True or false? Watering your garden on a sunny day will burn plants.
There might be good reasons to avoid watering your garden on a sunny afternoon, but causing scorched leaves is not one of them. The myth that water droplets act like tiny prisms or magnifying glasses and burn leaves has no basis. And anyone who watched the sun come out after our long stretch of wet weather knows that water quickly evaporates.
Yes, May was a wet one, and I’d venture a guess that no one in Kodiak hauled out a sprinkler to water their lawn last month. And that, when the sun finally appeared for a few days last week, it was a comfort to hear the buzz of lawnmowers and weed-whackers. And you could feel spirits lift with each passing cumulus cloud.
That said, summer officially begins soon, so I thought it would be helpful to provide some watering tips.
Kodiak Island is nicknamed “The Rock.” Dig down a few inches and you’ll understand why. Soil dries out quickly here because it contains so little water-holding organic matter. Plus, breezes tend to dry out soil, skin, salmon, and laundry more rapidly.
Water is essential for plant growth. Just as our bodies contain some 65 percent water, plant cells too are made up mostly of water. So you can imagine that lack of water results in stunted, weak plants. You can have the best soil, fresh seeds, optimum exposure, and good intentions, but without enough water, you won’t get healthy plants. And in many cases, if plants are left too dry, too long, they’ll quit their normal growth cycle and “bolt.”
ON ASSIGNMENT FOR ALASKA MAGAZINE
The opposite of course is true. Years ago, Alaska magazine sent me to Juneau on assignment to interview and write article about local gardeners. One long-time vegetable gardener shared her frustration for Southeast’s notoriously damp weather. “I just look out my kitchen window and watch my broccoli melt to mush in the rain.”
Watering can be tricky, though. If you’re in charge of seedlings at a retail establishment, you need to keep plants evenly moist: Not too wet causing root rot, but don’t let them dry out.
In the garden, overwatering is wasteful, but you don’t want to wait until your plants have wilted to tell you they are thirsty, either.
HOW PLANTS USE WATER
Plants use—and lose—water continuously. Water in; water out. Along with air pockets, water a main highway for transporting nutrients to plant roots, making up 25 percent of good soil. (Air is another 25 percent). Soil acts as a storage reservoir when moisture is not replaced by rainfall, soaker hose or sprinkler. How much water can the soil hold depends on its texture and organic matter content. To amend our local soil, add compost, seaweed, aged manure, leaves and so on. Doing so, you set up the best safety net for extreme water conditions — too wet and too dry.
Here are a few watering tips:
How often? – Water when the soil feels dry to your finger about two inches down. If you are measuring dryness around container plants, hanging baskets or new seedlings, then water when the soil feels dry about an inch down.
A deep soak is much better for plants than a token sprinkling that only dampens soil. Which means if you’re hand watering, it could take a while. Though gardeners tell me that watering their gardening is a Zen thing to do.
What time of day? – As you might imagine, water loss is highest during midday, and lowest at night. The best time to water? In the morning. That’s when it’s most effective. Besides, watering in the cool of the evening creates perfect conditions for slugs and diseases such as gray mold. Ick.
It’s also a good idea to water before pulling weeds and after transplanting seedlings and thinning root crops like carrots and beets. It helps settle the soil around the disturbed seedlings.
Rain water vs. tap water – If you lived in England, you wouldn’t be caught dead using water from the tap. Not that I have immediate relatives in the UK who are tracking what we do, but we did install a catchment system to collect rainwater from the roof. This is supplemented of course, with City water.
Speaking of tap water, no one likes a cold shower and neither do plants. What comes out of the spigot can be a leaf-numbing temperature. So when your plants are young, avoid watering their leaves. Try to water around them as much as possible. For that matter, directing water to the roots is much more efficient. And it doesn’t interrupt bees, hover flies (bee look-alikes) and other important pollinators.
Of course, if you’re on a well system and it’s in danger of going dry, consider recycling greywater. Greywater is household wastewater from the laundry, dishwashing, and bathing. A few tips: It’s best to use greywater only on well-established plants. Do not use on edibles, lawns, or acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons.
Finally, know what’s in the greywater first. Avoid detergents and cleaning products that contain softening agents which harbor high levels of salts. Use non-detergent soaps. Greywater that is contaminated with fats and grease can be toxic to plants. Alternate greywater with fresh water when possible.
WATER IS LIFE
Never take water for granted. Water covers nearly three quarters of the planet (so why do we called it “earth” and not “water” or “liquid”?), but only about 3% of that water is fresh water fit for use by humans and animals or for watering plants.
Now you know that watering on a hot day in Kodiak won’t burn your plants. As for how hot this summer will be though, is anyone’s guess. In a perfect world, it would rain every third day, just before sunrise.
To sign up for Marion’s “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, visit her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com.