The single most common phrase uttered from would-be gardeners is “I would, but I’ve got a black thumb.” I find this sentiment utterly meaningless: how could the color of one’s thumb possibly have anything to do with their capacity to make plants grow? I have a painfully cheesy but absolutely infallible phrase that I throw back at those supposedly black thumb wielding ne’er do wells: “A green thumb is one which spends most of its time on a hose trigger.”
Semantics and symbolism aside, water is at the core of what separates a bad gardener from a mediocre gardener. Anyone who has an elementary education ought to be aware that plants, like all carbon-based life forms, require water above all else in order to survive. Unfortunately, we as humans have an incredible capacity for being perfectly aware of things while wholly neglecting to act upon our awareness of them. Every time I am confronted by one of these black thumb folk, I first ask them about their plant watering habits, and nearly every time they do not water their plants even close to enough. Plants need water. A lot of water. Especially here and now in New Orleans, where the sun is hot and the days are long.
What follow are some of the basics of what constitutes enough water, and how it ought to be applied. These are all vague notions of what is enough. There are infinite factors beyond those which I am about to mention that ought to be taken into consideration when watering your plants. Also keep in mind that I am referring to watering vegetables, because this is what I know best, but these practices generally stand true for all plants.
If your plants are in containers, the rule is simple: Water them until water trickles out of the bottom of your container. Do it every day. If you don’t do it every day, your plants will be OK, but have it in your head that should it be every day.
If your plants are in the ground, there are numbers involved. Do you have irrigation? That’s incredible and I’m very proud of your commitment to the cause. Now set your irrigation timer to water for 90 minutes, every three days. Don’t have a timer? Get one. Don’t have irrigation? That’s expected and I am humbled by your fortitude and tenacity, for you will be spending much time ambling about your garden with a hose in hand. Water each plant for 30 seconds each day. That is the rule. 30 seconds for each plant, no exceptions, unless you’re watering them longer, or it rains. The purpose of these numbers is to reach another number: you want your soil wet to a depth of 6 inches every time you water it, then you want to give the roots some time to dry in between, hence the three days.
These are horrifically broad strokes and there are plentiful exceptions to the rule. For example, if you have aloe vera and it looks like it’s dying, it’s probably because you are watering it too much.
I know I have already demanded much of you, but we’re going deeper. In a perfect world wherein your watering game is near apex, you will be waking up shortly before dawn to get this watering done. Plants are most amenable to a watering in the early morning. Why? Primarily it’s an issue of maximizing water intake. Once the sun’s up, gravity must compete with evaporation for the water’s attention. You’re going to lose a hefty chunk of water to the sun and the water cycle that you learned so much about in grade school.
Based on this, it would be logical to water your plants at night then, yes? Well, yes, in the event that your sleep cycle simply will not allow waking early, it’s better to water at dusk than midday, but nighttime watering opens your plants up to all sorts of crawling hell. Caterpillars, snails, slugs, and other eternal enemies of your food garden do most of their creeping and eating in the dead of night. What’s more, they’re very attracted to moist spaces. What’s a restaurant without a drink menu? All those terrible creatures feel the same way. When you water your plants at night, the water doesn’t evaporate at all, and the moist space that remains will bring all the snails to the yard, where much of the food that was meant to be yours becomes theirs. Also, your roots may find themselves sitting in water all night long, and while they love a good drink, letting a plant root system sit in perpetually wet soil is kind of like waterboarding them. Not cool.
Still, nighttime is better than midday for watering in our hellish summer heat. Not only will that whole water cycle thing happen if you water in the light of a summer day, but you risk damaging your plant root system as well, especially in container gardens. Given the exceptional hotness of New Orleans, water temperatures can get very high in the ground and literally boil your plant roots. So not only is it a waste of your time and water, daytime watering is potentially deadly as well. There are plenty of other aspects of watering that could and should be broached, but you’re probably already pretty unhappy with how complicated I’ve made this supposedly straightforward fast track to greenthumbness, so I’ll just add one more important element: your water has to reach the soil in a gentle and loving manner. You can’t take a typical cheap spray nozzle and blast the dirt with full force. This will quickly decimate your soil ecosystem, expose your roots, compact the dirt you depend on, and probably be messy too. Jet streaming your water into the ground is expedient in terms of time and volume but will ruin all of your good work fast. Also, a straight up hose end won’t do. Dumping water into the dirt is a lazy and unhealthy habit. No buckets either. You want to imitate nature to the best of your ability, and in order to do so you need only spend $10 or so on a decent nozzle that lets water fall like rain from the heavens. Buy something that says “shower” somewhere on the label, or on the hose itself. The soil will delight
in it, as will your plants. If you have irrigation set up then you’re good to go. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation let water out in a very soil friendly manner.You have nothing to fear.
If you follow even half of these suggestions then you will have achieved a mastery of plant growing prowess that has eluded the masses for time immemorial. You are now prepared to sink into the depths of true plantgrowing wisdom, where the sun rotates around the Earth and tomatoes are also cherries, pears, blueberries, and grapes. Whatever, just water your plants, OK?
Questions or news about gardening? Email Ian at email@example.com