WATERING YOUR GARDEN
There is an overwhelming amount of information available about the correct methods for watering, the right amount of water, and how often to water. This information might be all well and good as general information, but as temperatures, water and other climatic conditions around Australia differ depending on where you live then the rules might not apply to you and your garden or even different sections of your garden.
When watering you’ll have to take into account the type of plant, the climate, the soil condition and the different times and seasons of the year – all of which will influence your watering regime.
These are the main factors that will impact upon your watering:
The type of plant you’re dealing with will dictate how much water they will need. Succulents and other drought-tolerant plants that have extensive root systems and store water and moisture are naturally able to retain water better and do not require much water to survive. Other plants that are not so drought tolerant will need to be greater quantities of water on a much more frequent basis, particularly in hotter conditions. The needs work both ways as there’s no better way of killing a succulent than with over-watering, which will rot the root system. More people kill cacti with the “kindness” of over-watering than from any other reason.
Plants that are large or are newly planted will also require more water as they will need plenty of moisture and nutrients to establish themselves and grow. Plants with shallow root systems such as vegetables or most perennials will also need more frequent watering because they don’t have the reservoirs of water storage, nor the deep roots through which they can obtain water from deep within the soil.
Australia’s climate can differ vastly depending on where you are live.
Marble Bar, WA holds the record for the longest running heatwave in Australia with 161 consecutive days over 37.8.C and is known for reaching temperatures of 42 degrees by 9am! By comparison on the cooler and rather frostier side is Liawenee, Tasmania, where on average there are 142 days a year below freezing and only 0.7 days a year reach above 30 degrees! The difference is amazing, but that’s what you get when you have a country the size of a continent, albeit the world’s smallest. As you can imagine, if the same plants were planted in both of these areas, different amounts of water and care would be required in order to help them survive.
If you live in coastal areas, or in regions that are affected by sandy soils, your plants will need more watering. It’s difficult for sandy soils to retain water so they’ll quickly dry out, and the nutrients can drain from the soil quite easily, slowing starving your plants of food. In cases of sandy soil, it is always advisable to apply mulch over the garden beds. This will help sandy soils to retain moisture and inhibit nutrients lost to the air too.
The general rule is that no matter what the time of the year, in hot temperatures you will need to water more, as the sun will suck all the moisture from the ground and plants, leaving them thirsty and prone to heat stroke and sun damage. On cold days the soil will better retain its moisture, as the sun will evaporate less liquid. Frequent rainfall and dew also helps watering to be kept at a minimum.
But the seasons have an impact on us as well. We all know that each of the four seasons have different conditions and weather patterns – from the scorching heat of summer, to the regular frosts of winter. When it’s cold and wet don’t seem to drink as much as when it’s hot and humid.
But nevertheless some people thrive in heat, while others wilt. Some people love the cold while others just want to hibernate. The same variations in character apply to our plants.
Consider also that summers aren’t always dry and winters aren’t always wet, even though these are the conditions that the majority of Australians are used to. There are climatic zones where the summers are wet, or monsoonal, and the winters are dry. “Hot” and “dry” aren’t synonyms, nor are “cold” and “wet”.
With all the different conditions that have an impact on our gardens, watering can become confusing and devising an optimal watering strategy can be a bit overwhelming. You might now be desperately trying to wrack your mind thinking, “When on earth was the last time I watered?” or feeling guilty with thoughts of “Am I watering too often or not enough?”
So before you whip out the hose or make a mad dash for your watering can – stop, wait, take a breather and go out and look at your plants and the soil! There’s no use watering if it is already moist enough for those particular plants in question and you definitely don’t want to over-water your plants as this can cause its own myriad of problems – cacti aren’t the only plants that can be overwatered!
HOW TO TELL IF YOUR PLANTS NEED WATER
Plants need a relatively constant supply of water, so if they don’t have enough they will start to show the following signs of water deprivation, which include:
TESTING YOUR SOIL’S MOISTURE CONTENT
Still not sure you are watering properly? The surest and easiest way to test if your soil is moist and is retaining enough water for the plants is by doing a few simple tests.
