How often should I water my garden?
This is one of the most common questions I get, and the most correct answer is…drum roll…IT DEPENDS! It’s not the answer most people want to hear, but it’s the correct answer. This post is mostly focused on challenges and tips in watering your outdoor gardens, but let me give you a quick example to illustrate my point using one of my favorite houseplants, the ubiquitous Phalaenopsis or Moth Orchid. When asked “how often should I water it,” without going into a long soliloquy and perturbing my unsuspecting victim, I often say “take it your kitchen sink and soak it well once a week.” In most cases, with typical indoor conditions, once a week is good enough advice for success. But the most correct answer truly is, IT DEPENDS! Why? Because the frequency with which you water any plant really depends on many variables including, but not limited to: temperature, soil type or potting media, lighting conditions, air circulation, the type and size of pot (plastic vs. terra cotta, etc.). So, the answer truly is…it depends!
Right Plant for the Right Spot
Too often, we are tempted to place our favorite plant in the spot where WE think it should be, rather than letting nature dictate what will grow well in that spot! Mother Nature is a force to reckon with, and in the end, she will win. Always remember this. My best advice with finding an appropriate site for your plant is to see what the natural conditions are for your site and then choose your plant accordingly to suit the soil condition (unless you are willing to change it) and microclimate. If you plant a water-loving plant in an area that has quick-draining, bone-dry soil, you’re constantly going to be fighting nature and will have to keep watering. As humans, we will quickly tire of this and fail at our duties. Mother Nature does a much better job that us humans can. Conversely, if you place a plant that prefers dry soil into perpetually wet soil, the plant will languish and probably rot. If you work with nature, you will find that your gardening efforts will be much more successful and also much less WORK! The one caveat is that we can’t always control nature so just accept that your successes and failures may vary from year to year!
Let me give you a good example from my own gardening experiences. In our old house, there was one spot in the garden that was a low spot and that soil consisted of a lot of clay. Every time it rained, the area would puddle up and stay water-logged for a while. Nothing that I planted there seemed to do well as a result. Until I got fed up with watching every plant languish in that spot, I researched plants that are well-suited to moist soil and can tolerate full sun and clay soil. Enter the Japanese Iris. I planted two Japanese Irises there and they flourished. Not only did they prosper, but they grew with very little extra assistance from me!
The Curse of the Sprinkler System
I am not a fan of sprinkler systems, unless it is for watering lawns. I’m not a fan of lawns either though! If I had my way, I would eliminate all grass and plant other ground covers or other low maintenance landscaping. Why am I not a fan of watering my garden with a sprinkler system? My main reason is that not all the plants that I choose to put in my garden have all the same water requirements! I am counting incessant rain in the same category as a sprinkler system (although rain water is much better for the plants!). Except we have no way of switching off the rain. Some plants love to be on the drier side, such as Vinca, Portulaca and Cosmos. I remember one year I planted a lot of Vinca and they just grew horribly because the rain would not STOP! By Vinca, I mean Madagascar Periwinkle, not the cold-hardy vining Vinca minor with small purple flowers that appear in the Spring. If you have poor results with certain plants one year (because of too much rain, too high or too low temperatures, etc), don’t be discouraged. I love Madagascar Periwinkle plants, and you really can’t control or necessarily predict the weather, so I plant it and hope for the best! In my area of the country, we can have some wild swings in temperature and moisture. You never know what conditions the growing season will bring. I planted a few Vincas again this year and they are doing very well. Shockingly, other than at planting time, I don’t think I have given them any additional water! Vincas hate cold and wet conditions. They prefer it hot and dry. So when I do take my hose out to water, unless we are going through a very very dry period, I do not water my Vincas.
Another plant that I love in my garden that enjoys being on the drier side is Portulaca. I planted these around the perimeter of my garden next to the pea gravel lined stone walkway. Not only do they bake in sun most of the day, but the pea gravel provides excellent drainage for these succulent plants. The stone walkway will also absorb the sun’s heat and provide the hot conditions that these plants love. Similar to my Vinca plants, I don’t think I’ve given them any additional water this year other than the rain that we’ve received! These plants have thrived and are already have multiplied a few times in size from when they were planted about one and a half months ago.
Cosmos, I’ve also learned, also love much drier conditions than many other plants. One year when we received more rain that we knew what to do with, my cosmos did pretty poorly. This year, although we’ve had some good rains, I have not supplemented with any additional water and they are thriving.
I am by NO means suggesting that you plop your plants in the ground and not add any additional water! I AM asking you to be aware of the conditions that your specific plants need in order to thrive, and then adjust your care accordingly. I have PLENTY of plants that need much more water than nature can provide! I am regularly watering my dahlias, and just about every potted plant that I have. Which leads me to a special section on potted plants.
Watering Potted Plants Outdoors
Potted plants need extra special care compared to plants that you have in the ground. The soil in a pot often dries out much more quickly than the soil in the ground in your garden. I tend to err on the drier side, but not to the point where the plants start to wilt. If you see a wilted plant, water it immediately. Don’t fertilizer plants that are in bone dry soil. You will just end up stressing the plant. Wait until it recovers.
One year when we had an exceptionally dry summer, I wished I had used a soil mix that contains polymer additive in order to keep the soil more moist. The following year, I did just that, and it turned out to be a wet year and then my pots stayed too wet! Again, I always err on the drier side, but not to the point where your plant is wilting because you will weaken and stress your plant each time this happens.
One of the beauties of growing plants in a pot, is that you can move your plant easily if you need to, and you can control both the soil and the watering much better than if it were growing in the ground. Most of my watering efforts are focused on potted plants, such as those in the picture below from our pergola area last year. In hot weather, I have to water daily and sometimes twice a day depending on how hot it is outside! In cooler temperatures, I can sometimes get away with watering every other day or sometimes longer. Remember, only water if your plants need water! Don’t always base your watering on routine. Stick your hand in the soil and if the top feels wet or moist, don’t add any additional water. Unglazed terra cotta pots, especially small ones, will dry out very quickly. Glazed clay pots and plastic pots will take longer to dry out, especially larger ones.
There are many variables dictating how often you should water. As an avid gardener, I’m always learning, observing and adjusting. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and please reach out to me with any questions. I love hearing from each and every one of you!