Water. It’s so important in the gardening world. How to get it, how to collect it, how to correctly apply it, how to conserve its use, how to preserve it once it is applied. I write a lot about water, and for good reason: it’s vital to optimum plant growth, and it is the No. 1 answer to the common question, “What am I doing wrong?” Watering incorrectly, fortunately, can be corrected unless it is of course excess rainfall.
These past years there has been a renewed interest in rain barrels for collecting runoff. What a great way to collect water for later use.
A few considerations for barrels: Are they enclosed or with a lid to keep breeding mosquitos and curious children out? Are they raised on a platform to create a gravity flow? Do they hook up to a regular garden hose?
If they do connect to a hose, keep in mind the flow will be nothing fast, so it’s best to lay it down and run for a while, pull some weeds and come back and move it again and repeat.
Some rain barrels have connecting overflow barrels which are great for large roof systems. You should have a system in place to handle the overflow, which could be as simple as reconnecting a downspout.
The two most efficient ways to water plants are by hand or with a drip irrigation/sweat hose. Either way uses the least amount of water with the least waste.
Overhead sprinklers of any style are the most wasteful. Sometimes, however, I even resort to them when the plants are thirsty and I simply don’t have the time to hand water each one.
Another benefit of hand watering is that it brings you through the garden to see the plants up close. This allows you to detect disease or insect issues in their early stages.
Plants during the growing season need 1-2 inches of water per week (include any rain in the calculation) and best to be applied within two weekly applications.
Garden centers also sell gadgets for measuring soil moisture. Let’s face it, unless it just rained the top of the soil will always look dry so check a few inches down for accuracy.
If you want to get technical, you can get a tensiometer to measure soil moisture. Once you have applied the water, the next trick is to slow down surface evaporation using summer mulch.
Straw or similar materials will act as an insulator, so if you apply it too early when the soil is still cool, it will keep it cool — not what the tomatoes want! Using 6 inches of organic matter like straw can reduce your water loss by 90%! You can also use landscape fabrics to assist with weed control and moisture reduction.
Although tomatoes and peppers love heat, sometimes black fabric materials can get too hot. When this happens, you can use straw on top of the fabric to cool down the reflecting sun a bit, and toward early fall pull it back away from plants, creating your own microclimates.
If you plan to use black fabrics, put them in place in late April or early May and they will start to warm up the soil underneath. Reminder to put off tilling until November, or re-till then if you can’t wait to do it.
By November, the pesky insects that ravaged your garden are tucked into your soil ready to sleep through the winter. Tilling in November can bring them to the surface or certainly disturb their cozy spot, and hopefully you can freeze some of them out.
Fall is also a good time to till in 4-6 inches of finished compost. Finished compost is called humus in its final stage of decomposition. Humus is lightweight and will likely blow away if you don’t till it in right away, plan a day and get it done — you will be happy in the spring!
The Mankato Farmers’ Market is now open, 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the Best Buy parking lot in Mankato. The Tuesday market is held 3:30-6 p.m. at Best Buy. The Thursday market will be held 3:30-6 p.m. at the Food Hub in Old Town, 512 N. Riverfront Drive.