The Garden Patch: Water-saving trickles down to gardening efficiency

Picked, stemmed and snapped a bucket full of green beans this morning – fifth time this season! We have bush beans and pole beans, and if you’ve never raised pole beans, try it! Don’t have the poles? We also raise bamboo, so let me know and I could make a gift for you! The bamboo poles will last several seasons with NO maintenance. OK! Enough about our garden, let’s do some planning for yours!

What about mulches for our usually hot and dry Kansas summers? Let’s ask …

One of the most effective ways of reducing the need to apply water to garden plants and make natural rainfall “last longer” is the use of garden mulches. Mulch plays a very important part in reducing the need to water. Mulches are better adapted and are most appropriately used on summer crops when periods of water use are most intense by the crops.

Mulches provide a barrier that helps prevent moisture loss for the soil due to evaporation.

They can also be useful in altering the temperature of the soil, controlling weeds, lessening soil compaction and keeping produce cleaner.

Plastic mulches. Black polyethylene mulch is preferred since clear plastic mulch encourages weeds to grow under it. Plastics usually are available in rolls 3 to 4 feet wide. They are placed over the row or bed, the edges covered with soil and various sized holes cut for different crops. Black surfaces absorb heat warming the soil for earlier production. Later the foliage shades the plastic reducing the heating of the soil. These mulches work best with warm season crops such as tomatoes, melons, peppers and eggplant which are usually established by transplant.

Organic mulches. Common materials used in gardens include compost, old hay, straw, leaves, shredded newspaper, peat moss and grass clippings (watch the weed seeds in grass clippings). Coarse materials need be applied in thicker layers (3 to 4 inches) while fine materials can be applied in 1- to 2-inch layers. Organic mulches serve as insulation reducing soil warming in the spring, so later season use is recommended. They can be left in place and tilled in during the fall for a source of organic matter. Organic materials should be dried before use (I secure my straw a year ahead of time to use it). Fresh materials should be dried before use. Fresh materials may form molds or slime and become repellent to water if used when still green. Also, make sure that organic materials do not contain a source of weed seeds, insects or disease organisms that may spread to garden crops. Old or composted materials are preferred.

10 ways to improve water use in the garden

  1. Water deeply – but no deeper than the root zone of the plant.
  2. Water slowly – turn down the flow.
  3. Water infrequently but thoroughly. Adjust equipment for a larger water droplet size to help reduce evaporation. Frequently shallow watering causes plant roots to concentrate close to the surface, making the plant more susceptible to water fluctuations.
  4. Loosen the soil surface and use mulches. Compacted areas absorb water slowly. Most mulches help to keep the soil surface loose and receptive to water absorption.
  5. Follow directions for operating and maintaining all irrigation systems. Check regularly for leaks, malfunctions or worn parts.
  6. Keep your garden well weeded to eliminate competition for water. Also, consider removing surplus plants from overcrowded beds to ease water demands.
  7. Use wider rows which space plants closer together, thus reducing soil water evaporation.
  8. Avoid watering during windy weather. (In Kansas?)
  9. Water early in the morning when humidity is the highest for reducing evaporation.
  10. Locate your garden away from trees which might compete for water (you knew that anyway, didn’t you?)

Staking and tying

Most home gardeners have limited garden space. Training plants on stakes or trellises makes more efficient use of that space. Tomatoes are generally staked (but I cage mine). Cucumbers and cantaloupe can be trained to a trellis or wire frame. Pole lima beans and pole snap beans can also be trained to a trellis. Drive the stakes soon after the plants have been set rather than waiting until they are established. Better yet, drive the stakes , then plant your crop around the stakes (works for me!)

An effective trellis for home gardeners can be made from hoops of concrete reinforcing wire or hog wire. Use hoops about two feet in diameter for tomatoes and 1 to 1 1/2 feet for cucumbers and cantaloupe. You may need to put a stake or rod alongside to hoop to prevent it from turning over in high winds (in Kansas?)

Next week we’ll talk about watering EFFICIENTLY. Some information to use now – some to remember for next season. Happy gardening!


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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