When to Water

How to water plants? It's all about paying attention

By Kathy LaLiberte
Watering with a sprinkler

In some cases, a sprinkler is the best option for watering a large area. However, only 40 percent of the water reaches the root zone. For more efficient watering, install a soaker hose early in the season, before the plants get big.

A FRIEND once had a summer job at one of New England's premier nurseries. He told me that the nursery owner always had his new employees spend the first two weeks doing nothing but watering plants. By teaching his staff how to water a plant properly, the owner ensured the health and vitality of his inventory. But he also used this initiation period to identify the best employees: people who paid attention.

When it comes to watering, there are no hard or fast rules. It's a judgment call that depends on the type of plant, the soil, the weather, the time of year and many other variables. Fortunately, it's easy to figure out what to do — even for a teenager on a hot summer day. You just need to check the soil.

If you're working in a nursery, you lift each pot before you water. Over time, you get to know how heavy a pot should feel if the soil inside the pot is thoroughly moistened. If it's not heavy enough, you water slowly until all the soil in the pot is moist and water runs out the bottom. Then you lift the pot again to check that it feels right.

Hanging basket

After thoroughly watering a hanging basket lift it to get a sense for how heavy it should feel. When it feels light, it's time to water.

Watering is of no value if the water runs down the outside of the root ball, leaving the roots at the core of the plant dry. This can happen if you water too quickly or apply too much water at once. Slower watering is usually more effective. The key is to ensure that water gets to the root zone — whether you are tending seedlings, watering houseplants, watering a row of tomatoes or soaking thirsty shrubs and trees.

You can't use the "lift test" in your garden or landscape, but you can check the soil with your finger — it's the best "moisture meter" ever. For a more thorough investigation, push a spade into the soil near your plant and pull it back to see how the soil looks. If it feels moist to a depth of 6 to 12 inches, you're in good shape. If it's bone dry, water!

The Best Way to Water