by Paige Patterson
The garden is starting to look a little bedraggled and bewildered. Or maybe it’s just me. I confess it’s harder and harder to be enthused about getting all sweaty and grubby digging in the dirt when the act of just picking up a shovel causes little rivulets of sweat to run down your face. Let’s be serious, we’d all rather be hanging at the pool or playing in the ocean, when the humidity hits 100 percent, but there’s nothing inherently bad about working in the garden no matter what the temperature. So I’m not sure exactly why there’s this fallacy that it’s bad to plant things at the height of the summer. I hear it all the time, “oh no, I’m not going to plant now, I’m going to come back to the nursery and get the (your plant choice goes here) I want later, because, ‘it’s better to plant in the fall.’”
Hmm. Okay, it’s true that planting in the fall is great for deciduous trees and shrubs; I think people just morphed it into a reason to avoid getting sweaty at the height of the summer. I do need however, to clear a few things up. If a plant is sitting in a nursery above ground or in a pot nothing would make it happier than to be put into the ground. The same lovely ground that holds water and is cooler and gives roots room to grow. All those plants you’re eyeing for later would throw themselves at your legs and beg to go home with you if only they could. Of course, when you get them home, they’re going to need water, and lots of it as they are all getting watered every day at the nursery, but you all are fooling yourselves if you think those same plants are going to do better when they come to your house a month later than if they come now.
The key is the water. Yes you need lots of it, but just increasing the days you water may not be the perfect solution. One of the mistakes people make is to set their irrigation clocks for 45 minutes three times a week in the spring and then when it gets hot turn them on every day. Big mistake. Forty-five minutes for overhead sprinklers might be okay for a lawn or other things with shallow roots, but plants really want nice long drinks that soak deep down into their soil. This allows their roots to follow the water deep into the soil and helps build a healthy and strong root system. If the water doesn’t get deep enough the roots will actually rise up towards the surface searching for the moisture and become shallow and stressed. Even your lawn wants a longer soaking.
When I tell folks this, they ask me how long their sprinklers should be on. I of course, can’t tell them, because it all depends on their soil. So I tell them to get out a shovel and dig a hole next to the plant they’re worried about right after a zone is finished. I tell them to dig down 12 inches and to check the soil. If the soil is moist all the way down great! If it’s sopping wet, there’s too much water, if only an inch or two is damp, not enough. There is no magic irrigation formula, besides as the weather changes your irrigation system must change too. Which means you will need to learn how to use your irrigation clock.
The horror on people’s faces when I mention this is startling. They’ve all figured out how to use their smart phones, but are stumped by irrigation clocks. Hmm. I don’t believe it. Come on folks, you can do it! I know you can.
I guess people want to forget that plants are living things. It’s weird; they understand their children need to drink more when they’re all exhausted from the heat. They give their pets more water, but it’s like people have confused their gardens with their living rooms. A garden is not a static thing. It’s not an object, or a thing it’s an ecosystem — it’s alive. It needs water and light and air and food. You would think this is basic, but the number of people who give me blank looks when I bring this up is staggering.
And the answer is not to just turn the water on and let it run. The soil needs a chance to breathe in between waterings. There is such a thing as overwatering a plant. It’s hard to do with a hydrangea that lives in the sun, but if you have them planted in the sun at the base of a spruce tree and you give the hydrangeas as much water as they want you will rot the roots of the spruce. Trust me, I’ve done it. So learn to put plants with the same watering needs together. A willow will lap up more water than hydrangeas ever will, lavender will die. And best yet, move those hydrangeas into a place where they get shade in the afternoon.
So yes, you need less water in a wet spring then in a dry one, obviously, and any summer needs more water than spring; but more, the answer isn’t a cut and dry one. Maybe you double the time on the zones out in the scorching sun, but the shady beds only need 15 minutes more. Or maybe also add a day. I can’t tell you. Only your soil can speak such secrets to you. And the only way to get your soil to talk is to get a shovel or a trowel and get sweaty.
Paige Patterson wants to confess that she is still putting hydrangeas out in the sun because she is running out of other places to put them.