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Over the Garden Fence

Be wise when watering

Water is a critical component of a successful garden, but are we watering wisely? There are steps we can take to make sure our plants have enough water while keeping our efforts efficient.

Calls and emails to the Extension office have certainly been trending on all things water, and I wanted to share a few of our most-asked questions:

Q: I am seeing cracks in the ground. I am wondering, should I be watering already?

A: Lots of gardeners have been noticing the same thing. In fact, the drought maps are already seeing this pattern. More locally, the Kendall County rain monitoring effort recorded the lowest amount of April precipitation for the last 32 years at 1.02 inches. So should we be watering? The answer is likely yes. Read on to the next question got more details.

Q: If the summer is going to be as dry as spring has been, I may let my lawn go dormant but not my flowers or vegetables. Are there Best Management Practices I should follow?

A: For flowers and vegetables, “water the soil, not the plants” to avoid promoting foliage fungal diseases. It only takes a few hours for a fungal spore to germinate and infect leaves. Water early in the day so if the foliage does get wet, it dries as soon as possible. Watering late in the day will just about guarantee foliage disease. Flowers and vegetables will benefit from the soil being evenly moist for best production. Between rain events and your watering efforts, plan on about 1½ inches every seven to 10 days. Lawn tip: The taller you leave the lawn, the more it shades the soil and conserves moisture. A bonus is the roots will be deeper too, allowing for more water uptake.

Q: Watering is expensive so how do I get the most “bang for the buck” out there in the yard?

A: Any kind of an organic mulch, to a depth of 2 to 4 inches will conserve moisture by preventing evaporation from the soil surface. In the garden, getting the vegetables to canopy over prevents the sunlight from directly reaching the ground, which also conserves moisture. Wood chips should be avoided, as being “high carbon” can actually take away growing nutrients from flowers and vegetables while they are decomposing. If you are short on organic matter from the compost pile, consider several sheets of newspaper or pieces of cardboard. These too are considered organic. If you want to dress up the beds, use the composts you do have to cover the paper or cardboard, allowing the composts to go further. At the end of the season, plan on turning it all under into the soil profile. Organic matter tip: Beside using organic matter from your own compost, you also can use any commercially available sources of bagged or bulk composts, grass clippings that are allowed to brown and have not had herbicides applied for at least a month or four mowings, or clean straw (no weeds or weed seed).

Q: Are there some long-term efforts I can do to keep more water in my yard?

A: Getting organic matter into the soil profile will definitely benefit any plant. Organic matter is known for retaining soil moisture for later release to the plants while keeping the soil from becoming waterlogged. You can add organic matter in the spring before planting or seeding flowers or vegetables. You also can add organic matter to the beds in the fall to work its way into the profile. One of the best ways is to roughly turn the soil and add enough organic matter to make it look “level” again. Turn it again mixing the organic matter and the soil together to condition over the winter.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.