GARDEN THERAPY: Watering Wise Ways – August 2016

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

This spring and summer has provided me a lot of opportunities to contemplate the task of watering. Just watering containers is enough to keep me busy, but this year I put in a lot of new plants (including 1000+ tiny landscaping plugs) which meant lots of watering with the drought we had in late May, June and most of July.

Sitting on my porch beginning this last week of July, with the temperature in the mid-eighties and with little hope of rain for another 6 days… I am still thinking about it. As a professional landscape designer I install (at the very least) many hundreds of plants each year and lack of rain is a big concern to me. My colleagues downstate marvel that I never worry about putting in irrigation systems. But never before has it been an issue. Typically my only concern is during the early establishment period of new plantings. And in previous years we typically got enough rain, and it was cool enough that I didn’t have to do that much watering.

True confession, I actually love to water. It is a Zen-like time when I can be in the moment and truly observe everything in the garden. I contemplate how the plants are doing, watch the insects and listen to the birds. Even the way the fresh well water smells is lovely and I enjoy watching the soil soak it up and become dark and rich.

The process is much more relaxing now that I have an ample supply of expandable hoses. Until the expandable hose, watering required schlepping heavy dirty hoses that kinked and got tangled. Frankly the hurdles with a few hundred feet of hose were HUGE. But now life is easy! I can fit 200 feet of expandable hose in a spackle bucket and can easily get to most places that I need to water with little fuss. So, at the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial, the first thing you need to do to get happier about watering is to google “expandable hose” and get yourself a couple of the really good ones. If you take care of them they will last you several years or more. Believe me, it is worth it. Just make sure you turn off the water and drain the hose before releasing any of the connectors (unless you feel like a cooling spray all over yourself) and don’t leave it out; put it away in a shady place.

Being rebellious, I water when I have the time to do it, not when “the experts” say. I prefer to do it in the late afternoon or early evening just because it is pleasant. I know that there are those out there that say you shouldn’t water in the heat of the day that morning is best and things will mildew if you water at night and so on. To be honest, the biggest issue with watering is making sure that you water enough! Make sure to soak the ground and not just the top layer otherwise you get a lot of evaporation making the task pointless.

Remember the emphasis needs to be on deep watering; the water has to soak in to get to the roots where it is needed. As my mother Delphine would say, “Don’t water the plant, water the soil.” Turns out she was right! Shallow watering can actually be bad for the plants. If it is done too often it encourages the roots to grow toward the surface to access the water rather than to grow deeper where there should be cooler water stores.

There are also concerns about watering in the heat of the day and blistering the leaves. While I have never personally seen this happen, I believe that it does. Also watering from above can sometimes cause fungal type problems. So if you are watering in the heat of the day or at night try to get the water to the base of the plants and not pound the leaves with it. I generally don’t like using sprinklers for these reasons and well–users and environmental peeps note….they waste A LOT of water.

When I plant containers, I have a watering plan in place. I leave an inch or two of space between the soil and the top of the pot so that when I water them I can just fill up the pot with water, let it soak in and then do it again (really do it twice or three times). It makes watering containers so much easier. No more water running out around the edges of the pot and having to be patient as it soaks in each time. Another trick I love is putting water plants in containers without holes so that I only have to worry about them every three weeks or so. Here are some plants that can live directly in a container of water and look great: canas, water iris, papyrus, calla lilies, chameleon plant (don’t put this in the ground!), some beautiful reeds and elephants ears, to mention a few.

Established plants usually do fine in our beautiful region without watering, but new plantings and particularly trees must have enough water to successfully take hold. There are many rules for how much water various sized plants need during this period, but suffice it to say that the roots cannot dry out completely or you will probably have a crispy carcass very quickly. Smaller plants can be watered in 30 seconds to a minute but trees require about 5 gallons of water a week if they are more than a whip, so it is best to let the hose “drip” on them for 30 minutes or so; you cannot hurry this process. Slow is better. The water has to have time seep in and not just run off.

Watering reality check: much to the dismay of my wife, I have run our well (very) murky more than once when watering for hours. That is another reason drip irrigation systems scare me up here. I don’t really love the idea of a client calling me up and saying that they had a “muddy shower” because the irrigation timer went haywire and drained their well. If you are a fulltime resident and can monitor the irrigation, drip irrigation may be worth the investment while new plants get established or for your container plantings.

Another way to water without worrying about the well is to collect water from the roof in rain barrels and use that to water. If you can arrange to have the barrel uphill of the garden you can use gravity to help you. Since so many of the folks up here have ponds, I often use a pump in the pond to water new plantings, especially trees that need a lot or water. You will probably need a long extension cord to get to the pump and a long hose but that is a small price to pay for worry-free watering.~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener