Watering to beat the drought

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By Dennis Morgeson


In the midst of a drought and the hottest summer since 1936, water is the limiting factor to a good garden this year. I can’t tell you how many landscape plants I have looked at that just needs a good soaking.

There are several things that you can do to improve the effectiveness and cost of watering. The first mistake most homeowners make when watering their garden is they use overhead sprinklers. This can be very wasteful and inadequate for your plants.  Many homeowners will turn sprinklers on for a few minutes every other day, which only wets the surface of the soil. If your garden plants get any of this, they have to grow roots at the surface which in return makes them more susceptible to future drought. Also, overhead sprinklers put water everywhere, not just where you want, and a large portion of it evaporates before it ever gets into the soil.
The most efficient way to water is to use a soaker hose. These look like a water hose, however, they drip water through pores slowly into the soil.  These hoses can be placed around your shrubs at the drip line and your expensive and precious water goes to the roots instead of into space.  When caring for newly-planted trees and shrubs, deep consistent moisture is a must to insure the plants get off to a good start.
There are products similar to a soaker hose, which are actually formed into a circle that can be placed around trees and shrubs for direct watering. Newly-planted small trees will require at least 10 gallons of water per week! That is what the plant will use, at least double that will need to be applied for the plant to have access to it.
The lawn is the only place where an overhead sprinkler makes sense simply because of the size of the area that needs to be watered. When watering your lawn, you want to give it at least one inch per week. This will wet the soil 8-12 inches deep and force the lawn to grow deep roots, which will in turn help it overcome future dry spells. You can place a rain gauge or an empty coffee can under your sprinkler to determine the amount of water your lawn is getting.
Another major watering mistake is timing. The best time to water your garden is early morning. This will reduce evaporation and still allow the leaves to dry quickly. Many homeowners water in the evening, setting their plants up for future disease problems. If you water regularly in the evening, plants leaves stay wet much longer than they would from dew, so disease instance is greatly increased.  You can reduce fungal problems by watering at the base of a plant, allowing the leaves to remain dry. This is another area where the soaker hose is a good idea.
Containers are an issue all their own in terms of watering tips. Many fully planted containers may need watering from one to even three times a day in really hot, dry weather. Like other plants, if you can water plants in containers without getting the leaves wet you likely have less fungal problems. To help reduce watering instances in regards to containers, use the largest containers you can find and use containers for shade-loving plants instead of full-sun species.  Containers in the shade will likely need watering half as often as their full-sun counterparts. Another way to reduce watering is to use cactus or other succulents in containers. These plants can go a very long time without additional watering after they have become accustomed to their environment.
One last tip is to use mulch. A layer of mulch will keep your soil cool and moist for a long time after a rainfall. Besides conserving water, mulch looks great, stabilizes soil temperature, suppresses weeds and adds organic matter to your soil. The only rule with mulch is don’t over do it. A layer two to three inches deep is adequate. Too much mulch around trees and shrubs can cause several insect and disease problems to occur.
Remember, if plants are newly planted, especially trees and shrubs, it takes a lot more water than you would expect to keep the root ball moist during this drought. The best way to water these plants is slow and long with a soaker hose or some form of drip irrigation. For more information, contact the Washington County Extension Office at (859) 336-7741.                 
If you would like to become a Kentucky Master Gardener, give me a call as well!  Class starts in September.