With the right amount of water at the right time, your garden can survive the summer’s heat


File photo. File photo.

It’s here. After a slow but productive spring and a gorgeous early summer, we’ve hit the gardening doldrums. The heat and humidity are stifling and it’s tempting to give up until September returns with cooler weather and a whole new harvest. But don’t give up yet! The tomatoes are just coming on, we’re awash in green beans, and the cucumbers are at their prime. To keep the garden happy through late July and August, the key thing to remember is effective watering.

If your idea of watering involves standing straight up while shooting from the hip with the hose, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as those click-bait headlines say, “You’re doing it wrong.”

First, aim to water the soil—and plant roots—and not the aboveground portion of the plant. Unless you’re growing in a high tunnel, it’s not possible to protect plants from the rain, but you can limit how much moisture they receive from you. Wet leaves contribute to the spread of fungal diseases, and perhaps more importantly, the plants need water at their roots—they don’t absorb it through their leaves! So put it where it belongs—in the ground. If you dislike bending over to make sure your watering can or hose is properly aimed at the ground, consider purchasing a wand, which extends your hose, saves your back, and produces a gentle flow of water.

Which leads me to the second rule of watering: it’s not a car wash. You’re not trying to power wash bird crap off your windshield. You’re aiming for the water to gently settle into the soil without running off or washing out. Use a gentle spray or a watering can to ensure that water stays put. And rather than just standing there while the water pours out of the hose and runs down the garden path, it’s best to water each section of the garden quickly, let the water soak in, and then come back for another pass (or two). This way the water has time to slowly drain into the soil rather than just collecting at the surface and running off.

Lastly, water smartly and conservatively. Water in the morning. It’s better to water deeply but less often than to water lightly every day, which encourages plant roots to stay up near the soil surface and dry out more quickly. Buy a rain gauge and aim for your garden to get a minimum of one inch of water a week from rain, irrigation, or a combination of the two. If you haven’t already, consider installing a rain barrel (or several) to capture the rain that would otherwise run off your roof to use in the garden. Finally, it’s not too late to reap the soil moisture benefits of mulch; put down straw mulch (never hay and never wood chips) around the base of your plants to slow down evaporation (and smother weeds). 

Guinevere Higgins is owner of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest, which provides consultation, design, and installations for home-scale edible gardens. When she’s not gardening, she works in fundraising for the Center for a New American Dream.