Mist in May and Heat in June
Bring all things into tune.
This year, the sun will reach its maximum distance from the equator on June 20th, marking our summer solstice in the Northern hemisphere. There are more sunlit hours on this day than on any other day of the year. In some traditions, the midpoint between sowing and harvesting, or “Midsummer” as it’s known, is a good time to do a little feasting and dancing (the fireflies seem to think so too). After all, the demands of spring have lifted somewhat and, like fledglings catching their own worms, young plants begin to show off their vigor and self-reliance.
At this midpoint of the growing season—when crops are past the time for tilling, but not yet ready for threshing—perhaps all that your plants want now is a bit of water.
At every stage of their lifecycle, plants use water. Water signals to seeds that it is safe to germinate, and once the first set of leaves emerge from the soil, water becomes fundamental to photosynthesis (the process by which a plant manufactures food for further growth). Plants use transpiration to “sweat” water through their stomata, which helps to cool them when they get too hot. And water allows nutrients from the soil to be drawn up through the roots to nourish other parts of the plant.
With the mists (and snows) of May now in full retreat, we are well-advised to adopt a watering schedule for our flowers and vegetables. How much to water will generally depend on the weather, the soil conditions, and the drought-tolerance of individual species. We can determine whether our plants are parched or succumbing to sogginess by getting out in the garden to make a few simple observations.
Some Visible Signs of a Watering Problem :
Both underwatering and overwatering can cause yellow or brown leaves, so look more closely, and examine the texture:
- Are the leaves brittle and crispy? If so, you may be underwatering.
- Wilted and limp leaves, despite moisture in the soil, point to overwatering.
Examine the soil:
- Dusty, crusty, or cracked soil suggest underwatering.
- Soil that drains poorly and remains slick and slippery might mean overwatering.
Ideally, your garden soil will drain well and maintain a loamy texture that will hold both moisture and oxygen. Sandy soils can drain too quickly and do a poor job at retaining water, leaving your plants perpetually thirsty, whereas the fine particles of clay can adhere too closely when moistened, making it difficult for roots to access oxygen. Soil can be improved by adding organic matter like compost and mulch; with time, these amendments will incorporate into the soil and help strike a balance between moisture retention and drainage.
- Seedlings and new plantings will generally want more frequent watering than established plants. Until they’ve matured, emerging root systems won’t be able to reach the moisture held in deep soil, so give them a little extra attention with the hose.
- Read up on your plants to learn which conditions they prefer! For instance, lettuce might be stressed by the same dry, sandy conditions that sustain an herb like lavender or thyme.
- Also, make a habit of checking the local weather forecast—and don’t expect a light shower to quench your crops. Flower and vegetable gardens will generally need at least one inch of precipitation per week. If temps are high and humidity levels are low, your plants are likely losing moisture.
The Rule of Thumb
With consideration to the above, a good rule thumb for most flower and vegetable gardens is 1-2 good soakings from the hose per week. The idea is to water deeply enough that it attracts young root systems downward where they are more likely to find moisture during dry spells. You’ll want your weekly watering to seep 8-12 inches below the soil’s surface.
A rain gauge in the garden can also help you track weekly precipitations levels. No rain gauge? Check moisture levels the old-fashioned way: dig an index finger as far down into the soil as it will go. If it feels bone dry, then your plants are probably thirsty.
A few more essentials to keep mind:
- If you have a large garden, break up the task by watering different sections on different days of the week. This way you are less likely to succumb to the urge to sprinkle rather than soak.
- Unless your plants stay wilted through the afternoon heat and well into the evening, they can wait to be watered until the following morning. If plant leaves are wet through the night, you’re more likely to incur damage from fungus and slugs.
- Water the roots—not the leaves! Sure, you’ll get some leaves wet while you water, but it’s best to aim toward the base of the plant to get that water into the soil rather than evaporating into the air.
- Weeding and mulching keeps weeds from competing for water, so continue to mulch and weed through the season.
As “primary producers” in our ecosystem, terrestrial plants are well adapted to the conditions in which they typically find themselves and need no help from us. But most gardens are a combination of introduced and native species at different stages of development, and some introduced plants may be unsuited for survival beyond the growing season. This is why, like good hosts of Midsummer festivities, we gardeners provide our invited guests with well-prepared beds, protection from pests, good food—and, of course, enough to drink. Happy Solstice!