Watering Home Gardens and Landscape Plants

Watering Home Gardens and Landscape Plants

EB1090
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George Pinyuh, former Washington State University Cooperative Extension Horticulture agent, Ray Maleike, Ph.D., WSU Cooperative Extension horticulturist, emeritus, WSU Puyallup, Marianne Ophardt, M.S., WSU Cooperative Extension Area Agent, Benton County
Making the most of available water is a challenge in times of drought. Native plants and grasses survive the best. Authors discuss the relationship of soil, water, and air for plant health. Do you really know how to water and when? Potted plants require more moisture. Water penetration, new mulches, adding organic matter all can make a difference in conserving moisture and keeping plants and lawns healthy.
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Watering home landscape and garden plants properly is one of the most misunderstood problems facing the average homeowner. Most homeowners are aware of the droughty conditions in eastern Washington, but much of western Washington also can be extremely dry during the summer months. In most areas of the state, there is not enough rainfall to support plant growth during the period when water is critically needed. If landscape plants are water stressed during the summer, they may experience severe problems during the rest of the year, such as increased insect and disease susceptibility and decreased winter hardiness.

Water Loss From the Soil

There are several ways in which water is lost from the soil. Rain, melted snow, or water applied by the homeowner may percolate down through the soil beyond the root zone. This water is useless to growing plants.

Water also may evaporate from the soil surface, leaving it dry. Water from lower layers in the soil is drawn to the surface by capillary action and also evaporates. This continual evaporation may deplete water from quite deep in the soil.

Transpiration is the process by which a plant loses water through its leaves. This is a necessary process for plant growth. A large tree may lose hundreds of gallons of water a day in the summer.  Water lost from the soil by evaporation and transpiration must be replaced by precipitation or supplemental irrigation.

Soil-Water-Air Relationships

Establishing the correct water-air relationships in the soil is essential for the best growth of all plant types. Oxygen in the soil is necessary for plants to grow. Watering too often or too much is likely to exclude the necessary oxygen from the soil pore spaces. Without enough oxygen, plant roots suffocate and die, preventing water uptake. Plant parts aboveground exhibit symptoms of this stress; wilting, yellowing, and drying foliage, leaf drop and twig dieback may all occur. Constant overwatering kills most plants.

Too little water, on the other hand, does not allow the roots to replace water lost by the plant through transpiration. The roots may dry up and die, and the top growth begins to show abnormal symptoms. In both cases, either too much or too little water, the plant suffers from lack of moisture in its tissues.

Heavy clay soils are much more likely to be overwatered than light soils. Conversely, light sandy soils are droughty and tend not to be watered enough. Although light soils allow deeper and quicker water penetration, they dry out more rapidly because they hold less water. Heavy soils, on the other hand, are slower to allow penetration but also dry out much more slowly.

A good rule-of-thumb to follow in watering plants is to fill the entire root zone with water, and then allow the soil to dry out partially before the next irrigation. The amount of drying depends on the plant species and size. Large trees and shrubs can be allowed to dry several inches down in the soil before rewatering. A small or newly established plant will need watering before very much soil drying takes place.

It is essential that gardeners become familiar with how long it takes the root zones of the various plants in their gardens to become completely moistened, and then, how deeply they can allow the soil to dry before the plants begin to show stress and need rewatering. It is also necessary to understand that quick, light sprinkling will not do the job of wetting the entire root zone.

Water Penetration

Soil type or texture is a major determining factor of how much water a soil will hold, or how quickly a soil can be irrigated. For example, one inch of water applied to a sandy soil will penetrate 12 inches. It will move anywhere from 6–10 inches into a good loam soil, and in a clay soil it will percolate down only 4–5 inches.

Time Required

Sandy soils allow water to penetrate more quickly than will heavy, dense soils. Wetting the entire root zone of plants growing in heavy soils takes much longer than wetting plants growing in lighter soils. Sandy loams will accept from 1/2–3 inches of water per hour. A clay-loam may absorb only 1/10–3/5 inch of water in the same amount of time. A very dry clay-loam soil could take as long as 120 hours to completely wet to a depth of 12 inches. A sandy loam, however, might take as little as 4 hours.

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Copyright 2002 Washington State University

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Issued by Washington State University Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in furtherance of the Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Extension programs and policies are consistent with federal and state laws and regulations on nondiscrimination regarding race, sex, religion, age, color, creed, and national or ethnic origin; physical, mental, or sensory disability; marital status or sexual orientation; and status as a Vietnam-era or disabled veteran. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local WSU Extension office. Trade names have been used to simplify information; no endorsement is intended.