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Tips & Tricks of the Trade

Irrigation

There is an overwhelming amount of information available about the correct methods for watering, the right amount of water and how often to water. This information might be all well and good as general information but, as temperatures, water and other climatic conditions around Australia differ depending on where you live, the rules might not apply to you and your garden. Even different sections of your garden can require different things.

When watering, you’ll have to take into account the type of plant, the climate, the soil condition and the different times and seasons of the year – all of which will influence your watering regime.

These are the main factors that will impact upon your watering:

Plant Type

The type of plant you’re dealing with will dictate how much water they will need. Succulents and other drought-tolerant plants that have extensive root systems and store water and moisture are naturally able to retain water better and do not require much water to survive. Other plants that are not so drought-tolerant will need to receive greater quantities of water on a much more frequent basis, particularly in hotter conditions.

The needs differ greatly between plants, as there’s no better way of killing a succulent than by over-watering, which will rot the root system. More people kill cacti with the ‘kindness’ of over-watering than from any other reason.

Plants that are large or are newly planted will require more water as they will need plenty of moisture and nutrients to establish themselves and grow. Plants with shallow root systems, such as vegetables or most perennials, will also need more frequent watering because they don’t have the reservoirs of water storage, nor the deep roots through which they can obtain water from deep within the soil.

Climate

Australia’s climate can differ vastly depending on where you are located.
Marble Bar in WA holds the record for the longest running heatwave in Australia with 161 consecutive days over 37.8 degrees and is known for reaching temperatures of 42 degrees by 9am! By comparison, on the cooler and rather frostier side, is Liawenee in Tasmania, where on average there are 142 days a year below freezing point and only 0.7 days a year that reach above 30 degrees! The difference is amazing, but that’s what you get when you have a country the size of a continent, albeit the world’s smallest. As you can imagine, if the same plants were planted in both of these areas, different amounts of water and care would be required in order to help them survive.

Soil Condition

If you live in coastal areas, or in regions that are affected by sandy soils, your plants will need more watering. It’s difficult for sandy soils to retain water, so they’ll quickly dry out and the nutrients can drain from the soil quite easily, slowing starving your plants of food. In cases of sandy soil, it is always advisable to apply mulch over the garden beds. This will help the soil to retain moisture and inhibit nutrients lost to the air too.

Season

The general rule is that no matter what the time of year, in hot temperatures you will need to water more, as the sun will suck all the moisture from the ground and plants, leaving them thirsty and prone to heat stroke and sun damage. On cold days the soil will better retain its moisture, as the sun will evaporate less liquid. Frequent rainfall and dew also helps watering to be kept at a minimum.

The seasons have a similar impact on people as well. We know that each of the four seasons have different conditions and weather patterns that affect us in different ways – from the scorching heat of summer, to the regular frosts of winter. When it’s cold and wet, we don’t seem to drink as much water as we do when it’s hot and humid.

Some people thrive in heat, while others wilt. Some people love the cold, while others just want to hibernate. The same variations in character apply to our plants.

Consider also that summers aren’t always dry and winters aren’t always wet, even though these are the conditions that the majority of Australians are used to. There are climatic zones where the summers are wet or monsoonal and the winters are dry. ‘Hot’ and ‘dry’ aren’t the same thing, nor are ‘cold’ and ‘wet’.

With all the different conditions that have an impact on our gardens, watering can become confusing, and devising an optimal watering strategy can be a bit overwhelming. You might be wracking your brain thinking, ‘When on Earth was the last time I watered the garden?’ or feeling guilty with thoughts of, ‘Am I watering too often or not enough?’

So before you whip out the hose or make a mad dash for your watering can – stop! Wait! Take a breather and go out and look at your plants and the soil. There’s no use watering if it is already moist enough for those particular plants in question and you definitely don’t want to over-water your plants as this can cause its own myriad of problems (cacti aren’t the only plants that can be overwatered).

