Garden Blitz

Watering the garden is about as uncomplicated as it gets, right? Ha! There are actually effective and ineffective, healthy and unhealthy, conservative and wasteful ways to water plants.

Melinda Myers, a Milwaukee-based garden guru of national repute, says many of us are “happy hour waterers.” We get home from work, grab a beverage and unwind before dinner by passing the watering wand over the garden. While it may be relaxing for the gardener, it’s not actually doing much for the plants. Here’s why:

Deep soaking is better. Dampening the soil with a light mist doesn’t get moisture to the roots where the plant can use it. In fact, researchers say it encourages root growth at the surface instead of sending roots deeper where they can better anchor the plant and draw moisture from reserves deeper in the soil. Horticulturists recommend giving plants an inch of water in any week where there’s less than an inch of rainfall.

It actually takes quite a bit of time to put an inch of water on the garden. You can determine this (if you’re so inclined) by placing an empty tuna or cat food can in the garden before you water. Then, measure how long it takes for your sprinkler or watering wand to fill the inch-deep can. If you don’t want to fool around with tuna cans, just remember this: Watering deeply is better than giving your garden a quick spritz.

Watering early is also better. Spritzing the foliage in late afternoon or evening invites fungal diseases because the leaves stay wet. It’s healthier for plants to hydrate in the morning. That way, the sun dries the foliage before fungi can get a foothold. In fact, Brian Hudelson, director of the Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic at UW-Madison, says the optimum time for watering is something like 3 or 4 a.m. That minimizes water loss through evaporation while bringing on the sunshine just in time to dry off the leaves. Having never set my alarm clock for 4 a.m. to water the garden, I cannot verify these findings.

Because water is such a valuable resource, it’s also good to use it as wisely as possible. Hand watering is an effective way to target water right to the base of the plant without wetting the foliage. Since hand watering my ever-enlarging gardens would take most of the day, I have generally abandoned that excellent approach. After purchasing miles of soaker hoses, I’ve discovered they work great for rows of tomato plants, but don’t evenly water the more haphazardly placed plants in my flower beds.

I have resorted to the less-desirable oscillating, overhead sprinkler method. Although it’s not as good from a conservation standpoint, I take comfort in how efficiently I am using it. The sprinkler not only waters the garden, it washes passing cars, refreshes people on the sidewalk, and cleans our windows — even if it does leave considerable spotting.

Watering your friends and neighbors along with the garden, now that’s blitz.