Give your plants what they thirst for Watering: Forget the quick spritz. Long, deep, morning drinks are needed during the hot, dry days of summer.

July 07, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

July rhymes with dry, which is the problem many gardens will probably face this month. The monsoons of June are over, leaving flower and vegetable plants to bake in the Baltimore sun -- and homeowners scrambling to find time to water them.

That's no easy task. For most folks, garden maintenance lags behind job, kids and dog-walking. In many households, the best a plant can expect is a quick spritz with the garden hose, a brief after-dinner drink that wets the leaves but spares the soil.

Oh, well. A sip of water is better than none, right?

Wrong.

Shallow watering can weaken and even kill thirsty flora during a drought, garden experts say. A sprinkle here, a dribble there, and plants get the message there's moisture around. Seeking the source of that water, their roots turn upward, only to shrivel and die in the broiling topsoil.

It's a cruel but common end for many plants, particularly annuals, whose roots sit nearest the surface.

It needn't happen at all.

"People need to slow down their lives enough to notice how plants are responding to the stress of summer," says Lucy Coggin, director of plant collections at the historic William Paca Garden in Annapolis. "Look for drooping foliage, smaller leaves with brownish edges and stunted-looking plants. Check often -- and water generously."

Unmet needs

Homeowners lose plants and shrubs during extended droughts because they underestimate their needs, vegetables especially. Crops such as cucumbers, spinach, green peppers and lettuce are themselves nearly 90 percent water. Come summer, gardeners must pick up the slack for Mother Nature or settle for small, bitter fruit.

Most plants require 1 inch of water per week, enough to wet the ground to a depth of 1 foot -- the equivalent of a good soaking rain. Plants want to guzzle that moisture in one or two long drinks, not dribs and drabs.

But who's got time to soak the soil that deeply? Smart gardeners manage this by dividing their beds into sections, and drenching one area at a time: alyssum today, tomatoes tomorrow.

"Water less frequently, but more deeply," says Coggin. "If you've done right, plants will tell you pretty quickly by perking up and producing more flowers and fruit."

Don't bother hosing the foliage: It's a waste of time and water. Glistening leaves give the illusion of a healthy plant, when it may, in fact, be starving. Also, wet leaves are susceptible to fungal diseases such as mildew and black spot, which strike at night if foliage is moist. Roses, lilacs, zinnias and phlox are especially vulnerable to fungus attacks.

(Watering plants in the hot sun can damage them as well. Moisture that lands on leaves can burn them, says garden author Barbara Damrosch: "The droplets act like lenses that concentrate the sun's rays.")

Water plants in the morning. Direct the hose to the base of the plant. If runoff occurs, create a basin to catch the water by scooping out soil nearest the stem. The garden will respond with bigger flowers and better harvests. Deep, thorough soakings drive roots downward, unlock precious nutrients in the subsoil and help to anchor plants more firmly in the ground.

Different requirements

Certain types of gardens demand more moisture than others: raised beds, gardens with sandy soils, sloped gardens and those in which plants are grown closely together. Well-mulched beds and gardens with clayish soils require less pampering. Know your plants' drinking habits. Which are most prone to drought? Annuals need more water than perennials. Vegetables are more thirsty than flowers. Plants sheltered by eaves, walls or fences, where rain cannot reach them, are always at risk. Some ornamentals (sedum, coreopsis, candytuft, gaillardia) can almost fend for themselves during short dry spells.

Monitor weather reports during a drought. If rain is forecast, water the garden before the storm, to soften the soil and minimize runoff. (Another tip: Water tough weeds the day before you pull them, for easier removal.)

Above all, buy a good garden hose. Cheap, stiff, plastic and nylon hoses are often a nightmare for gardeners. They develop leaks and kinks and deliver less water to the garden than the more durable and flexible rubber or vinyl hoses.

Shop around for high-quality watering equipment. Hoses are rated in strengths of two-, three- and four-ply (the best). They are available in 1/2 , 5/8 and 3/4 -inch diameters; the larger the opening, the faster you'll finish your watering chores.

Hoses are also ranked by the amount of water pressure needed to burst them (pounds per square inch, or psi). The higher the psi rating, the better the hose.

There are options for people who cannot shower their plants. Soaker hoses, which have tiny holes through which water trickles, are gaining popularity. They can be placed on the surface or buried. More expensive is the elaborate drip irrigation system, a network of interconnected plastic hoses that nourish the soil beneath the plants.

It's the garden's own intravenous feeding tube.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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