The Squeeze Test
If your not afraid of getting your hands dirty, all you will need to do is to dig around in your garden, and pull out a palm full of soil. Don’t just get the top layer, but dig a little deeper and get some of the under layer that is an inch or two under. Once you have the soil – squeeze your hand shut and then open your fingers.
What you’re generally looking for is for the soil to hold together and form a rough ball shape. This ball will be neither compacted nor dense. Some small grains of soil might break away from the ball but your hand will remain free of any traces of water. This shows that you have a good level of moisture content in your soil. You know that your plants are getting the right amount of water because the water in the soil is what the water has left behind, not too much but not too little either.
If this isn’t what happened then your soil will either be too dry or too wet:
If it’s too dry the soil will crumble in your hand and break apart.
Wet soil will form a dense ball shape, will leave residue on your fingers and fingerprint marks on the soil.
If the soil is way too wet it will be soft and squishy and your fingers will be coated in wet dirt. When you squeeze the ball, water will be visible on the surface of the soil.
Another quick test is the Finger Test. As suggested, you use your finger (which is less messy so may appeal more to the ‘tentative green thumb’ gardener. Stick your finger deep into the soil. The top layers will be a bit drier than the under layers as the sun tends to evaporate moisture from the surface, but the deeper you go in the soil, the more moist it should become. If your soil is moist but not wet a couple of inches down then this is a good sign that your soil can absorb and drain in the right proportion and give the required water to your plant’s roots.
Now that you have established the moisture content of your soil, you can adjust it accordingly. If your soil is dry – Water it deeply. If it is wet or saturated – back off the watering for a while so that It can dry up a little.
GENERAL RULES OF WATERING YOUR GARDEN:
Before watering, check the local weather forecasts to see if any rain is due. Being a smart gardener and using nature’s supply of free water to help water your garden will save you time, and cost you less on your next water bill!
Water in the morning
The best time of day to water is always in the morning. An early morning watering gives the plants the time to absorb the moisture from the soil before it is evaporated by the sun. Early watering also distributes nutrients and energy throughout the soil so that plants can absorb them and prepare themselves for the heat or coldness of the day.
If you don’t have the time in the morning, you can always give watering a go in the afternoon or early evening (especially in the warmer months). We would encourage caution, however, as you need to leave enough time for leaves to dry before it gets dark. Leaving foliage wet over night can lead to fungal diseases on your plants.
Water the Roots
Fungal diseases can be a big issue with plants, so we always recommend that you avoid wetting foliage and leaves directly as this can aggravate the problem.
It’s the roots that need the water, not the leaves.
Watering directly on the foliage can also lead to the spreading of infected spores to other plants by splashing water. This is a big problem especially with roses and black spot and care should be taken to remove all infected leaves to prevent further infestation.
Watering leaves in full sun can also cause water droplets on the leaves to act like lenses, concentrating heat and damaging the leaves.
Watering plants directly at the root or use a drip irrigation system to prevent the spreading of fungal diseases.
For more information on designing irrigation systems, go here.
Some plants grow their roots deep into the earth where it’s cooler and they can retain and obtain moisture from the deeper layers of the soil, enabling them to be firmly established to combat excessive heat and cold snaps.
Plants grow from the roots up. So they need water deep enough to reach the root system. The majority of roots for annuals – plants that only live for one year before dying as they seed – are in the top 6 inches of soil.
Perennials – plants that live over many years – as well as shrubs and trees have roots that penetrate at least to the top 12 inches. This makes sense, imagine how deep a root system has to be to hold up a plant that rises for many feet above the ground. This is why a deep soaking is necessary. This does not mean that you drench the plant until they are floating in a pool of water! It just means you give each plant a steady amount of water so that you can see it absorbing into the soil. Don’t get carried away. Flooding is never good for your plants!
A drip irrigation system is probably the best way of watering your gardens as it preserves the water from evaporation and directs the water straight to where it is needed – to the roots!
