The Garden Patch: Seeds, soil and water grow enjoyable experiences

If it’s in your garden, it’s soil. If it’s on your hands or clothes, it’s dirt. Now, in case anyone questions you, the answer is obvious.

First, watering: There are two factors that influence the general practices of watering: The water supply available to the plant in the soil environment, and the rate of water being used by the plant. The first depends primarily on the soil water-holding capacity, as well as the extensiveness of the root system of the plant. The second depends on some special characteristics of the plant to retard water use – and more importantly – on the weather conditions such as temperature, wind and humidity.

Second, soil types: The soil you have influences water practices since different soil textures hold different quantities of water. Soil is composed of small particles with the largest particles classified as sand, medium sized particles as silt, and the fine particles as clay. Varying amounts of each sized particles in any soil influences its texture.

Some soils may have different textures at different depths. A layer of clay or hardpan beneath a loamy soil can restrict drainage into a soil. In many garden situations there has been considerable disturbance of the present soil by construction or hauling fill soil into an area.

How much we needa water? Here’s some general principles:

Garden plants use water as part of the photosynthetic process and move nutrients from the soil environment to upper parts of the plant. There is a continuous flow of water from the root system up through the plant where water is evaporated into the atmosphere. Thus, in hot dry conditions the loss of water to the air is greater than in cooler or more humid conditions. In addition, as the plant grows there is a greater need for water as the size and complexity of the plant increases.

In contrast to landscape plants, some garden plants need adequate water to encourage rapid, vigorous growth. Crops should never be under prolonged water stress since yield quality and pest resistance may be sacrificed.

Young, seedling plants with shallow, poorly developed root systems may require regular, shallow watering, while a more mature plant with its extensive root development can use water from a larger area of the soil profile.

Garden crops differ in size and complexity of the root system. Since the root system is the source of water absorption, consider the type of plant when determining which water practice would be most efficient.

The development of the root system of garden crops is such that most of the water is absorbed in the upper one-half of the root system. Thus, if the effective rooting depth of tomatoes is 48 inches, we should probably assume that most of the water is absorbed in the upper 24 inches and should attempt to manage our watering practices to keep an adequate water supply in this two-foot depth area.

In addition to differences in rooting depths, some vegetables, such as lettuce and corn, have especially sparse, less developed root systems for absorbing water from soils. Other crops, such as pepper and tomato have a fibrous root system that will more effectively remove water from a given area of soil.

Cool season (i.e. spring and fall) vegetables generally root to a shallower depth than warm season vegetables and perennial vegetables. More frequent watering may be needed in stressful periods for these crops. However, since fall and spring are usually characterized by cooler temperatures and more abundant rainfall, watering during these times is usually less of a concern.

In many direct seeded crops, you must be sure that water is available in the root zone to encourage germination of seeds and allow for initial growth and development of seedling plants. Thus, in dry seasons, it is often necessary to “water a crop up” or provide frequent, shallow waterings until the crop germinates and develops to beyond the seedling stage. This is especially true in seeding crops in summer for fall production.

In transplanted garden crops, providing water at transplanting time is essential to ensure water is available to support the plant until it is able to absorb plant from the surrounding soil. In general, apply ½ to 1 cup of water with each transplanted vegetable, strawberry or flower plant, and about 2 to 4 gallons to each bush fruit, grape or tree fruit depending on the size. Watering should be done slowly so that it soaks into the area near the plant, or watering should be at the bottom of the transplanting hole.

A garden crop needs water available at all times during its lifecycle to survive and grow. There are several periods, however, when adequate water is critical. During these periods, the plant may respond to a lack of water by changes that are irreversible during the remainder of its life.

Does all this have a moral for us gardeners? YES. Water as needed and in adequate amounts. Be careful not to overwater (in summertime Kansas that’s usually tough to do).

Have fun and enjoy your garden! Enjoyment and excellent food is what it’s all about! Till next time!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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