Adventures in Gardening: Watering in Summer

by David Soper

My local newspaper publishes a daily map in color showing what the temperatures are running across America. Red and orange signify hot as you might have guessed.

Many of the nation's gardeners are well into summer and in many places it is downright hot (though not Seattle). Thinking about hot makes me think about water and what are the water rules for successful gardening.

There is hardly an element more important to the plant than water. Water dissolves the nutrients in the soil so the hungry plant can be nourished, it is the main component of sap, which circulates through the plants carrying nutrients in suspension.

Holes, pores or stomates are generally found on the underside of leaves. Water evaporates through these as the plant breathes. Obviously, the hotter it is the more moisture is lost. You can sometimes see that in the behavior of the plant.

Many plants show their need for water. Their leaves become dull, drooping or wilted. When that happens, plant growth is delayed.

Irrigation is used by farmers to cool plants during extreme weather. If the temperature exceeds 90 degrees even a five minute spray will refresh the plants and not waste much water.

Your soil type can also effect the retention of water. A mix of part clay and part humus can hold water for more than two weeks without rain. Sandy soils, on the other hand, might need watering every day when it is hot. Of course, that is why many gardeners mulch. Mulch is excellent for retaining moisture and insulating the surface from the direct rays of the sun.

If you, perish the thought, live in an area where water is rationed, you can be more effective by mulching now. It is not too late. Water in the early morning, if you can.

I don't want you to get the idea that the five minute tonic is a substitute for deep watering. It isn't. Your garden should be watered deeply, but only occasionally. You want your plants to send roots down into the ground in search of water.

That is also where they'll find nutrition. Shallow roots can rob the surface inch or two of the good stuff and, when it is gone, the plant suffers. Further, shallow roots don't anchor the plant worth a darn. You may be unpleasantly shocked by the results of the occasional wind storm (A not unknown event in much of the country).

The reason for watering early (or late, if you must), is to reduce the loss of moisture through evaporation before the plant can even get a drink.

After a dry period, apply water slowly to avoid runoff. It could take several minutes for the water to begin soaking in. For most plants, the roots are about a foot or more below the surface so water accordingly.

If you have the time, use a fine spray or mist in order to reduce runoff and plant damage.

Our friends living in arid lands have made a lot of progress in the development of techniques of water conservation that work, most notably drip irrigation. That might be worth further exploration.

Watering with hand-held hoses or containers requires patience to assure adequate soaking.Consider sprinklers on timers as an alternative.

If your garden is relatively new it is likely to need a lot more water than an established installation. I know some folks who only water their mature borders once or twice a season! The secret is in the root mass. Older plants, with deep roots, can survive water shortages surprisingly well.

That's all for now. Good luck and great gardening.

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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