Waterlogged: keeping track of plant hydration

Our actions are often meant to achieve a specific goal. Being a former teacher, my underlying goal for each of these columns is to educate. Over time I have used humor, personal stories, and observations as a conduit for information. I have tried not to lecture or use this forum as a virtual soapbox to tell you what to do. Frankly, there are many readers of my column that have much more gardening experience than I do. Who am I to tell them what to do?

For this column only, I am going to tell you what to do. Come with me as I climb on the soapbox. Please listen as I yell as loud as I can. This column is not meant so much to educate but to be a direct call to action.

WATER YOUR PLANTS! It is imperative that flowers, shrubs and trees be watered now. We have had record high temperatures and very little rainfall. The ground is dry and so are many plants. Your plants need water.

Plants need to be watered when the soil around the base of the plant feels dry. Check your plants daily, especially in hot, sunny weather. To check the plants, put your fingers in the dirt, right around the base of the plant. Move away any mulch and fabric if necessary. If the soil feels hot and/or dry, water immediately. If the soil feels moist, check again within the next two days, depending on the weather. When possible, water in the morning.

Occasional, deep, thorough soakings are much more effective than frequent surface watering. Plants, typically, do not need to be watered every day; what they do need is a lot of water when you do water them. As a professor of mine once said “When you water, water the heck out of the plant!” To water shrubs, lay the end of a hose at the base of the shrub and allow a medium stream of water to run on it for about 15 minutes. The same method applies to watering trees; only trees should be watered longer, perhaps 20-30 minutes. A soaker hose is also an excellent tool for watering flowerbeds; simply wind the hose throughout the flowers and shrubs.

Watering is particularly critical during a plant’s first year. In successive years, as the plants roots go down deeper into the soil, they may be watered less frequently. In hot, dry periods though even established shrubs and trees need water.

The reason watering now is so crucial is that soon the ground will freeze. Once the ground freezes that shrubs and trees will no longer be able to absorb the water into their roots. Our ground will freeze within the next 7-9 weeks. It is critical that you water now, while your plants can still absorb the water.

Evergreen trees and shrubs continue to go through transpiration throughout the winter. This means that they lose water through their needles during December, January and February. They are particularly susceptible to drying out while the ground is frozen. Water your evergreens deeply and thoroughly this fall. If you have an irrigation system, I highly suggest that you quantify how much water your flowers, shrubs and trees are actually getting as the irrigation system cycles. This can be done by putting an irrigation system rain gauge near the base of a plant the evening before the irrigation system is set to go on. In general, a plant needs 1” of water which equates to 1/3” each time the irrigation system goes on, if it is set to go on every other day. Don’t assume that your irrigation system is adequately watering your shrubs and trees. Measure how much each area is actually receiving then adjust the zones accordingly.

It is imperative that plants go into winter with adequate moisture. You may need to hand water your plants for several weeks after your irrigation system is turned off for the season. Yesterday, our high school choir director sent out an email asking for help from parents next Tuesday. Although my inclination was to say yes, the longer I thought about it, the more excuses I found for saying no. “I don’t want to drive over 1 hour each way to volunteer,” or “My husband and I had planned to go bowling that night,” or “I should stay home and help my kids pack for 3 college visits.”

All very valid points, but the bottom line is that he needs help and I need to say yes. I am sure all of you can think of very valid reasons to not water your plants right now. But the bottom line is that if your plants are dry, they need water. Mother Nature is not providing it, it is up to you.

Okay, I am getting off my soapbox. Thanks for listening. I promise education through humor in the next column.

Kathleen Carr is the owner of The Growing Scene, Inc., a garden center and landscaping company. She can be reached by calling 815-923-7322 or tgsinc12@msn.com. Have a gardening question? Please contact her. She may address it in an upcoming column.

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