Well, summer is here. It’s HOT and things are drying out really quickly! In some parts of the country (looking at you east coast) there’s rain all summer to help growers but here in the arid west if you want to garden edibles, you’ll have to irrigate.
Here’s a hard truth- all of the veggies in your garden are primadonnas. Look around the forest and you’ll see loads of plants thriving without any water all summer, but miss a couple of days in the garden and your zucchini plants may not survive.
Indeed, most of our common our food plants have been bred for idealized conditions where they get nutrients, water and sunlight consistently. There are people working on breeding hardier varieties with more genetic variance than can survive these times of increased heat and variable weather- but this is all to say- you’ve got to give your plants water- consistently.
Now, most of the Sierra Gardens are outfitted with emitterline – a curvy tube with emitters that put out a 1/2 gallon of water per hour. It’s a great product- flexible and sturdy enough to last year after year.
The important thing to remember is that there are no hard and fast rules about how to irrigate. Everyone’s soil is going to act differently depending on its composition, how well it drains, how hot it is, and how much direct sun the garden beds are receiving. Fun, right? But there are a few tips that can help you feel empowered to irrigate confidently.
- Seeds and baby plants need to be kept moist. If you are germinating seeds, try not to let them dry out. You can spread shadecloth or burlap over a bed to keep it from drying out on really hot days (provided the sprouts haven’t peeked out of the soil yet).
- HANDWATERING: when I’m hand watering I will spend 10 seconds on each section of the bed, and keep going over it multiple times. Watch the soil get shiny and then soak in, and go back over it again. You can think that you are getting everything really wet, only to poke your finger into the soil and find that the ground is dry beyond the top half inch.
- ***Your most powerful irrigation tool is your finger. I can’t stress this enough. Seriously, nothing is going to give you more information than sticking your finger in the ground and seeing how deep the moisture has gotten. This is literally the most important thing you can learn about irrigating. Aim to have the ground wet up until your first knuckle (but ideally more).***
- Plants need more water than you expect. When I was running the farm, home gardeners would come and ask why my plants looked so much better than theirs. I would ask them how long they were watering for- and they would say “45 minutes” and they would ask me and I would say, “I’m running this section for 4 hours every other day.” That’s a huge difference! Play around with your irrigation settings- you may think that you are watering plenty but if you aren’t checking the moisture with your finger frequently, then how can you know?
- Look at your plants! Are they drooping? Generally looking stressed? Chances are they are sending you lots of info about their needs. Taking a walk in the garden in the morning and evening can give you a good idea about how your plants are faring through the day.
- Drip vs. overhead. Generally, it’s considered water-wise to use drip irrigation for water conservation and weed management. But most plants do love a little shower too (especially the leafy ones). I have found that sprinklers can be great but are not terribly precise. Many farmers swear by overhead irrigation and it’s definitely more fun to set up! See what works for you in your space.
- Time of day: It’s generally considered best to water in the morning or evening and not in the main heat of the day. Aim to have the soil moist going into these scorching afternoons and your plants will fare better.
- Mature plants need less water. Right now in June is a water heavy time of year, but as things get established and their roots get deeper, you can do longer, more infrequent waterings. Once plants are big, it’s ok to let them dry out a bit. For things that you want sweetness (tomatoes, melons) depriving the plant of water increases the quality of fruit. Have you ever had a dry farmed tomato? They are heavenly. As your plants move into their adult phases, see how you can change your watering habits. Longer, deeper soaks every few days encourage more resilient plants.
- Not directly irrigation related but consider mulching! It helps keep the moisture in the soil and helps your irrigation last longer- and keeps the plants a bit cooler too. Rice straw is my go to but other things like leaves, cardboard or even old clothes can be used as well.
Cheers to using your hands and your head to irrigate effectively this summer!