper roots can get by with less. And plants in containers or grow bags will need more water than in-ground plants. If you’d like to get a little more in-depth, check out How to Identify an Overwatered Plant.
Plastic bottles. This one takes a little forethought, but it’s about as easy as could be. Grab an empty and clean plastic soda bottle and poke several holes in the bottom and around the sides of the container. Bury it up to the neck alongside your seedlings when you put them in containers. You can fill the bottle with water, which will then slowly drain into the soil. Incidentally, if this sounds familiar, it’s the same concept as the clay pot system above. But if you don’t have clay pots to spare and you do have some plastic bottles, this is for you.
Quality. Water quality is a huge issue all around the country, so there’s a good chance it’s something you’ll have to deal with, whether it’s city water, well water, or you’re lucky enough to have a glacier-fed spring in your yard. Many municipalities will send occasional reports regarding water quality, and your state Department of Health may have resources for testing water, as well. You can adjust issues like pH with wood ash, lime, or other amendments. Other quality issues might require a whole-house water filtration system. Something to keep in mind, however, is that your garden isn’t in a vacuum, so soil quality and soil pH factor into the equation, too.
Rainwater. Rainwater is the ideal source of water for your garden. It’s generally free of salts, chemicals, and other contaminants, it helps refresh the soil, and rain contains some of the nutrients your plants need to thrive. So, if you can, get those indoor herbs and veggies outside if there is rain in the forecast.
Sprinkler. I know we all love the idea of sprinklers and running through the water on a hot summer day while your garden gets watered. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sprinklers are not the ideal way to water your vegetables. It’s inefficient, and in gardens with a lot of foliage, much of the water might not even reach the ground.
Timing. The ideal time to water your garden is early morning. Once the sun heats up the ground, your water will evaporate quickly. That said, if it’s high noon and your tomatoes look like they just got dumped in the middle of the desert, it’s okay to give them a drink.
Underwatering. This one is easy to fix, and usually easy to notice, since your plants may be wilting, brittle, and dropping leaves. Be aware, though, that root rot, which comes from overwatering, can present some of the same symptoms. So dig into your soil before you water and make sure the soil is dry before you water.
Vegetable seeds. Vegetable seeds need water, but in a very different way than your established plants. If you’re starting seeds, simply misting them and keeping the soil moist is usually enough. Too much water (or heavy rains) can wash seeds away or promote the conditions that cause root rot. Take a look at How Often to Water Vegetable Seeds for more information.
Wind. Your soil will dry out more quickly on windy days. Why? Transpiration. As the wind blows, moisture in the plant leaves evaporates, which in turn pulls more moisture up through the root system, stem, and leaves. If your plants happen to be in a terracotta pot or fabric grow bags, that wind will also dry out the soil. In other words, windy days mean you’ll need to check on your plants.
Xplore drought-resistant vegetables. Okay, fine. “Explore.” But there aren’t many gardening words that start with X. Water is a precious and finite resource. Therefore, drought-resistant vegetables could very well be a smart option. 10 Drought-Resistant Vegetables for a Water Conscious Garden is a good source for “xploring” some of these, including a few surprising selections.
Your roof! Yes, I realize I’m stretching a bit to fill in the final letters in this Watering A to Z list. If this was a game of Scrabble, I’d probably be stuck. But I don’t think anyone is fact-checking my word choice here, so I’m going with it. Anyway, back to your roof and saving rainwater for your garden. According to EPA estimates, saving rain runoff from your roof and into a barrel saves an average of 1,300 gallons during the summer. Admittedly, the setup cost can be a little high, with most rain barrels running between $100 and $175, but it’s also one of the most environmentally friendly ways to water your garden. Just attach a drip irrigation hose to your barrel and let gravity do the rest. Before you buy a barrel, however, be sure to check with your local or state environmental agency to see if they have any water conservation programs. For example, The Great American Rain Barrel Company has agreements with some municipalities to offer discounted barrels.
Zzzzz. I admit it! I’m stuck. I truly can’t think of anything that starts with a Z that would go in a Watering A to Z list, so I’m going with, get some z’s. Seriously. We, humans, have somehow managed to farm and garden and cultivate fruits, herbs, and vegetables for thousands of years, and we still exist. So, relax. Sure, there are some best practices for watering your garden. And sure, you’ll probably make a mistake or two or ten. It’s going to be okay. I promise.
There you have it, friends. The official Watering A to Z list! Now I think I might go catch some of those z’s myself!
What did I leave off this list? Leave a comment and let me know.