Are you watering enough?
How can you tell if your plants are getting enough water? The Philadelphia heat is here and you just spent all this time and money making your garden look beautiful. Suddenly everything is dead. There are some tell tale signs of drought that if you take the time, you will be able to see.
Deciduous trees and shrubs (meaning the ones that lose their leaves in the winter) do two things when they are lacking water. The first thing they do is droop or wilt. The leaves will turn a paler green and lose their luster. Usually, you can water them and they perk back up almost immediately (you almost don’t need the slow motion camera to see it). If the plant has prolonged periods of dryness, the interior leaves may start to yellow and shed, and the tips of the leaves will start to brown. The shedding is a great defense mechanism of the plant, disposing of extra leaves that need water in an effort to save the rest of the plant. It doesn't look great for the season, but it will be alive to re-sprout next spring.
Evergreen trees and shrubs are a little tougher to see, although the symptoms are the same. An evergreen will hold on for a long time, not showing any sign of dryness until it is extremely dry. Then you will be able to see a change as a pallor (yellowing) develops over the plant. If the drought happens in the spring time, the new growth will droop a little. Later in the season, you will see the yellowing of older foliage, but that slight change in color is very subtle, so you have to really look for it. Once the foliage of evergreens becomes obviously yellow it does not green back up, even if water is given, so be sure you observe your plants.
If you have a garden where plants are in the ground, the natural ground water enables you to not worry a lot about watering until a drought occurs. In case of a drought, the best time to water is in the evening or early morning, before it gets too hot. This enables the plant to have time to take the water up before it evaporates. For larger trees, use a sprinkler so that you are getting water to more of the root zone (remember that tree roots extend past the leaf crown on older trees). For smaller plants, with water conservation in mind, water by hand on an as needed basis.
If you are a container gardener, and your garden is in pots, you must be more diligent about watering. Mother Nature is not going to help you as much as you think. In the ground, a good rain can allow you to not water for a week. In a pot, you're lucky if you get a few days. Containers that are in full sun should really be watered every day.
New plantings require attentive watering. Make sure that you are giving your plants the right QUANTITY of water. New plantings in large containers (at least 20" in diameter) will need watering almost every day until they are established in their new homes. Shrubs will need 2-3 gallons of water each time. Window boxes and small containers need 2-3 gallons per watering, depending on the size of the containers. If your pots have drainage, you should see water coming out of the bottom of the pots.
If your plants do not have drainage, you will have to pay closer attention and water only when the soil deep inside the pot is dry. Over-watering actually suffocates the roots of the plant, preventing them from being able to take in nutrients and water. The leaves will wilt and begin to turn yellow. Symptoms of overwatering look very similar to under watering, so be sure to check your soil if your plants are failing.
Very dry soil will actually repel water, so water very slowly, introducing water at the base of the plant. Allow small amounts of water to soak in before introducing more water.
In the winter, when the temperature is freezing, do not water your outdoor plants BUT if the weather does warm up, give your plants a drink. It is unwise to rely on rainfall to water your plants: only sustained lengthy periods of rainfall will be enough to keep your plants thriving.
To Irrigate or Not to Irrigate. . . that is the Question.
If you have one or two pots you can water them by hand, but if you have more than that, unless watering is what you love to do, we would recommend a drip irrigation system. If you have an outdoor spigot, you can buy a do-it-yourself system that is not expensive and saves a lot of time.
The systems all work the same. You buy a timer that attaches to your spigot, a ½ black hose attaches to that and runs around the base of your patio; smaller black spaghetti tubes come off of that, and get stuck into your pots (they have little emitters on the end that regulate the amount of water). How big or small the pot is determines how many emitters you put in it. The timers today are all digital and can be set for watering once or twice a day, at any time, so if it’s a wet spring, you can have it come on less, and when the drought hits, you can put it on twice a day if need be. And they are great if you are away at the shore or on an extended vacation in the summer.
So... we have been gardeners for over 30 years, do we think irrigation systems work? Absolutely! Keep in mind that an irrigation system is only a tool to help you be a better gardener. Ultimately it’s your own senses, paying attention to what your plants look like, feeling the soil for dryness, and looking at the upcoming weather that is going to help make your garden flourish. When you look good, we look good!