Growing Things When the Rains Don’t Come

Growing Things When the Rains Don’t Come

  • By David Garth
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  • June 2016-Vol.2 No.6
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Any gardener who takes a summer vacation knows the impending disaster if plants go without water for even a week of broiling days.  The critical periods come at different seasons for each plant, but generally germination, bloom time and fruiting absolutely demand adequate moisture in order for vegetables, lawns and ornamentals to prosper.  In addition, some species tolerate dry spells better than others.  A deeply rooted woody plant or an established stand of grass may survive a drought for a couple of months while most annuals want watering at least once a week.  Here’s a rundown of summer strategies for keeping your garden and yard alive with moisture.

Mulching  The simplest approach is to wait for rain to fall; but that’s too passive for those of us who want consistently beautiful and tasty results.  Summer heat and windy weather any time of year will quickly dry out soil unless we mulch.  For our vegetables — where appearance is less important — we can put down several layers of newspaper,  which we cover with some other mulching material.  Newspaper decays in a couple of months and today is printed with ink more friendly to the environment.

A wide variety of mulching materials are available:

  • Raw wood chips or sawdust will decay slowly and initially uses up nitrogen, although each is sometimes available for free from local tree trimmers.
  • Green grass clippings hold moisture but produce a stinky mess as they deteriorate so mix them with another media.
  • Pine bark is beautiful although it scatters too easily for my taste.
  • Pine needles are more stable and lower the soil’s pH, making them useful around our acid-loving berries and azaleas.
  • Ground hardwood bark comes in brown, red or black, the first choice for flower beds.
  • Landscaping cloth, covered with another material for aesthetic purposes, is durable and also retards weeds.  Be aware that planting over the cloth later will require cutting it with a sturdy tool.

Finally, synthetic chips are brightly colored for your fancy, but since they do not decay, they add nothing to enrich your dirt.

Transporting Water.  A watering can is the iconic symbol of the gardener.  But who takes the time to sprinkle more than a few pots or new additions?  Nonetheless, a clever friend found she could extend her season for fresh lettuce by giving her plants a daily afternoon shower, cooling them just enough to stay happily productive.  Some of us save dishwater to pour on recently transplanted shrubs or trees; but be cautious about the additives in soap.  The other time-honored method of getting water where it’s needed is using a hose.  As straightforward as watering might seem, I’ve discovered there are better and worse ways of hosing down your growing things.

Tips for Effective Watering with a Hose

A 5/8 inch hose of good quality will last longer with a support around the female end that attaches to the supply, since the better hoses don’t kink and develop leaks.  Because they are heavier to lug around, they are best used where you can leave them in place for the season.  Installing rounded hose guards at critical locations can protect your finest garden specimens from damage when dragging a heavy hose through the garden.  Few accidents are more discouraging than breaking off a tomato plant by pulling too hard on your hose.  Decorative guards are sold in shops, although a heavy broomstick driven into the ground serves the same purpose.  A pistol grip valve on the business end of your hose can control the amount of water and how it’s dispersed as well as save your steps back and forth to the faucet.

Other irrigation systems for watering have some technological advantages.  Overhead sprinklers — often fixed atop a pole — will cover taller plants.  Such a system seldom develops problems.  It’s great for folks with unlimited water.  The disadvantage is the amount of water going where it’s not needed and the high percentage lost to evaporation.  Several micro delivery techniques have been devised.  One method buries multiple smaller hoses with closed ends, sometimes one per plant,  each hose having tiny holes punched along its length.  These small tubes are connected to a larger hose also buried in the ground and fitted with an automatic valve at the supply to turn on the water as often as desired.  I’ve seen this done for foundation plantings around a newly constructed home.   This system is ideal for newly-planted shrubs.  It could be used for any garden, although planting or cultivating around buried hoses would be problematic.

Micro-emitters laid on the surface can be easily moved.  I’ve used a small soaker hose made from recycled materials that can be placed alongside a row of vegetables or wound through an ornamental garden.  Perhaps because of the material or the multiple penetrations or the need to move them often, these hoses usually last only a season or two before breaking apart.  Another design uses a flat ribbon with small holes.  Unfortunately, all the micro-emitters are subject to clogging, again limiting the product’s life.

Before settling on an irrigation system, consider:

  • Distance from your water source to the garden.  If driveways or paths must be crossed, you may need to bury the hose or protect it.
  • Needs of the plants.  They will dictate the sophistication and expense of your system.
  •  The arrangement of your garden — in straight rows or scattered irregularly, tall or short plants, an ornamental display or a working vegetable supply.
  • Finally, don’t forget that central Virginia winters will freeze and sometimes burst hoses left filled outside.

For every system that saves time and effort, nothing replaces a gardener who keeps a watchful eye on the health of the growing things under her care.  The good news is that almost nothing makes more difference in a garden than having enough water.

More information

“Creating A Water-wise Landscape,”

“Environmental Horticulture: Guide to Nutrient Management,” Diane Relf,, (month-by-month management of water and nutrients).

“Filtration, Treatment, and Maintenance Considerations for Micro-Irrigation Systems,” Brian Benham,

“Irrigating the Home Garden,” R. Allen Straw,

“Mulching for a Healthy Landscape,” Diane Relf,

So You Want to Start a Nursery (Tony Avent, Timber Press 2003),  pp. 132-135.

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