Last summer was very dry in our region. With that in mind and spring on the way, let’s chat about water issues.
Water, it’s so important in the gardening world. How to get it, how to collect it, how to correctly apply it, how to conserve its use, how to preserve it once it is applied. I write frequently about water, and for good reason, it’s vital to optimum plant growth. The term “watering” is the number one answer to the common question, “What am I doing wrong?” Watering incorrectly, fortunately can be corrected unless it is, of course, excess rainfall.
The two most efficient ways to water plants is by hand or with a drip irrigation system, a sweat hose or a soaker hose.
A soaker hose has tiny pinprick holes that spray out and a sweat hose is made of porous material that allows water to drip out. Overhead sprinklers of any style are the most wasteful in a garden.
Overhead watering is also not good for plants, as it helps to spread disease around the garden through run off. Also, wet plants are more susceptible to disease.
What is also beneficial about hand watering is that it brings you through the garden, seeing the plants up close, being able to detect disease or insect issues in the early stages. Hand watering also allows you to direct the water to the soil at the base of the plants, keeping the foliage dry.
Yes, when it rains the plants get wet, but avoiding it during hand watering can only be a benefit!
Plants during the growing season need 1-2 inches of water per week (include any rain in the calculation), and the water is best applied in two weekly applications, not daily.
Garden centers also sell gadgets for measuring soil moisture. Let’s face it, unless it just rained the top of the soil will always look dry. Check a few inches down for accuracy.
If you want to get technical, you can get a tensiometer to measure soil moisture. Once you have applied the water, the next trick is to slow down surface evaporation. This is simple to accomplish using summer mulch.
Straw is my favorite material to use in the vegetable garden. Once the soil is warmed, early to mid-June, heap a 6-to-8-inch layer around the base of plants, even covering walking paths if you have enough material.
Straw or similar materials will act as an insulator, so if you apply it too early when the soil is still cool, it will keep it cool, which is not what tomatoes want! Using 6 inches of organic matter such as straw can reduce your water loss by 90%!
You can also use landscape fabrics to assist with weed control and moisture reduction. Although tomatoes and peppers love heat, sometimes black fabric materials can get too hot. When this happens, I use straw on top of the fabric to cool it down a bit, and toward early fall I pull it back away from plants to increase the heat again, creating my own microclimates.
If you plan to use fabrics, put them in place in late April or early May and they will start to warm up the soil underneath.
Barrels of fun
Installing rain barrels is a great way to collect water for using later. Make sure your barrel is enclosed or has a lid to keep breeding mosquitos and curious children out.
They should be on a raised platform to create a gravity flow, but it will still be more than just a trickle. Some rain barrels have connecting overflow barrels which are great for large roof systems. You should also have a system in place to handle the overflow, which could be as simple as reconnecting a downspout.
Xeriscaping is a system of designing and installing landscapes that are suited for drought or low water — which also equals low maintenance.
In this type of landscape, the best types of plants for our region would be prairie types. These plants thrive in dry areas and often suffer in a mixed bed of plants from over watering.
Water and the lawn: maintain your grass at 3 inches, this means mowing when it is 3.5-4” tall. Yikes!
Taller turf helps reduce surface evaporation. When the turf is mowed too low, more of the soil surface is exposed to the sun and wind. Taller turf can shade the soil area and help to shade out weed seed that may need light to germinate.
Winter markets are done for the year. The outdoor Mankato Farmer’s Market will open 8 a.m. May 7 in the Best Buy Mankato parking lot.