The perfect amount of rain from Mother Nature is the best. Too bad that rarely happens. Water is as important to the growth of fruits and vegetables as it is for humans. To provide water for your plants, even in times of drought, you have some options.
To ensure that you have rain water for your garden, you will need to catch some. The size of the garden will determine whether you use 55-gallon rain barrels or much larger rain collection systems. Catching rain water for your garden conserves drinking water, saves money, and is better for plants than tap water.
City water contains chlorine and other chemicals that make it safe to drink but not great for plants. Generally, rain water also has naturally balanced PH levels.
The main drawback to using collected rain water is that unless you install some sort of pump you will be using good old gravity to retrieve the collected water. Raising your rain barrel on bricks or a platform will increase your pressure, but with a rain collection system, filling watering cans and watering by hand is your primary strategy.
Even if you have a rain water collection system, it is a good idea to also have easy access to a water spigot. You can easily hook up a hose, sprayer, wand or sprinkler to water your garden.
For larger gardens that are difficult to water by hand, you may want to install an irrigation system. Many can be connected to water spigots like drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Check out DripWorksUSA.
Other low flow systems use only gravity and can be attached to a rain collection system. Check out Drip irrigation.
Different plants need different amounts of water. There are both water-loving veggies (like lettuce and melons) and drought resistant veggies (like mustard greens). Even within a crop, some varieties are more drought resistant than others. Research what you’re planting.
Plants need different amounts of water at different stages of their lives. Germinating seeds need to stay moist once the germination process has started or they will not sprout. Seeds should be watered daily until the seeds have sprouted. Be careful not to water seeds too much or too aggressively (splashing around large amounts of water). This can wash out seeds before they sprout. Established plants should be watered every other day or as needed.
Most established plants (not germinating seeds) should be watered every other day or every third day, depending on daily temperatures. You will learn to allow the plants to tell you when they need water. Plants that need to be watered usually have limp-looking leaves. You can also feel the soil under the mulch. If it is very dry, it needs to be watered.
Mulch early and mulch deep. Soil was not meant to be bare. Bare soil hardens and dries out. Adding mulch not only keeps weeds at bay but also holds in moisture, which conserves water. Any carbon source can be used as mulch (leaves, straw, hay, even shredded paper). You can also buy bagged mulch, but there are better and cheaper (as in free) options.
Keep in mind that you want to use mulch that will break down easily and quickly, which will add organic matter to your soil when you turn it over in between plantings. So, using hardwood mulch or large nugget mulch is not recommended because it will not break down very quickly.
Avoid watering in the heat of the day because much of the water will be lost to evaporation. Also avoid watering at night as wet leaves overnight encourages fungus disease.
While you are watering is a great time to look for pests. See our material on Organic Controls. Remember, a well-watered garden is a happy garden and a happy garden makes for happy bellies!
Watering is a fun and easy activity for kids. Get special, brightly colored watering cans or have the children decorate your rain barrel.
By Henry Owen with assistance from Kathy Metzo and Carol Adams