Avoid Light Watering
If you think light watering is a safe method of watering. Think again! Light and frequent watering only wets the top layer of soil. This encourages the roots to seek out the moisture only on the surface of the ground because that’s where the plant “learns” that the water is. This leads to weak and shallow root systems. As the sun evaporates the remaining water, drying out the soil, the roots will be left in hot, dry soil lacking the water they require. If left unwatered, this can result in the plant dying. So don’t water lightly and frequently, or you’ll be condemning yourself, and your plants, to daily light watering forever.
If your plants are starting to look unhealthy, it may be tempting to think that this is a sign that they need more water. However if you water regularly, and the soil around the plants is wet to the touch it can also be a sign that you are actually giving your plants too much water.
If you are overwatering your plants, and saturating them with more water than they can cope with you may see your plants giving you the following signs:
Hot Weather Watering
In summer and spring your plants will need more water and you’ll need to be more diligent with your watering compared to in the cooler months of winter and autumn.
In hotter weather your plants are dependant on water for survival and you will need to employ methods to drought proof your garden so your plants have the best chance possible to stay alive and healthy.
This might involve watering plants daily or in extreme cases a couple of times a day when they are visibly wilting and suffering from heat stress. Plants that are in containers should be moved out of the sun and can be soaked with water until the water starts to come out of the bottom of the drainage holes.
Whatever the season, just look out for the tell tale signs of over or under-watering and adjust the watering to suit.
So in summary, it is vital to water properly with it all coming down to:
If you do all of these you should be able to have happy and growing plants in your garden.
One final note:
It’s much easier to plant and water according to the soil and climate type than to treat the soil and compensating for the climate. However, if you’re absolutely determined to have an “English Country Garden” in a hot, sandy coastal location then be prepared to spend years building up the organic elements in the soil until you achieve the right balance of nutrition, drainage and pH. It has been done and some people love the results.
After all is said and done, some people like high-maintenance gardens and watering regimes, while some people like to have the best possible garden with the minimal amount of work. No matter which extreme you are, you might like to consider using Fox Mowing and Gardening to help you make the most out of your unique garden situation. And while we’re there watering your garden, or designing a system that suits you and your gardens needs, we can do a lot of other stuff too to get your garden looking, and feeling, its best.
DROUGHT PROTECTION FOR YOUR GARDEN
Ahhh, the Australian Summer …
Blistering 40 degree days, where you could fry an egg on your driveway, boil water without a kettle, and be dripping wet without stepping foot near water, and that’s just in the shade!
Although not every Summer’s day is this extreme, and not everywhere in Australia is like this in the Summer (southern Tasmania, anyone?), no matter where you live across our magnificent continent you are, at least occasionally, bound to come across temperatures well above 30 degrees with hot, dry winds.
The Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as what happens when rainfall is in its lowest 10% over a three-month period. But you plant couldn’t care less.
We define drought as any period of time over which heat and lack of water stresses your garden beyond its capacity to adapt and recover.
However it comes, and however you reasonably define it, drought is drought and it can be unrelenting in its drying effect!
As humans living in the age of modern technology and air conditioners, when the temperatures soar we’re able to wallow comfortably indoors in 21-degree bliss. We can even bring the pets inside keeping them out of the sun and giving them plenty of water. That’s all well and good for us, but do we spare a thought for our gardens?
Our plants and gardens don’t have the option of uprooting themselves, taking a walk inside and lying down like literal couch potatoes under a stream of air-conditioned air.
No matter what the conditions your plants are outside 24/7.
Now they have, over time, come up with some impressive strategies for dealing with temperature and water-supply extremes, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that we can do to give them some support.
Drought Protection Is More Than Just Watering
We know that we need to wear sunscreen, sunglasses, hats and protective clothing to prevent sunburn. We know that we need to keep hydrated.
We know that you care about your garden. That’s why you’re even reading this article. You know that you have to protect your plants from too much heat and dehydration too and all the resulting wilting, drying up and ultimately dying from over-exposure to heat and sun and lack of water.
