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Your First Garden: The Right Watering Method for Your Garden

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Your First Garden: The Right Watering Method for Your Garden

June 27, 2019

I had many questions about gardening when we first moved from an apartment in the city into a house with a yard. What plants would do well in our shady garden? Do I need to amend our soil? Where did my foxgloves go?

Watering, however, was not a gardening topic I belabored. I figured that was something I couldn’t mess up. Wrong. Turns out I was watering too little, the wrong way, at the wrong time of day, with the wrong type of tool.

Are you, too? Read on.

When’s the best time to water?

Contributor Meredith Swinehart waters her window box garden with a galvanized watering can. Photograph by Liesa Johannssen for Gardenista, from Container Gardens: 5 Tips for a Perfect Window Box.
Above: Contributor Meredith Swinehart waters her window box garden with a galvanized watering can. Photograph by Liesa Johannssen for Gardenista, from Container Gardens: 5 Tips for a Perfect Window Box.

If you have young kids, you know that most mornings are never leisurely. There are breakfasts to be made, backpacks to be checked, hygiene habits to be enforced. For me, the optimal time to tend to the garden was after dinner.

Problem is, watering at night means plants may not get a chance to dry completely, which can lead to fungal problems. Another poor time to water is in the middle of the day, when temperatures peak, because water is likely to evaporate before it reaches the roots.

The best time of day to water any plant (sorry, parents) is the morning, when temperatures are cooler and foliage can properly dry.

How often should you water?

Deep watering leads to deep, healthy roots. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista: The Definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces.
Above: Deep watering leads to deep, healthy roots. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista: The Definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces.

Many parents know that when it comes to breastfeeding, there are two methods—on demand and on schedule—and for the most part, both tactics will work. For plants, though, I would say that watering on demand is preferable to watering on a schedule, and that’s largely because of the weather.

Why waste water on your garden when it’s been a particularly rainy week? Having an in-ground irrigation system that’s on a timer is certainly convenient, but consider getting a smart controller that will automatically adjust your watering schedule based on the weather forecast. (See Hardware 101: Smart Irrigation Controllers.)

For a standard rain-less week, aim for a good soak once or twice a week (caveat: vegetable gardens may need to be watered every day).

And for how long?

Well-timed sprinklers spray water in the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photograph by Marie Viljoen.
Above: Well-timed sprinklers spray water in the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Much longer than you think you need to. My first year of gardening, I was so eager to be done with the chore as quickly as possible to avoid the mosquitoes that swarm my yard at dusk (another reason to water in the morning!), I would set the nozzle of my hose to “shower” and spray over all my shrubs and flowers in high sweeps in order to cover the most territory. I think I averaged 10 to 15 minutes for my biweekly watering.

I was basically misting the leaves instead of soaking the roots—which is like washing your hair instead of drinking water when you’re thirsty. What should I have done? According to experts, I should have soaked the base of the plants so that the soil is moist to a depth of 6 to 12 inches. That may take an hour or more, depending on your watering method.

What type of watering tool is best?

The plants in this garden are watered via a drip irrigation system to conserve water. Photograph by Mimi Giboin, from Garden Visit: At Home with Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in St. Helena, CA.
Above: The plants in this garden are watered via a drip irrigation system to conserve water. Photograph by Mimi Giboin, from Garden Visit: At Home with Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in St. Helena, CA.

Not all watering methods are created equal. Slow watering is the best, so that water gets a chance to soak into the root ball—a rush of water at once would create runoff—and the best way to deliver slow watering is via drip irrigation. “Drip irrigation is efficient. It delivers water directly to the root zone of a plant, so less water is lost from evaporation or runoff,” wrote  contributor Christine Chang Hanway in Hardscaping 101: Drip Irrigation.

Similar to and cheaper than drip irrigation is a soaker hose, which is essentially a porous hose that “leaks” water at a slow and steady rate. In general, large gardens with rows of plants do best with drip irrigation, while soaker hoses work well for smaller gardens and raised beds.

If you are going to simply use a standard hose, like I did, consider upgrading it by adding a water wand, which delivers a localized gentle shower. (See 10 Easy Pieces: Water Wands.) And, of course, there’s always the old-fashioned watering can. It’s a little more labor-intensive but gets the job done.

For more on watering plants, see:

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