With the dog days upon us, getting adequate water to our gardens can be a concern. Water is essential to all life. Plants use it to transport nutrients and to maintain turgor – the cellular pressure that keeps soft tissue from wilting.  Plants absorb water (containing soluble nutrients) through their roots and ultimately release it into the atmosphere as vapor through small pores (stomata) on the undersides of leaves in a process called transpiration. Although invisible, the cumulative volume of water transpired by Earth’s plants is prodigious, producing 10% of the atmosphere’s water vapor. One large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons per year. Drought stress occurs as transpiration continues and soil moisture is exhausted.

Wilting muskmelon plant
Photo: Erika Saaku, Iowa State

Transpiration rates increase with:

  1. High temperatures
  2. Low humidity
  3. Wind
  4.  More soil moisture
  5. Larger, thinner leaves

Hydrangea or squash leaves wilt on hot, dry, windy days because the transpiration rate of these large-leafed plants is faster than the plant’s ability to take up available moisture from the soil.

At the other end, if a plant’s root system is compromised or undeveloped, extra care must be taken to ensure survival. The process of digging and transplanting exposes roots to the air, damaging or destroying delicate root hairs. Recovery can be difficult with the additional stress of hot weather. Provide shade and plenty of moisture to allow these essential single-cell structures to regenerate. In some cases, cutting back some of the leaf mass to reduce water requirements is advisable.  Old-fashioned advice for transplanting instructs: “water once a day for a week, once a week for a month and once a month for a year.” A very inexact guide to be sure, but a good reminder that transplants have high water demands at first and need to be weaned gradually over time.

Container-grown plants often have root systems a fraction of the size of an equivalent plant growing in the ground. Regular watering is a must, particularly when  containers are made of porous clay or fiber. Potting mixes are commercially available that contain polymer crystals which can dramatically increase the water-holding capacity of potting soils in containers.

Measuring irrigation output

“Deep and Infrequent”

This mantra of watering advice emphasizes the need to train turf grass and landscape plants to develop deep root systems in search for water. Shallow, frequent watering encourages the growth of roots close to the soil surface, making the plant vulnerable to drought stress.  Shrubs and trees with weak, superficial root systems are also more likely to topple over in a windstorm.

Root growth of turf ceases at soil temperatures of about 70°, so lawns should be encouraged to develop deep root systems during the cool weather of spring and fall. Summer watering of lawns is triage; keeping the patient stable until temperatures drop. Overwatering results in excessive growth and increased risk of fungal disease, while wasting water and fertilizers that can potentially contaminate waterways.

Mulch conserves soil moisture as it suppresses weeds and dresses up the garden.  Organic mulches mimic the natural duff on the forest floor, creating a hospitable environment for microbes, fungi, insects and worms as they perform their function of decomposing organic matter and releasing nutrients.

Managing water in the garden is a skill that gets honed over time, as the gardener develops sharper instincts for plant requirements. Water is also a surprisingly efficient and environmentally sound way of ridding plants of some insect pests such as aphids and spider mites – simply knock them off with a forceful spray from the hose. Regular flooding will discourage ground-dwelling bees and wasps (yellow jackets) from nesting in inconvenient areas.

Water makes the garden more pleasurable for people and animals alike. Bird baths, gurgling fountains, lawn sprinklers for children or ponds with fish and frogs create a richer environment and a cool oasis of refreshment on a hot summer’s day.

Children swinging in sprinkler, 1964
Photo: Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

J. McInnis