But for many gardeners the response to heat and dryness is simply to water, water, water. While this might be well intentioned and sound reasonable, watering is more an emergency response and is not, in fact, necessarily the best way to deal with drought, whether it’s an isolated extremely hot day or many days in a row. In order to deal with drought in a truly effective way, you need to understand a little about how plants actually work.
How Plants Make a Living
Just like people and other animals, plants get their energy from carbohydrates and fats. But animals get their carbs and fats from plants. Animals are, as far as plants are concerned, predators, parasites and only occasional business partners. Plants make their own food.
Plants eat light. They breath in carbon dioxide and drink water and from these three inputs they make carbs and oils through the magic of chlorophyll (the thing that makes so many plants green) and a chemical process called photosynthesis – from the Greek words meaning “putting together with light”. This happens mostly in the plants leaves, like in the blades of your lawn grass. Plants produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis.
So plants need water not just to drink, but to make food, and when they release oxygen they do so through the underside of their leaves along with some water too, just like we release carbon and water when we breath out (that’s why on a cold day you can see the water you breathe out condensing in the cold air).
On hot days, the photosynthesis speeds up, so the plant has to suck more water out of the soil to keep the process going. This can become a major challenge. If there isn’t enough water available the plant will dry out. Too much sun and not enough water will mean leaves drying out. The worst-case scenario from dehydration is of course, death of the plant.
Symptoms & Damage
It’s relatively easy to tell if your plants & lawn are suffering from heat exposure or heat stress. You’ll notice one or all of these symptoms:
Wilting: This is the first indicator you will see. Non-woody plants, or the parts of woody plants that aren’t woody, maintain their shape through water pressure. As water is lost, the plant wilts. Some plants are capable of deliberately wilting, so that in an attempt to maintain moisture the plant will lower its leaves, trying to make its self smaller and more compact in order to avoid having its surface area directly in the sun. Some plants are particularly susceptible to wilting and can wilt after being exposed to even very short periods of hot sun and even a minimal amount solar overdose or heat stress can result in damage to the plant that they cannot recover from.
Damage to the leaves: Yellowing and browning of leaves that leads to dryness and crustiness.
Dropping leaves, flowers or fruit: Many plants or trees will shed some of their leaves and flowers in an attempt to keep cool and conserve water by reducing the area water can evaporate from. But there are limits to how far this adaptation can go too.
As the signs imply, by the time you see them some damage has already been done.
Watering might come too late but even if you can water before irreversible damage occurs the plant still needs to recover. It’s better if the damage is minimal in the first place.
If you live in an area that experiences drought or hot, dry periods then you’ll already know just how bad things can get. But this is Australia, the driest continent on earth and even places not usually known for drought can experience unusual periods of dryness. So wherever you live it’s important to drought proofing your garden.
Prevention is ALWAYS better that a cure or remedy that comes too late.
Tackling the problem head on before it arises is always the preferred option.
DROUGHT PROOFING YOUR GARDEN – SOME STRATEGIES
One simple strategy that you use to fool proof your garden is to think ahead and predominantly place plants that are suited to warm, dry environments, that are adapted to low-water periods and that don’t require much attention and care. You need drought tolerant surviving plants that are hardier than other varieties that will just wilt and dye at the first rays of hot summer sun.
Succulents such as the Agave are great drought survivors as they conserve water in their fleshy leaves as a reserve against heat and dryness. Many succulents also have beautiful flowers, so they’re not all just thick leaves and spines.
You can also choose from a variety of drought tolerant Australian natives that look terrific in the garden and can naturally withstand our harsh climate. Planting tall shrubs or trees can also provide shade and a windbreak against those hot drying winds that can damage your less hardy plants.
To keep your lawns healthy, particularly in the hotter months, let the grass to grow a bit longer than usual – this will help shade the soil and reduce evaporation. Plus, longer, healthier grass has the handy benefit of keeping pesky weeds at bay!