HOW TO TELL IF YOUR PLANTS NEED WATER

Plants need a relatively constant supply of water, so if they don’t have enough they will start to show the following signs of water deprivation:

  • Yellowing or drying of leaves
  • Wilting of leaves and foliage
  • Plant roots growing close to the surface of the soil
  • Dry, hard or cracked ground around the plant

TESTING YOUR SOIL’S MOISTURE CONTENT

Still not sure whether you are watering properly? The surest and easiest way to test if your soil is moist and is retaining enough water for the plants, is by doing a few simple tests.

Squeeze Test

If you’re not afraid of getting your hands dirty, all you will need to do is to dig around in your garden, and pull out a palm full of soil. Don’t just get the top layer, but dig a little deeper and get some of the under layer that is an inch or two under.

Once you have the soil, squeeze your hand shut and then open your fingers. What you’re generally looking for is for the soil to hold together and form a rough ball shape. This ball will be neither compacted nor dense. Some small grains of soil might break away from the ball but your hand will remain free of any traces of water. This shows that you have a good level of moisture content in your soil. You know that your plants are getting the right amount of water because the water in the soil is what the plants have left behind, not too much but not too little either.

If this isn’t what happened then your soil will either be too dry or too wet. If it’s too dry, the soil will crumble in your hand and break apart.
Wet soil will form a dense ball shape, will leave residue on your fingers and fingerprint marks on the soil. If the soil is far too wet, it will be soft and squishy and your fingers will be coated in wet dirt. When you squeeze the ball, water will be visible on the surface of the soil.

Finger Test

Another quick test is the finger test. As suggested, you use your finger (which is less messy so may appeal more to the ‘tentative green thumb’ gardener. Stick your finger deep into the soil. The top layers will be a bit drier than the under layers as the sun tends to evaporate moisture from the surface, but the deeper you go in the soil, the more moist it should become. If your soil is moist but not wet a couple of inches down, then this is a good sign that your soil can absorb and drain in the right proportion and give the required water to your plants’ roots.

Now that you have established the moisture content of your soil, you can adjust it accordingly. If your soil is dry, you need to water it deeply. If it is wet or saturated, it is time to back off the watering for a while so that it can dry up a little.

GENERAL RULES OF WATERING YOUR GARDEN

Before watering, check the local weather forecasts to see if any rain is due. Being a smart gardener and using nature’s supply of free water to help water your garden will save you time and cost you less on your next water bill!

Water in the Morning

The best time of day to water is always in the morning. An early morning watering gives the plants the time to absorb the moisture from the soil before it is evaporated by the sun. Early watering also distributes nutrients and energy throughout the soil so that plants can absorb them and prepare themselves for the heat or coldness of the day.

If you don’t have the time in the morning, you can always give watering a go in the afternoon or early evening (especially in the warmer months). We would encourage caution, however, as you need to leave enough time for leaves to dry before it gets dark. Leaving foliage wet over night can lead to fungal diseases on your plants.

Water the Roots

Fungal diseases can be a big issue with plants, so we always recommend that you avoid wetting foliage and leaves directly as this can aggravate the problem. It’s the roots that need the water, not the leaves. Watering directly on the foliage can also lead to the spreading of infected spores to other plants by splashing water. This is a big problem, especially with roses and black spots, and care should be taken to remove all infected leaves to prevent further infestation.

Watering leaves in full sun can also cause water droplets on the leaves to act like lenses, concentrating heat and damaging the leaves.

Watering plants directly at the root or use a drip irrigation system helps to prevent the spreading of fungal diseases and heat damage to the leaves.

You can find more information on designing irrigation systems here.

Water Deeply

Some plants grow their roots deep into the earth where it’s cooler and they can retain and obtain moisture from the deeper layers of the soil, enabling them to be firmly established to combat excessive heat and cold snaps.

