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Constant watering tests gardeners' mettle

  • Published Saturday, July 23, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.

Gardeners are tired. I see it in their eyes. I feel it in my bones. If anybody is still waiting for permission, though, you have it: K-State says don't mow.

And when it comes to the lawn, don't worry too much about watering. It is good to water a full inch every two weeks to keep fescue crowns alive in the protracted high heat we're experiencing, extension agent Rebecca McMahon says.

But if you've been watering fescue shallowly and often and the roots are therefore short, you will need to water more often, turf specialist Rodney St. John of K-State says. That's because the grass doesn't have roots to hold water to wait two weeks in between — at least initially. You can wean the grass off, say, a three-days-a-week watering schedule by waiting a week to water, and then going to the two-week schedule, St. John says.

Apart from the lawn, when you have a big garden, it's a 24-hour proposition to keep it watered.

"It's too much," one veteran gardener told me this week, reflecting on her full — and lovely — garden. When you're struggling to keep it alive, the work overtakes the joy.

We're up against just maintaining our plants, another gardener pointed, not expecting them to flourish.

I decided early on this summer that I would group my pots together so I wouldn't have to drag the hose clear around the yard after them. Now there's a big flower party all around the front steps. The back steps — not so much.

It's best to water in the morning, of course, but sometimes the morning is not enough. And sometimes you don't have time to water in the morning, or you don't know a hydrangea needs a drink until you see it wilting what seems like hopelessly in the sun. I'm always amazed when hydrangea blooms zap back to life, either with a little water or some afternoon shade.

No matter what time of day, if a plant needs water, water it. If it's not morning, try to keep the water on the ground (this minimizes evaporation) and off the leaves (this minimizes disease).

But "it's a myth that water droplets on foliage will magnify the sunlight and burn plants," says Pam Paulsen, K-State Research and Extension horticulturist. "What is true is that puddled water where soil doesn't drain readily can heat up and 'stew' plants."

As I read through some old files about watering, I came across a column Adrian Higgins of the Washington Post wrote last year and couldn't resist sharing some of his gems with you, especially since I'm a hand-waterer, and a sometimes- cannon-shooter, especially in the high heat:

"Automatic vs. hand watering:

"Automatic irrigation systems can work effectively, but there is something about them that I find distasteful. You wonder if they have been installed to remove the owner from actually having to fuss with the vegetation. They also work against plants, including trees that decline in constantly soggy conditions. And as a gardener friend pointed out, a sprinkler head in May might do its job. By July, a burly perennial like a big hosta may have smothered the thing, luxuriating while its neighbors are gasping.

"Hand watering takes time but permits you to see what needs water the most. A wand attachment delivers a lot of water, but softly. A hose-end sprayer is a disaster. Having a riot of color in your flower beds is one thing; turning a water cannon on the poor things is quite another. The water delivers force but not volume, so the flowers are beaten up while remaining dry.

"Experienced gardeners just put their thumbs over the end of an open hose to deliver water near and far, sparingly or by the gallon, but in a controlled and relatively gentle fashion."

He goes on with further tips:

"Container watering is easy, but like everything else in the garden it requires forethought. The larger the container, the less watering it will need. Terra cotta pots dry out more quickly than those of plastic or glass fiber. The soil line should be at least an inch below the rim of the pot, to capture lots of water while you move to the next container, and a pot isn't watered until you see it drain.

"The lawn can be fixed in September; now, young trees and shrubs particularly need your attention. In my garden, any woody plant put in since 2008 (2009 for our purposes this year) gets hand-watered with a four-gallon watering can at least once a week. ...

"Clay soil that has dried out actually repels water. A hose on a trickle for 20 minutes will allow water to seep into the ground and make it more receptive to future irrigation. If you can't get a hose to your curbside trees, you can drill holes in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket and haul it to the root zone (quickly; don't stop to chat with the neighbor)."

In the vegetable garden, McMahon reports that "we're seeing a lot of tomatoes and peppers with blossom ends rot or sunscald. There is not much to do about sunscald, other than try to keep the fruit from getting exposed to the sun directly. Blossom end rot is a function of extreme wet-dry cycles, so keeping the plants watered well, but not overwatered, is the key."

As a general rule, landscape plants need an average of an inch of moisture a week from spring into fall, Paulsen said. High winds, low humidity, sandy soil, semi-tough non-native plants and extremely high temperatures can increase the amount needed, she said.

Normally at this time of year, we're talking about starting fall gardens. But McMahon recommends holding off planting one in this intense heat.

"However," she says, "I think that it would make sense to start planning now, so that it is possible to plant when things cool off. (They will, right?) Putting straw mulch in spots to be planted can help cool the soil down a bit too."

It might give us gardeners a little boost at the same time, sowing some seeds for a better future.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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