Hot days and Watering Woes

This is a great guest piece by Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardener, Tia Jensen – and happens to coincide with a couple of the hottest days of summer 2012.  The timing of her watering advice couldn’t be better.

It’s that time of year again, when the faucet in the sky turns off.  This happens to coincide with the busiest time of summer for most of us.  We are playing, vacationing and our yards sit abandoned and forgotten. We return from our leisure and find our green has turned to brown. So we run and grab a hose.

What our yard needs most is infrequent, deep watering whether it’s lawns or flower and vegetable beds.  This is best accomplished with a soaker hose which lies on or just below the surface of the soil allowing water to seep evenly and slowly.  Drip systems are also fantastic if you have the time to install and patience to maintain.  A good layer of mulch applied after the ground has been thoroughly wetted will help hold water in the soil like a blanket.

Often the sudden wilt or browning in the yard that gets our attention, will cause many of us to pull out the old standby — the oscillating sprinkler.  This is the sprinkler you grew up with and would jump back and forth through on hot days as a child.  Something about seeing that flopping wall of water just screams summertime.  But it’s the least efficient way to water — nearly half the water thrown out by this sprinkler is lost to evaporation and run off; it throws water everywhere.   The water splashes from above and hits the leaves and is deflected away.   The leaves are left wet, vulnerable to fungal attacks and the soil underneath stays dry. The overspray pours into streets and storm drains.  If you must water from overhead, a better choice is the impact rotary sprinkler.   You can at least direct the spray to a more specific area, eliminating much of the overspray.  The impact sprinkler has different droplet patterns due to the arm that “breaks” the water stream, allowing better soil penetration. Stands are also available to vary the spraying from higher or lower positions.

Nurseries have sales this time of year because they too are having difficulty staying on top of all the watering.  The season is waning and they would like to encourage you to take home some of their plants.  Don’t plant trees and shrubs right now if you can avoid it.  You won’t be around much to water and a new plant has little resources  to survive the abuse.  For the record, the neighborhood boy will not water your yard properly whilst you are on vacation — it’s just best not to chance it.

Trees that lose water during times of drought will hold a grudge.  A tree may be severely damaged but not show you the result for a couple of years.  Trees often take time to die. Avoid this by using a tree gator. Tree gators are bags that hold water and can be zipped around the trunk of a tree. They slowly drip water taking days to empty. A 5 gal bucket with small holes drilled in the base then filled with water and set at base of tree works in similar fashion.

The soil in containers will often crust over when dry and become hard to rewet.  Often you’ll need to soak the entire container to allow water to enter the rootball.  I use a kiddie pool for my larger pots. I put the whole pot in with a couple of inches of water to rewet.  Another method is to place ice cubes on the soil surface (avoiding touching leaves or any part of plant). The ice will slowly melt and seep into the soil softening it. Then you can water without the surface crust.  End of summer is a good time to defrost the refrigerator and get ready for those big fall dinners, so plenty of ice is to be had.

If you use a hose nozzle for watering by hand, use the “soaker” setting.  You will find this setting on the head of most nozzles.   The soaker setting has larger holes with a lower pressure drop. It breaks the water making it more likely to seep into the soil, providing a gentle, heavy water.  Don’t use the “shower” setting which provides higher pressure and smaller drops — it feels like you are giving the plant more water, but the shower setting actually provides less. The higher velocity forces much of the water to wash off the soil, so little makes it into the container.  So choose soak over shower if you hand water.

Finally protect the integrity of your own water, always put a backflow preventer on your hose spigot. You don’t want the water that collects in your hoses to flow backwards into your house water lines on hot days.

And don’t leave hoses laying on the lawn.  They will undoubtedly kill the grass where they lay leaving ribbons of snaky brown throughout your lawn.

Stay cool, keep hydrated. Do your best to help Mother Nature. Make your own rain in the yard and why not throw in a rain dance while you are out there.  We all could use some help.

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