Of all the things you have to worry about as a gardener, garden watering might seem like the most straightforward task. It’s easy to forget, however, that watering your garden is one of the most essential parts of gardening. It quite literally makes the difference between the life and death of your plants.
But you’re in luck, because here we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the basics of garden watering!
What You Need To Know About Garden Watering
Why Garden Watering Is Important
Fundamentally, plants need water because it is through water that plants get their food. Plants turn water, carbon dioxide, and light into sugar (plant food) and oxygen. Check out a more detailed explanation of photosynthesis here. So really garden watering isn’t just important for plants, but for us humans as well, because that is how oxygen is made!
Additionally, plants also absorb important nutrients through their roots and into their systems via water. So when a plant is lacking water, it is also lacking fundamental nutrients that allow it to grow and flourish.
What Happens if You Under-Water Your Garden?
If your plants become thirsty, they will most likely wilt and display other signs of heat stress, too. Vegetable and fruit plants will not thrive as they normally do, and might put out smaller, tougher fruit, if any at all. Other plants might display erratic behaviors: lettuce and spinach are known for shooting up a flower stalk and then immediately halting growth.
Most plants, however, will wilt, and then eventually die. If you notice wilting, however, you should wait until the end of the day to water any droopy-looking plants because some plants actually wilt a little during the hottest hours of the day in order to adapt to the harsh conditions.
By the time the cooler evening rolls around, plants that droop to adapt should look perky again, which signals that they don’t actually need any water. If they remain wilted, however, they are suffering from heat and very clearly not adapting, so you should water them asap.
Can You Water Your Garden Too Much?
Though water is, along with sunlight, one of the most important elements to gardening, there is such a thing as watering your garden too much. The same is true for humans, after all—we need water to survive, but we can actually drown if we force ourselves to drink too much.
In fact, when a plant is flooded with water for extended periods of time, its roots drown very much like a human would, because its water-logged cells can no longer access oxygen.
Additionally, over-watering and in general too much moisture facilitates the spread of disease, mold, and growth of fungi. That’s why gardeners are encouraged to water in the morning, and to water directly into the soil, as opposed to letting the water run over the plant.
The plant has the rest of the day to dry off from any water that has remained on its leaves, flowers, and stem. If it sticks around too much, water is an easy conduit for mold and sickness.
It’s easy, then, you might say to yourself, I’ll just let nature do its thing, and let the natural weather water my garden with rain, “au naturel.”
As your logical half will soon realize, withholding water today because the forecast says it will rain tomorrow might cost you one or more plants by tonight! Plus, while you might be able to get by with this policy during the cooler months, rest assured that it is unlikely for your garden to survive the summer. That is why it is so important to learn appropriate garden watering.
The Proper Way to Water Your Garden
How Much Should You Water Your Garden?
You must be thinking, now that you’ve spent three different sections explaining the importance of watering your garden the right amount—when will you tell us how much that is?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t very straight forward. Different plants need different amounts of water, and the climate of your geographic location hugely impacts the amount and frequency of water that your plants should be receiving. There are, however, some broad guidelines you can follow as you figure out exactly what garden watering is right for you.
A general rule of thumb is that an outdoor, in-ground garden (not potted) should receive about an inch of water a week delivered in about three deep watering sessions as opposed to frequent, shallow watering. Very young plants, however, need a different regiment: if you start from seed, start them indoors, and water the seedlings twice a day to maintain soil moisture.
What does one inch of water mean? It means a layer of water one-inch deep that covers the entire surface area of your garden.
The reason for which you want to water more in less frequent time intervals is because deep watering encourages roots to grown deeply, as well. Roots reach for water (as mentioned before) for their nutrients and life force, so if the water is only in the top couple inches of soil, there too will be all the roots, which make for a crowded and unhealthy root growth.
Shallow watering also causes part of the water to evaporate before the plant gets a chance to absorb it. So it’s also a waste! Each watering session should penetrate to a depth of five or six inches into the soil.
How to Measure Water When Garden Watering
One inch of water per week might sound simple enough, but you’ll quickly realize that measuring that one inch is trickier than you thought without appropriate measuring tools. Here’s a few tips:
- Recognize that an inch of water doesn’t sound like much, but it can really add up depending on the size of your garden. One inch of water across a 100 square foot garden is 62 gallons! Calculate how much volume of water your garden needs, then track it using a water flow meter on your garden hose next time you water.
- If you want to know how much rain water your garden has received, check your weather reports. If you’re very detail oriented, you can even purchase a cheap rain gauge to figure out exactly how much rain water your garden received over any given period of time.
When to Water Your Garden
Now that you’ve figured out how to measure appropriate quantities of water, the next step is figuring out a garden watering schedule that works best for you, and most importantly, your plants.
Another rule of thumb for garden watering is to almost always water in the morning. As mentioned earlier, this allows the plant to dry its leaves off before nightfall. Retained surface moisture for long periods of time, especially at night, is conducive to mold, disease, and could also attract insects.
No matter what garden watering schedule you organize, you should always be prepared to be flexible. Not only will rain water most likely change when and how much you water, but you should always test the soil before watering your garden to confirm that they actually need more water.
