In a summer in which we are experiencing less than usual rainfall, I want to take a few moments to share some thoughts on watering. Butternut Gardens is located in a suburban neighborhood. Lawn and landscape irrigation systems abound and we have purchased water supply. I, too, have a lawn and landscape irrigation system in place on my home growing site, but not on my other growing site. The home irrigation system is rarely used here. In fact, I have used it only 3 times this growing season when plants looked truly in need. It might be because I grew up using a well that I treat water with a huge bit of respect. It might be my instinctively frugal nature that makes me appreciate a lot of the things many take for granted. Then again, it might be that I was a child of parents who lived through war years, which included rationing for the common good and I still believe in assisting the common good. Or it could be that as a child I watched reservoir levels hit highs and lows and I watched a river, which flowed by our house, too, reach floodwater highs and trickling lows. Just because it comes from a faucet doesn’t mean it doesn’t come from SOMEWHERE.
In my mind, water is precious. While my plants are certainly important I generally confine my outdoor watering of plants to the following situations. First, when I plant seedlings into the garden rows, I water. It is important to have soil, water and plant roots make contact rather than have plant roots in contact with air, which makes up part of the soil complex. Water helps settle the soil and allows for this contact. During the first few weeks after transplant I am very vigilant when it comes to protecting the seedlings from drying out. At this stage they are quite prone to drying out since their root system is still developing, and not very deep into the ground, and first leaves are very tender. So, during this very sensitive timeframe I usually water very gently to keep the soil moist. I also take a few other steps to reduce watering needs. The first is I try to time planting to coincide with an imminent rain, but not a heavy rain, which would do more harm than good. I also routinely cover my newly planted out seedlings with white frost cover fabric. This fabric is great for keeping critters from eating seedlings or un-sprouted seeds (if I have placed multiple seeds in each plug) and also is invaluable at moderating soil temperature changes and soil moisture changes. I highly recommend this step when you plant out home seedlings. In addition, I am a mulch fanatic both for weed control and for the sake of keeping my soil moist.
A second instance in which I will water is if we have not had rain for weeks on end and plants are in heavy growing stages. You may recall that we did not have water for 23 days straight earlier this season. We have had little water throughout this summer and are now about 9 inches below average for the year to date. I have not raced out to water. My mulches are doing a fantastic job in general. This has allowed me to water a total of three times on any large scale this year. I can’t say enough good things about mulching. One thing that helps me as a flower farmer, as opposed to strictly a gardener, is that I usually plant my plants closer to one another than I would in a garden setting. I want the plants to stretch out a bit to give me longer stems and I do a lot of cutting, which takes out volume and width. With a closer spacing of plants each individual plant benefits from a bit of shading around soil level.
Spot watering is a third category in my watering regimen. Certain plants, such as hydrangea, tend to wilt faster than others. If they are looking dry and wilted, I will water slowly and deeply.
Finally, to help prolong the vase life of my cut flowers, I will pay special attention to plants from which I will soon be cutting. A well-hydrated flower on a plant seems to make a better cut off the plant. So, if I am looking to cut Rudbeckia in another two days, or the Sweet Williams are almost ready, I will make sure they are well hydrated and will consider watering within 24 hours of cutting if they warrant it.
If I grew more plants in high tunnels or low tunnels I would have to supply water in this situation as well because rainwater doesn’t make it through the plastic. This is actually one reason I like to field grow my plants. I live in an area, which generally has plenty of water for outdoor growing. For this I am thankful. When I grow anemone and ranunculus in low tunnels I do have to supply water, sometimes even in the winter because the plastic tunnels keep the soil warm enough for the plants to continue growing, but also keep the soil dry. Other farmers have suggested kicking snow in from the sides of the tunnels. Even with last year’s extensive and extended snow cover I preferred to haul out the hose. No, it wasn’t fun, but I didn’t have to do it too many times. The miserable part is hauling the hose back in over the snow and making sure it is clear of water, which could freeze. So, if you think you want to be a flower farmer, just imagine hauling a hose out and back to the faucet in cold winter weather.