Give your plants a drink – how to’s

Water is literally the lifeblood of all plant material and this is the season of the year when we can more easily appreciate just how important water is to the growth and development of our plants. Most of our trees and shrubs can tolerate the heat and many species will actually grow and flourish in the heat as long as they have adequate water. There are some plants that wither in the heat no matter how much water is available like pansies in the full sun or the fuchsia and tuberous begonia baskets that look so good in the cooler spring weather.

Most doctors and nutritionists say we humans should drink at least 8 full glasses of water per day. That is particularly important in the summer months when we dehydrate so much easier. Our plants need water regularly and it is even more important in the drying heat of our Oklahoma summers. Many plants will give us clear visual signs if they are getting too dry and under too much stress. Our large trees or shrubs may start dropping green leaves or may have an unusual number of leaves turn yellow or brown and drop in an effort to reduce the canopy or the amount of foliage on top of plant that the roots can support with limited moisture. Many annuals, perennials and color plants will often drop foliage as well when stressed but they usually wilt or appear to go limp as the first cry for water. If you see your coleus, geraniums, impatiens or other plants wilting that usually means you are not doing your job of providing water to the root zone. Many plants also go from a bright green foliage to a dull green or even grayish look when they are dry and calling for water. Remember that by the time the plant is wilting, turning a dullish green or dropping leaves it has already come under stress enough to effect the top of plant foliage growth, flowering and possible even to cause loss of root action which is the damage which will be longest lasting. A plant under water stress is also more vulnerable to insect and disease damage.

Your soil type and health is a huge factor in amount and regularity of water your plants will require. Sandy soil accepts water easily but it drains through it and doesn’t hang around in the root zone unless we improve the soil over time with sphagnum peat moss or other natural compost and organic matter to increase its water holding capacity. Clay soils will hang onto water longer but are often harder to wet and sometimes the water will just run off the surface until we improve those soils with sphagnum peat or other composts and organic matter to open up the soil to more easily accept water and some air movement. Those that are blessed with good rich loam soils are not under as much pressure to add organic matter but it can still be helpful over time.

Think about the root zone of your plants and that helps explain your watering needs. Mature trees will have the deepest root systems with root zones often a mirror image of their top canopy. With roots many feet into the earth they can capture deeper moisture and will not come under as extreme stress unless we have a real drought like those in the Panhandle are dealing with. Shrubs and lawns will have shallower root systems and come under stress next. Our color plants and newly planted trees and shrubs will have the shallowest root zones and this top soil will dry out most easily as the water in the soil is used by the plants and evaporates into the dry air with high temperatures and dry blowing winds.

It is always best to water enough to soak your soil types down 4” to 8” deep instead of just squirting the foliage and top of the soil. One or two good soakings a week depending on your plants, amount of direct sun they receive and soil type is far superior to squirting the same plants every day. You can often cut your watering in half by mulching the top of the soil with a 2” to 3” layer of some type of natural hulls or bark fiber or bark chips. I know you get tired of my promoting mulching but it is an Oklahoma gardener’s best friend as it reduces water use and the time spent watering, cools the ground surface, reduces soil surface water evaporation and dramatically reduces weed pressure in your garden. Container gardens and hanging baskets will require more regular watering as they are above ground and don’t have the insulation of the earth to help slow drying. The smaller the container the more often it will need water. A large urn will not require extra water like a smaller hanging basket on the front porch which can be the most needy for extra water. There are polymer crystal you can add to hanging baskets and container gardens to help hold water and reduce watering in these container gardens.

Water is a truly precious resource and we all need to be good stewards of this lifeblood liquid so critical to we humans, our plants and all living things. As we all try to live a sustainable lifestyle lets work to properly prepare our soils with organic matter, to select good plant materials for each location, to water thoroughly when we do water, and to mulch to save our water. The plants we raise produce the oxygen we need, clean our air and actually modify our harsh temperatures while producing food and creating beauty. Your plants can do marvelous things with just a little attention and some timely water soakings.

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