Adding mulch to your garden beds will aid as a natural barrier between the sun and the soil, reducing evaporation and helping to lock in moisture near the plant roots, thus giving your plants plenty of water to draw on. When applying mulch it is recommended that you first water into the soil deeply and then add a layer of mulch 5cm deep over the top of your garden beds to protect and cool your plants. For more information on mulching, go here.
Shading Plants by Moving Them or Erecting Screens
Having your favorite non-drought or sun-tolerant flowers and vegetables in pots and containers with wheels so they can be moved might be an option. Such plants can be moved into shadier and cooler areas to help prevent the chance of heat damage to the plants. Plants in pots and hanging containers that you can’t easily move should be given a thorough soaking until the water permeates completely through the soil and comes out of the drainage holes. This watering might need to be repeated once or twice a day.
You could also install shade sails and screens or hang shade cloth over stakes to shade particular areas and plants that receive direct exposure. Shade screens can cover large parts of the garden.
Sprays & Granule
Just like we apply sunscreen before spending any time out doors, our plants should also be treated with the same care, especially those that you know are not very tolerant of heat. There are products available that can aid in the retention of water and protect them from heat and wind:
Drought Shields: can be sprayed onto plants to protect them from heat, water loss, sunburn, drying winds and drought.
Wetting Agents: To keep the soil moist so that water doesn’t run off the surface but instead sinks deep into the ground apply a soil saturator or wetting agent. These can come in liquid or granular form for ease of application.
Water Storing Crystals: These crystals will act as sponges, retaining and storing the water and will release the water back into the roots when needed. Mix the crystals thoroughly through soil in garden beds or in plants in pots and containers.
Water is the essential factor for protecting your plants and lawn from heat stress. All the other drought protection strategies are designed to retain water but without proper watering all your other efforts are futile.
Usually the best time to water is in the early morning or evening when the weather is cooler so that the water is not lost to evaporation but sinks deep into the soil. This is still the case for plants in summer when they might even need to be watered every day in hot conditions. You’ll also need to keep an eye out for any wilting or browning as this will be your cue to up the dosage of water.
For a more in-depth look at watering your garden, go here.
Lawns are different to other plants as they only require watering when they really need it.
For more information on knowing when, and how much to water your grass go here. Drought-proofing lawns also requires special techniques, so for more information on drought-proofing your lawns go here where we have dedicated articles purely to proper watering and drought protection of lawns.
One special challenge of dryer temperatures and lack of water is that with too much neglect the ground can harden making it difficult for the water to penetrate through into the deeper levels of soil. This explains why flash flooding occurs after a drought breaks – water tends to just run off dry ground in the same way it runs off tiles. So if you have just started watering and you notice the water pooling on the ground or on the lawn, turn off the sprinkler or hose and wait 15 minutes or so and then start again. This will give time for the water to permeate through the harder layers of ground and softening up the soil so that when you next water it the ground with absorb will the water more effectively and will reach down to the roots.
Conditions of extreme heat could call for a bit of impromptu action. Extreme heat can damage plants quickly and you might only have a few hours to play with before they can succumb and die. So if you notice a plant wilting during the day you should act immediately by giving the plant a good long soak and depending on how hot it is the watering might need to be repeated later in the day.
If you’re always busy or are more of the forgetful type of gardener then investing in a irrigation system or sprinkler with a timer can take the worry out of your hands as your garden plants will be watered on a regular basis keeping them, healthy and most importantly alive!
So you see it all comes down to:
• Choosing the right plants
• Completing regular checks of your garden for signs of heat stress
• Watering properly
• Giving as much protection to your plants as is humanly possible.
if you cover all these bases your garden and plants are sure to survive, if not thrive throughout summer and other dry periods.
And, of course, if you want some additional help and advice on creating a drought tolerant garden, or help with mulching, watering or spraying then the simplest solution is to let Fox Mowing look after it all for you. And while we’re there in your garden, we can do a lot of other stuff too to get your garden looking, and feeling, its best.
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