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Posts Tagged ‘watering’

Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden Revisited

Your Small Kitchen Garden blog recently received a question about watering. The question was fairly general, and I ended up writing a detailed answer that would make a good post. So, here it is:

Rain in a Small Kitchen Garden

In early spring, young spinach sprouts pop out in the bottom of a furrow in my small kitchen garden. I deliberately plant in furrows and basins so water will collect around the plants and soak in there.

Ideally, it will rain on your garden, and that will reduce your need to water. Sadly, it may rain too much on your garden as it did for most of us in the northeastern United States in the summer of 2009. Once you’ve planted your garden, there’s little you can do when it rains too much; roots may drown where water collects and foliage may rot. Molds such as late blight thrive in wet growing seasons.

So, plan your garden with torrential rain in mind: don’t place beds in low spots. Better still, build raised beds that assure roots won’t steep in standing water should it rain heavily one year.

Optimize Water Use

Your plants will appreciate good drainage. As a favor to the environment (and to your finances if you use tap water in the garden), optimize the garden’s use of whatever water it gets. Assuming the garden bed drains well even in torrential rain, set your rows deeper than the surrounding soil. This means your plants will grow in the bottoms of troughs. For an individual plant such as a tomato, eggplant, squash, or pepper, create a small depression—a basin—with the plant in the middle of it. These low areas will collect rain or hose water and give it time to soak in around the plants’ roots.

How much Water is Enough?

As for knowing when you’ve watered enough? I wrote an earlier post on the topic titled Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden. My approach isn’t rigid; I simply try to keep the plants alive with the least amount of watering they’ll accept happily. I note the weather and I watch the soil and the plants. If there has been no rain in several days and the soil looks dry… or worse, leaves are starting to droop… I water heavily. If there is a sustained dry spell—several weeks or more with little or no rain—I change my watering strategy: I water lightly every morning. The idea is to provide just enough water on top so that any moisture that is already below the surface stays there.

Whenever I water, I target the soil line of my plants. If it’s a tight row of greens, carrots, peas, and such, I distribute water evenly along the row. If I’m watering individual plants such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers, I make sure the water lands where a plant emerges from the soil. There may be a relative desert between my tomato plants, but the soil extending a foot from the stem of a plant receives several light waterings a week during a dry spell.

Spot Water Your Small Kitchen Garden

It’s important to note: when I water, nearly every drop ends up in the depressions in which the plants grow. For heavy watering, I try to fill the trench that defines a row, or the basin holding an individual plant. After that soaks in, I fill the trench or basin again. For light watering, I may not fill the trenches and basins, but I direct the water into them.

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough the advantages of mulching close to your plants, and mulching heavily. Having a lawn, I believe, is a horrible affront to Planet Earth. However, as long as I have a lawn I’ll use grass clippings to mulch my small kitchen garden. Lawn clippings, fallen leaves, newspapers, cardboard, black plastic, pine needles, pine bark… come up with something that’s easy enough to manage that you’ll actually manage it. Mulch lets water through to the soil and significantly reduces the amount that evaporates on dry days.

I shot this sequence of photos one day when I was watering some newly-planted tomatoes. The photo on the left shows a tomato plant in its own basin freshly filled with water. Subsequent photos show the basin over the next 40 seconds as the water soaks in around the plant.


Further thoughts about watering and responsible ways to conserve water:


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Water Small Kitchen Garden Perennials

There wasn’t much “structure” to the root systems of my young fruit trees when I planted them in the fall. They’ll need plenty of water as they come out of dormancy this spring.

I’m poised to plant my small kitchen garden, having finished late-winter pruning and grafting in my fruit trees. I’m poised, but holding. March teased early with some very warm days, but then plunged into barely-tolerable cold.

The soil has thawed, so a more rugged gardener could have planted peas, lettuce, spinach, and other cold weather crops by now. I tend to wait until April for those, and sometimes am simply too busy to plant them until late April. But this year there’s something else that’s very important for me to do in my garden: water young perennials.

Fall Planting Time Bombs

Back in mid-Autumn, I argued in this blog that you should plant fruit trees in the fall (this goes for most perennials, but if they’re not going to feed you, don’t waste your energy planting them). I shared my experiences of trying to find fruit trees at local nurseries, I explained that I ended up buying via mail-order, and I showed how I planted my young trees in mid-November.

Among the advantages I listed for planting perennials in autumn: you don’t have to water, and you can omit fertilizer. Dormant plants aren’t demanding.

Come spring, those young perennials emerge from dormancy and require the creature comforts you denied them in the fall. If you had plenty of rain or snow over the winter, your soil will thaw and be moist; your perennials will be happy. However, if your neighborhood is emerging from a dry winter, your perennials may awaken to desert-like conditions. This is especially bad for the young ones.

What’s more, even if your ground thaws wet, you need to make sure the young plants don’t dry out along with the soil. Unless you’re experiencing substantial seasonal rainfall—or massive snow melt—you should start watering when the ground thaws.

How Much Water?

In early spring, water deeply once or twice a week (again, don’t water if Mother Nature is doing a good job of it). As plants (any plants—not just the perennials you planted in autumn) emerge from dormancy (you see leaf buds plump up), increase your watering to once daily unless the soil is obviously saturated.

When you plant perennials, you should soak them till the soil can’t hold more water. This helps you work out air pockets and get the soil up against young roots. Subsequent watering needn’t saturate the soil. Your goal is to keep everything damp, not to maintain a mud pit around your tree.

When leaves emerge and you see vigorous growth, cut back the water to two or three times a week, and keep it up until fall. Skip watering if there’s a decent rainstorm.

