Watering Your Garden
Your garden plants need water at every stage of their growth. However, when the weather gets hot and your plants start to produce fruit, it's especially important to make sure that they are getting enough water. A large percentage of fruits and vegetables is water, and without it your plants can become water stressed, which stunts growth and decreases yields. There is a right way and a wrong way to water, though. Watering properly will help to prevent disease and ensure a harvest of large, healthy fruits and vegetables.
You might think that your garden needs to be watered every day on the days it doesn't rain. This is not the case for most vegetables. In fact, it's better to give your plants a deep, thorough watering every 2-3 days when it's dry instead of a quick, shallow watering every day. Watering deeply encourages plants to grow strong, extensive root systems, since they have to spread out to access water when the soil gets a little dry. Some plants like tomatoes prefer to be deep watered even less frequently, about every 4 days unless the weather is exceptionally hot.
However, your watering frequency will also depend on the type of soil you have. Clay soil retains moisture well, while sandy soil dries out faster. If you have sandy soil, you may need to water more frequently. Make sure to water consistently throughout the growing season, as some fruits and vegetables will turn out misshapen or crack if they receive inconsistent amounts of water as they develop.
Tomatoes can develop cracks when they suddenly receive a lot of water after a period of dry weather. Image by Scot Nelson (unmodified).
Another fundamental principle of watering is to always water the roots of your plant, not the plant itself. In other words, it's not good to water your plants from overhead, such as by using a sprinkler. The more frequently the leaves and stems of your plants get wet, the higher chance they have of developing diseases. This is because fungi and bacteria thrive on moist surfaces. Plants with fuzzy leaves, such as tomatoes and eggplants, are especially vulnerable to these types of diseases.
Instead of watering overhead, you should wet the ground thoroughly in a circle around the base of the plant. It's best to water by hand so that you can control the amount of water each plant gets. If using a hose, turn the water low enough that it has time to properly soak into the soil instead of becoming runoff. Try not to let dirt splash up onto the bottom leaves of your plants, as soil can contain diseases which will spread to the plant. Pruning (removing) the bottom leaves of your plants and any other leaves that look sick can help prevent disease spread.
It's also important to water in the morning as opposed to the evening. This ensures that if some of your plants get wet, they will have enough time to dry out in the heat of the day. If left wet overnight, they are more likely to develop infections. You also want to water earlier in the morning before it gets too hot so that the water does not evaporate from the soil as quickly. Mulching your garden also keeps the soil cool and significantly cuts down on evaporation.
Watering container plants can be tricky because it's easy to overwater. Overwatering can damage or kill plans just as easily as underwatering. To make sure you don't overwater, always use containers with drainage holes. Don't let the surface of the soil completely dry out, but don't overdo it either. Aim to keep the surface slightly moist. Some container materials like terracotta clay wick moisture through the walls of the container, which can quickly dry roots out. I don't recommend growing food in clay pots, but if you do, make sure to water them frequently.
If your garden is large, it will require a lot of water to get it through the summer. If you live in an urban area, water use could be expensive. One way to cut down on water costs is to install an inexpensive rain barrel to catch and store rainwater from your roof. In addition to being an environmentally friendly solution, the rainwater from your barrel is better for your plants than city water because it is not treated.
Many rain barrels cost no more than $10 to $15 and can significantly reduce water waste.
Lastly, you need to pay attention to your plants. They will show you what they need. If the leaves or stem of your plant start to wilt, that is a sign that you need to water more frequently. If the leaves turn brown or yellow and fall off, they may be getting too much water. Check your plants daily for signs such as these and adjust your watering pattern as needed.
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