Gardening Topic for June 2008

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

By Lyssa Peters, Master Gardener


As I was driving home from work one afternoon a few years ago, I passed a yard and was surprised and delighted to see Fred and Wilma Flintstone out watering the grass. The wooden cutout characters had one arm raised as if waving to passersby, and a hose attached to another movable arm. The force of the water made the arm swing back and forth, watering the grass in front. It struck me so funny that I laughed out loud. How many times have I seen folks out watering their lawns exactly the same way!

It is a nice pastime, watering the lawn. It gets you out of the house after supper on a cool summer evening, and the lawn seems to appreciate the drink. My mother used to go out and sprinkle a little water on all her flowers and roses nearly every hot day, and I’m sure she enjoyed it and felt she was doing her plants a good deed. In actuality, she was probably doing more harm than good.

How much and how often should we water?

Much depends on soil type and conditions. Sandy soil dries out faster, as the water drains right through. Clay soil stays wet longer, but rain often puddles up on dry clay or runs off without soaking down to roots. In sunny areas evaporation dries everything out faster, and plants in the shade under maple trees need extra watering because the shallow maple roots take all the moisture.

But as a general rule, most vegetables and flower gardens need about an inch of water a week. Lawn grasses that are subject to drought will go dormant and turn yellow but usually start growing again with sufficient moisture. In a water shortage, watering the lawn should not be a priority. But when water is plentiful, an inch a week will keep grass green and growing.

Most of you probably remember the many weeks of cool, gloomy weather we had earlier this year. The sun didn’t shine and we had showers nearly every day. I was surprised to find that the soil in my yard was actually very dry, because though it was damp and cool, the amount of rainfall was insignificant, nowhere near the one inch a week needed. But then again, on cool, cloudy days, plants don’t grow as fast and evaporation is low, so plants don’t need as much moisture as on dry sunny days.

I can tell when it is dry because as I walk around my yard, I am always pulling out a weed to two (or ten!). If the weed roots are dry, it is time to get out my sprinkler! I also frequently check the amount of rainfall posted in the newspaper.

The best way to add enough water is to soak the soil to a depth of 5 or 6 inches. Shallow watering encourages roots to seek water at the top of the soil, where there is no moisture at all during drought. Deep watering encourages roots to grow deep into the soil. Water deeply, less often. Then allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings. This is especially true in lawns. Those quick after-supper sprinkles put only a small amount of water at the very top of your soil, while an inch down below, the soil remains dry as a bone! Try digging a hole. You’ll see.

Measure how much water you are putting on your lawn or garden by putting an empty coffee can about 10 feet from your sprinkler. Be sure that as you move your sprinkler to a new spot you overlap areas you’ve already watered, since the areas at the outer edges of the sprinkler receive less water.

Water early in the day whenever possible. Wet leaves at night are much more susceptible to fungal diseases.

Water newly planted flowers, shrubs and trees often and deeply. I read recently that container-grown trees and shrubs may be especially susceptible to drought stress once they are transplanted into the landscape. The organic mix used in nursery pots dries out quickly and is difficult to rewet once it becomes dry. Even though moisture is available in the soil surrounding the organic mix, it does not move into the root ball of the transplanted shrub quickly enough to prevent drought stress. Water often and deeply, and do not allow the root ball to completely dry out until the roots have grown into the surrounding soil (3 or 4 weeks).

Water container plants every day in hot weather. The light, fast-draining potting mixes we use dry out very quickly. If you want lush, beautiful containers, water, water, water!

Help your soil to hold moisture by adding organic material like compost and dehydrated cow manure.

Mulch. Nothing conserves moisture like a 3- or 4-inch layer of mulch. And there are so many varieties available! But always water before you mulch, or wait until after a good day of rain. Otherwise the mulch will keep your dry soil dry!

I conserve water as best I can, but I water thoroughly when my garden needs it. After reading that we got little rain, I spent two days moving my sprinkler from area to area, giving my whole garden a good soaking. Then a lot of rain fell here in Springfield the next afternoon. Oh, Mother Nature, could you please just give me a call and tell me your plans? I could save so much time and effort.


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Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association