HOMEGROWN: The Four Most Common Mistakes You Might Be Making When Watering Your Garden

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Guest series by Danielle Smith of Garden Like a Mother

This month we are talking about watering your garden: an easy choice of topic due to the drought conditions here in our part of Wisconsin. Despite the rain that finally fell this past week, we have still been experiencing uncharacteristically low rainfall totals this year, leaving every gardener and farmer scrambling to find ways to keep our plants hydrated.

For those who follow the Leek & the Carrot’s farm, you know their awesome team has been working incredibly hard to keep up with watering their fields, pulling long hours and relying on ingenuity and drive to keep them properly hydrated. I can only begin to imagine what it takes to keep all of those plants hydrated in this weather… farmers are amazing!

Luckily, as a home gardener, watering your plants can be a totally manageable task, even in less than ideal hot and dry conditions IF you know how to do it right and avoid some of the common mistakes that many gardeners make.

Watering the WRONG WAY can leave you feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and disappointed, because it leads to more work for you and more stress for your plants. Continue reading to learn about the most common mistakes gardeners make when watering their plants so you can start avoiding them today!

MISTAKE #1: Not covering your soil with mulch

Using mulch in your garden is the easiest and most impactful thing you can do to keep your plants properly hydrated. I believe in this so strongly that mulch use has become a non-negotiable part of the low-maintenance gardening method I teach my garden coaching clients. 

Mulch allows less soil to be exposed to the air, so evaporation cannot happen as readily. This allows moisture to stay trapped between the soil surface and the mulch, allowing it to seep into and stay in the soil where your plants need it. I use mulch on all of my garden beds and all of my containers, and I have to water much less frequently than I would have to if all of the soil was exposed bare. I have compared how quickly my containers dry out with and without my mulch. Without mulch, my 18” wide containers completely dry out within a day, with crusty sides that pull away from the side of the container. With mulch, those same containers will stay moist for several days. Which would you prefer: watering once or twice per week or once per day? Easy choice- go buy some mulch!

One of my garden beds mulched with straw– my mulch of choice. This bed is located in full sun, and the surface of this bed often stays moist to the touch, even days after watering.

MISTAKE #2: Watering the plant and not the soil

This is such a common mistake. I see so many gardeners going out with their hose or watering can and watering their plants directly from above, wetting the leaves heavily. This is a mistake!

When you water, it is critical to water the soil underneath and around the plant. This allows water to actually soak into the soil and get to the plant’s roots. If the majority of the water goes onto the leaves, you run the risk of it splashing off outside the garden bed or evaporating off into the air before it makes it down to the soil. 

But wait you might say, water comes from above and gets leaves wet when it rains, so why can’t you do the same with a watering can or hose? Well, think about the weather conditions when it rains: moist and overcast. Evaporation does not happen very quickly during those conditions, which gives the rain a chance to drip down and make its way into the soil before the sun comes out and starts evaporation.

Now let’s consider what happens when you water from overhead in hot and sunny conditions, a combo that doesn’t actually happen naturally but is common in home gardens. Water almost instantaneously starts to evaporate off, which doesn’t leave much of a chance for rain to make its way down to the soil. 

As with everything in gardening, replicate how you water with what happens naturally as much as possible and your plants will be happy!

MISTAKE #3: Watering all the plants in your garden the same amount on a set schedule 

I often hear of gardeners following a set watering schedule, going through the garden and watering all of the plants the same amount without considering the situation. However the correct amount of water that any particular plant needs can change according to many different variables, and by following a set watering schedule, it is all too easy to underwater or overwater your plants.

Both underwatering and overwatering can have devastating effects on a plant’s health. Underwatering deprives the plant of enough water to produce energy via photosynthesis. Overwatering saturates the roots, which deprives them of oxygen and can cause the roots to rot. Neither situation is good.

In order to deliver the appropriate amount of water to your plants, you need to evaluate whether or not your plants need water (and how much they need) on an on-going basis throughout the growing season— and then give them exactly what they need. 

Here are just a few of the ways that water needs can differ between plants:

  • Plants that evolved in wet climates require more water than plants that evolved in dry climates. For instance, your tomato plant (which originally grew in rainforests) is going to need much more water than your rosemary bush (which originally grew in the dry Mediterranean). 
  • Plants grown in the ground require less watering than plants grown in containers because containers get warmer due to greater exposure to the air and therefore dry out faster.
  • Plants grown in porous terracotta pots dry out faster and require more watering than plants grown in non-porous plastic pots.
  • Plants grown in a windy area require more water than plants grown in a more sheltered site (wind speeds evaporation).

Bottom line: Rather than getting in a routine of watering all of your plants at the same time on a set schedule, get in the routine of going out to your garden on a set schedule to pay attention to your plants and give them water IF they need it.

A moisture meter is one of my favorite tools for newbie gardeners. It is a great way to get additional information about what is going on underneath the soil surface and gauge how to properly water different plants in your garden.

MISTAKE #4: Watering only a little bit at a time

It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of giving your plants small amounts of water frequently. I know it is tempting in the moment to only water a small amount, as it is faster and get us done with our watering chore and onto the next thing in our day that we need to accomplish. And it doesn’t necessarily seem like it should be a wrong approach. I mean, as long as the total amount of water given over time is the same, who cares if it’s all given in one go or split up between smaller waterings?

Well, it turns out there are real benefits to giving heavy, deep, infrequent soaks rather than many small sips.

Why exactly? 

For one, you get to water less frequently, which is actually good news for anyone who is busy. I would much rather get the hose out once or twice per week for longer periods of time rather than needing to unroll it and re-roll it up every single day.

More importantly though, frequent and shallow waterings set your plants up for problems. It will train roots to remain right at the surface of the soil, where the water is present, since they don’t need to go deeper to access water once the top layer of soil dries out. When roots stay at the top of the soil, the plant is unable to access the nutrients that are hanging out in the soil deeper down AND the plant will be less sturdy and more prone to toppling over in heavy winds.

When you water, make sure to water long enough to completely saturate the plant. This is best accomplished with a hose. Imagine the root ball below the soil surface and keep watering until you give it enough to saturate it and the immediate surrounding area. This will probably require a longer soak than you may initially think.

And there you have it- the top watering mistakes I see gardeners making. I hope this helps you identify how you can improve your watering practices and make your gardening experience more successful, easier, and more enjoyable. Happy watering!

My name is Danielle Smith, and I help busy women grow beautiful and productive edible gardens at home by simplifying basic gardening concepts and teaching systems and routines that make gardening low-maintenance and stress-free.

Many women want to grow a garden at home. They know that gardening is a rewarding and fulfilling hobby that can help them destress, slow down, and unlock greater health and happiness. But how do you learn to grow a garden while juggling everything else in life? If you are interested in learning how to have the garden of your dreams that improves your life rather than becoming yet another stressful thing on your plate, contact me at gardenlikeamother@gmail.com to learn more how I can help.

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