Common sense watering
They say that common sense is not so common. I agree and common sense in the garden is not so common either, especially when it comes to watering. I think we need to reinvent garden sense – the down to earth, gardening wisdom which is second nature to those who have been gardening for a long time, and which is yet to be learned by those relatively new to gardening. Recently I have had a number of conversations with people about watering which have reminded me that many people don’t understand the concept of watering.
When it comes to pots for example, we need to remember that pots dry out rapidly and as such need to be watered more regularly than plants in the ground. Once a week watering for a large plant in a small pot in full sun may not cut it unless it’s a succulent, and even then it will probably look tired. And, you don’t need a moisture meter to tell you when to water it. Touch the soil, not just on the surface but push you finger in a centimetre or so like your gran used to. The dirt won’t hurt you, and in fact, it will tell you a lot! If it feels moist – it is, and doesn’t need watering. If it feels dry – it is, and does need watering. Often people are shocked when I advise people to be prepared to water some pot plants daily (depending on position, size, plant variety, etc, etc). I then ask them what they see the staff in nurseries doing on hot days – and they get an ‘Ahaaaaa’ look on their face as they answer “watering” ……………. in fact in nurseries they often have to water each plant several times a day in the heat.
Watering in the ground is completely different however it needs serious thought too. Recently I have met several people who are watering their ornamental garden and lawns for a few minutes every couple of days. This is one of the worst ways to water as this shallow watering encourages surface rooting as the plants are trying to grab any drop of water they can. When we have hot weather or a dry start to spring and summer as we did prior to the recent rains, these surface rooted plants stress terribly. The aim of watering is to get the water down to 30cm in the soil profile, not just in the top few centimetres. For most plants (apart from vegies) it is far better to water deeper less often. How do you know how deep the water penetrates in your soil? Dig a hole next to a water outlet after you have watered and see just how far the water has soaked. You can also test the soil with your finger to see if it’s moist too. There are many gardeners in the Hills who have worked out they only need to water established gardens once a fortnight, once a month or even less however when they do water they do it for a long period so that the water really gets down deep. For newer garden, depending on the plants chosen and the aspect, it may require once a week watering, although sometimes you just have to play it by ear and read your plants.
It is also essential that you mulch and mulch well. After the recent rains pull back the mulch and you will see the ground is still moist whereas the top of soil left exposed to the sun will already be dry.
Read your plants
Good gardeners learn to read plants. They can spot the difference between a well-watered hydrated plant and one which is needing a drink. They notice the obvious things like a dull appearance to the foliage, leaf curling, leaf drop or canopy thinning in summer, which can indicate that the plants are stressed for water. There are some tricks to tell in your plants need watering or not. For example with your citrus, touch the leaf on a hot summer day. If it is cool, it is hydrated, and if the leaf is not cool to the touch, the plant needs a drink.
However when the weather first starts to warm up in spring, as it did this year in September with temperatures of 30 plus degrees and hot winds, many plants wilt when they are not actually thirsty and some gardeners panic and water them. Most plants are not actually dry at this time, they are just soft to the suns harsh summer-like rays. Most of the plants that wilt in the first hot days in spring will in fact perk themselves up when the sun goes down at the end of the day. So in fact they were not dry they were just soft. If they don’t pick up, they are dry and may need watering.
A balancing act
Gardening really is a balancing act with everything – not too much and not too little. We are aiming for ‘just right’. And when it comes to watering, while we don’t want to be frivolous and waste water as it is precious, sometimes by changing the way we water, we can get better results from the water we do apply.