Plants grow from the roots up, so they need water deep enough to reach the root system. The majority of roots for annuals (plants that only live for one year before dying as they seed) are in the top six inches of soil.
Perennials (plants that live over many years), as well as shrubs and trees, have roots that penetrate at least to the top 12 inches. This makes sense – imagine how deep a root system has to be to hold up a plant that rises for many feet above the ground. This is why a deep soaking is necessary. This does not mean that you drench the plant until they are floating in a pool of water! It just means you give each plant a steady amount of water so that you can see it absorbing into the soil. Don’t get carried away – flooding is never good for your plants!

A drip irrigation system is probably the best way of watering your gardens, as it preserves the water from evaporation and directs the water straight to where it is needed – the roots!

Avoid Light Watering

If you think light watering is a safe method of watering, think again! Light and frequent watering only wets the top layer of soil. This encourages the roots to seek out the moisture only on the surface of the ground because that’s where the plant ‘learns’ that the water is. This leads to weak and shallow root systems. As the sun evaporates the remaining water, drying out the soil, the roots will be left in hot, dry soil lacking the water they require. If left unwatered, this can result in the plant dying. So don’t water lightly and frequently, or you’ll be condemning yourself, and your plants, to daily light watering forever.

Don’t Over-water

If your plants are starting to look unhealthy, it may be tempting to think that this is a sign that they need more water. However if you water regularly, and the soil around the plants is wet to the touch, it can also be a sign that you are actually giving your plants too much water.

If you are overwatering your plants, and saturating them with more water than they can cope with, you may see your plants giving you the following signs:

  • Sagging, drooping and wilting of the leaves
  • Leaves falling off the plant
  • Decreased and faded colour and browning or yellowing of foliage
  • Stunted growth and lack of vigour. This happens because over-watering has diluted the nutrients in the soil to the point where the plants are starving
  • Seeds rotting before they germinate, or seedlings rotting at the soil line and falling over. This is called ‘damping off’ and is caused by a variety of soil-borne fungi. You can avoid damping off by keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged, and using compost to add vital nutrients in the soil to keep it healthy and able to fight off fungi.

Hot Weather Watering

In summer and spring, your plants will need more water and you’ll need to be more diligent with your watering compared to in the cooler months of winter and autumn.

In hotter weather, your plants are dependant on water for survival and you will need to employ methods to drought proof your garden so your plants have the best chance possible to stay alive and healthy.

This might involve watering plants daily or, in extreme cases, a couple of times a day when they are visibly wilting and suffering from heat stress. Plants that are in containers should be moved out of the sun and can be soaked with water until the water starts to come out of the bottom of the drainage holes.

Whatever the season, just look out for the telltale signs of over or under-watering and adjust the watering to suit.

So in summary, it is vital to water properly, with it all coming down to:

  • Changing the amount of water depending upon your type of plant, climate, soil condition and season.
  • Checking that your soil has adequate moisture content and adjusting accordingly.
  • Deep watering in the early morning
  • Watering the roots and not the foliage and to avoid over-watering

If you do all of these things, you should be able to have happy and thriving plants in your garden.

One final note:

It’s much easier to use plants and water according to the soil and climate type than to use non-ideal plants and treat the soil and compensating for the climate. However, if you’re absolutely determined to have an ‘English country garden’ in a hot, sandy coastal location, then be prepared to spend years building up the organic elements in the soil until you achieve the right balance of nutrition, drainage and pH. It can been done and some people think the results are worth the extra effort.

After all is said and done, some people like high-maintenance gardens and watering regimes, while some people prefer to have the best possible garden with the minimal amount of work. No matter what your preference, you might like to consider using Fox Mowing and Gardening to help you make the most out of your unique garden situation. And while we’re there watering your garden, or designing a system that suits you and your garden’s needs, we can do a lot of other stuff too to get your garden looking and feeling its best.

Our local teams of landscaping and gardening experts provide a wide range of flower and garden bed services for both residential and commercial clients. Every team is reliable, professional and highly experienced. They’ll keep your garden beds healthy and vibrant all year long.

Our garden care crews always arrive in branded vehicles and full uniform. We believe in integrity, consistency and professionalism, so you can always rely on us to take excellent care of your home and garden. In fact, we’ll treat your home or commercial garden as if it’s our own!

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