Farmers refer to the hot days of July as "cucumber weather" because it takes high heat to make these plants grow like crazy. But high temperatures put immense stress on all plants not adequately watered.
This is the time of year when the excitement of spring gardening wanes and you'd rater sit in the shade than go out and water the garden. All your hard work preparing the soil and planting can be undone in one day of super-hot weather.
This is more than just remembering to water in hot weather. You need to water correctly so the plants receive enough to keep them evenly moist. Spotty watering or insufficient applications turn a healthy plant into a stressed-out poor doer. It may not die, but just fails to flower properly. Young fruit may simply drop off. Developing fruit may remain very small. Mature fruit may be pithy or bitter. Above all, yields will be minimal.
Just like in people, a plant's immune system can take a hit, too. The plant loses its natural resistance to ordinary pests and diseases. If you doubt this, take note of the most bug-afflicted plants and chances are they'll be the most weak and spindly of the lot.
The hardest thing for new gardeners to learn is how to water. It's all about how often, how much and how quickly you apply water. The goal is to get water deep into the root zone. This zone is where you want your plants to root, which is deep down where it's cool and water isn't subject to surface evaporation. Applying water is easy, but getting deep into the root zone can be a challenge.
Problems arise more often in clay because these soil particles are tightly packed together. This leaves little space for water to enter the soil and percolate down to where the roots are. Water you apply tends to sit on the surface in a pool, and that suggests you've applied more than enough. To find the truth, dig a little test hole. You'll see that the soil is bone dry just an inch below the surface. Thus, many failures result from gardeners who water often enough, but their plants suffer dehydration from too little water in the root zone.
Watering slowly is the solution for dense clay. Turn the hose down and take your time. One trick is to trickle water at the base of each plant for a little while so it can percolate directly into the root zone. Start by allowing three minutes per plant, then test the results with a little hole to see if it's fully penetrating. Increase your watering time period if you feel it's not getting down deep enough.
While the water is trickling, it's time for you to get multitasking. Here are some things to do while you wait:
-- Pull weeds before they flower.
-- Tie up or train your vine crops to make sure they don't flop under the weight of fruit.
-- Pick anything that's ripe or nearly so, and put it into the refrigerator immediately.
-- Inspect each plant from stem to tip for the first signs of pests or disease.
-- Spray soapy water where aphids or other pests are making an appearance.
-- Inspect mulches, adding more to thin spots.
Another solution for dense clay soil is to change the way you water altogether. The drip system was developed to solve just such a problem by applying water very slowly over a long period of time. Emitters deliver just one to two gallons per hour, extending the saturation time to supply a huge root zone that remains moist for days after the surface has dried out.
Drip systems can be put on a battery-operated timer. It automatically turns on in the morning so the root zone is fully saturated by the hottest afternoon hours. Best of all, you need not remember to do it.
Whether you do it by hand or with a drip system, what matters is that you water the root zone, not the surface. It's key to everything you grow, but particularly if you want yields that are large and sweet and perfect.
(Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer(at)yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.)
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