Dig a small hole several inches into the soil in proximity of your plant (without damaging its roots!). If the soil is moist throughout you can wait a little longer before watering your garden. If it starts to seem dry, that’s nature telling you that it needs more water!
More Things to Consider When Garden Watering
Here are some more questions you can ask yourself in determining how much, when, and how to water your garden:
- What is your climate like? The temperature and humidity of your geographic location each season should give you an indication for how much you can expect to water. If it’s exceptionally hot and dry, you should dig into your soil to test the moisture (the way we described just above) relatively often, since the water will likely dry quickly. If you live in a rainy area, chances are you can skip a couple of days of watering your garden, and your plants will be just fine.
- Is your garden very sunny, or very shaded? This question is related to the previous one in that a sunnier, hotter garden will likely need to be watered more frequently than a shadier, cooler garden in which water doesn’t evaporate as fast!
- What kind of soil do you have? Different kinds of soil retain moisture differently, and will also play a factor in how often and how much water your garden should be receiving. For example, sandy soil has difficulty holding moisture (think of the beach!) and dries out quickly. On the other hand, soil with a lot of clay can hold water for longer, and runs the risk of becoming soggy if you’re not careful! The perfect soil composition has great drainage, but is also able to hold water—adding compost to your soil helps with this!
- What kind of plants are you growing? This might seem like a no-brainer, but different plants need different amounts of water. As you might imagine, bigger plants need more water than smaller plants. Additionally, some plants with deep root systems benefit most from the infrequent watering schedule outlined above—while plants with shallower roots (including vegetables and perennials) actually do need to be watered less, and more frequently. During the summer, some plants might even need to be watered every day, if not more than once a day. The good news, however, is that the soil moisture test works on any and all plants! Trust the soil to tell you if the plant needs more water or not.
- Are you always watering on one side of the plant? Don’t do this! Make sure to water close to the soil, and evenly around the plant. Remember when I said that deep watering encourages deep root growth? Well, one-sided watering also encourages one sided root growth. What you want is even root growth, and so make sure to move around the plant while garden watering so that all sides of the soil receives water.
- Are you going to be away for long periods of time? Having a garden is almost like having a pet. You can’t just leave for an extended amount of time and expect your garden to get along fine without you! Does this mean you can never again go on vacation again? Certainly not, but it is something you have to plan for. Check out our post on how to water plants while away.
Systems For Watering Your Garden
Luckily for those of you with big gardens, there are a variety of watering solutions out there for you to choose from. Here I’ve listed some guidelines to help you make your garden watering system choice, and below that, you’ll find a list of some options along with some additional considerations regarding each.
- Unless it’s for your lawn, don’t use overhead sprinklers—evaporation causes a huge waste of water, and inefficient garden watering for your plants!
- Don’t underestimate hand watering your garden. It’s usually the best choice for small gardens, because you can make sure to direct the water in just the right place. Placing a rock or a board at the point of impact between the water jet and the ground can also help avoid soil erosion.
- Consider recycling rain water for your garden watering by reading up on the best rain barrels to choose from.
Now, let’s get to the specifics of garden watering systems:
Garden hoses are likely one of the most versatile options for watering your garden by hand. It gives you the flexibility of watering whenever you want, and how much you want—just keep an eye on the water flow, and make sure to use a great hose timer (here’s my take on the best hose timers). Use my guide to find the best garden hoses.
Watering cans are ideal for small gardens with young, vulnerable plants that need extra delicate handling. Find the best watering can for you.
Sprinklers are probably one of the most common types of irrigation, and they range from complex and expensive in-ground watering systems to cheaper, portable above-ground sprinklers. Read all about the best sprinklers.
Soaker hoses are also an affordable watering system. When hooked up to a spigot, soaker hoses water the surrounding greenery by dripping water through their many small holes. Discover the best soaker hoses on the market.
A drip irrigation is the perfect middle ground between the cheaper soaker hose and the more expensive in-ground sprinkler system. Check out the best drip irrigation systems.
The Effects of Mulch On Garden Watering
Should you be mulching your garden? The answer is yes! And if you live in a hot, dry climate, the answer is certainly yes! Mulch helps to retain moisture, prevent evaporation, and protects root systems from overheating.
Now Your Know All the Basics About Garden Watering!
I hope you now have a basic understanding on how to approach garden watering, and have the confidence to establish the right kind of pattern for watering your garden. Next, learn about what other gardening tools you need for a healthy and thriving garden!
- About the Author
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Margherita Bassi is a freelance writer, journalist, and editor. She grew up between the US and Europe, and nurtured her love for nature and the outdoors in both countries.
In the US, she went on dozens of RV trips with her family, scouted out the best restaurants in every city she visited, and learned how to grow herbs and veggies of all kinds by watching her mother.
In Europe, she experimented with gardening in small spaces, like the small balcony of her apartment in France. With an MA in International New Media Journalism, Margherita is also a skilled researcher in a wide range of topics, and has extensive experience interviewing both individuals and experts.