Especially if you planted bare root trees in the fall, they need a lot of moisture in their first year to help them develop strong root systems. But temper daily watering: the point of planting in autumn was to reduce the amount of water you had to provide. Especially in March and April, the soil may stay wet for several days between watering.


It’s good to provide fertilizer as your young fall plantings wake up in the spring. Best of all, mulch with compost (but don’t let the compost rest against the plant). If that’s not an option, provide a light feed of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer.

For my older fruit trees, I’d always driven holes in the ground with a crow bar, and then filled the holes with fertilizer. A friend who runs an orchard told me he prefers to broadcast fertilizers on the surface and let them dissolve into the soil. For young trees, just dust fertilizer on the loose soil around the tree trunk—a small handful at most. With all the watering, it’ll soak in quickly.

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It’s Nearly Autumn: Plant Vegetables!

The good news is: It’s not too late to plant vegetables in your small kitchen garden. On the other hand, if you live in zone 5 or farther north, you’re pushing your luck. Zone 5, is the hardiness zone that cuts diagonally south-west from Maine, across New York and northern Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, and most of the central states from central North Dakota down to central Kansas.

If you’re in that huge swath of the United States, you have a reasonable shot at growing some decent lettuce and spinach, maybe some small onions and radishes, turnip and collard greens, and annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, and dill. Late August is a little late to start, but if you plant vegetables that you can eat at any growth stage (leaf crops are the safest bet), you’ll probably get a few weeks’ harvest from them.

Southerners: Plant Vegetables!

The better news is for people who live in zone 6 and farther south. That’s a whole bunch of United States, and you likely have a decent stretch ahead in which cold weather crops can mature. Plant vegetables this week.

I straddle zones 5 and 6—they call it zone 5b—and I just planted a single nine-foot row in my garden with four feet of leaf lettuces, two feet of spinach, and two feet of cilantro. I’m not expecting large mature lettuce and spinach plants before a deep October freeze, but I’m confident I’ll have some fresh greens to go along with the last tomatoes of the growing season.

Take a Lazy Garden Approach

A cautious planting in my small kitchen garden

Because I’m flirting with the possibility of losing my young crops to an early freeze, I wasn’t willing to expend a lot of energy with the planting. To minimize the work, I turned over the soil only within the space I intended to plant. Then I broke up the chunks with a hoe, and raked it out leaving a rake-wide depression about two inches below the surrounding soil and centered on the row. I planted seeds by sprinkling them across the raked area as I might season my food—spreading a generous amount of seed in each section. Finally, I sprinkled soil over the row to put the seed an eighth- to a quarter-inch underground.

Hazards of Late Season Plantings

There are challenges with growing crops for a late harvest. For example, in a very dry summer, you need to water aggressively to get seeds started; in direct, hot sun, the soil dries out quickly to typical planting depths for smaller seeds. You must keep the soil damp until sprouts appear, and then water enough to protect the young roots from drying out. You may need to water daily… or even twice daily for three or four weeks as your new plants get established.


Insects and caterpillars are another important concern: summer vegetable-eaters weren’t around to damage your spring crops, but they’re ready and happy to forage in a second planting of cold-weather vegetables. I hate putting anything on my small kitchen garden other than water, mulch, and compost. But it’s dispiriting to plant a fall crop and see it decimated by aggressive pests. A general-purpose insecticide such as Sevin can keep down just about all the bugs, but if you object to the chemicals, the biological insecticide DiPel might do a good job—especially for caterpillars.

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Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden

There may be as many opinions about watering a small kitchen garden as there are gardens in the world. Of course, plants need water to grow. Many articles make specific and even forceful statements about a kitchen garden’s actual needs. But don’t let these articles scare you into working harder than you need to, or running your tap water into the ground.

An article written by Carly Romalino that appeared yesterday in a blog called South Jersey Life, provides some useful insights into the small kitchen garden. It suggests, for example, that beginners might start with tomatoes, and then add herbs and peppers as they gain experience. I’m all for tomatoes. In the words of at least one garden store operator: Tomatoes are weeds. When I first settled in rural Pennsylvania, I landed work in Connecticut and realized I’d be home only one weekend a month through the first growing season. I planted tomatoes—if any garden plant would produce with near total neglect, it would be a tomato plant.

Romalino goes on to encourage gardeners to plant vegetables now, listing spinach, broccoli, rabe, squash, and raspberries as good candidates. I add lettuce, peas, beans, and carrots to that list, but suggest caution if you’re much farther north than Pennsylvania. Our gardens will continue to grow into October, but gardens farther north may get frost-kill several weeks earlier. The most cold-resistant common vegetables are lettuce, spinach, peas, and some members of the cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts). Of course, the edible portions of root crops handle cold well, though the tops may die off with an early frost.

But, How Much to Water?

Romalino quotes Lorraine Kiefer, a professional horticulturist who tells us, “’Don’t even think about planting if you aren’t going to water at least twice a week with a soaker hose.’” The article goes on to say, “Overhead irrigation causes fungus and rot, but can be avoided with soaker hoses that lay on the ground and have holes that allow water to seep directly into the soil.”

This is where we differ. You must keep the soil moist if you want seeds to sprout. It might mean watering daily for as many as two weeks, depending on what you’ve planted and whether you get rain. After that, you shouldn’t let the ground become parched… however, you don’t need a soaker hose, and you don’t need a rigid twice-a-week watering schedule. Have you gotten rain lately? Do the plants look healthy, and are they a little bigger each day?

In truth, if your garden plants develop fungus and rot, it’s likely that you’re watering too much. Once the vegetables establish themselves in my small kitchen garden, I let them tell me when to water—and I hose them down by hand. This has been a dry summer, but I’ve watered my tomatoes only twice in the past six weeks. Still, the plants are nearly seven feet high, and I’m harvesting dozens of large fruits weekly.

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