9 Mistakes You're Making Every Time You Water Your Garden

Doing it the right way is a bit more complicated than it seems.

August 26, 2016
watering potted flowers
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Watering is one of the most basic ways to care for your garden and lawn, yet using the wrong technique can cause your plants to wilt and die. I talked to gardening friends and experts about the worst ways to water lawns and gardens; make sure you avoid making these nine common mistakes. 

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

watering flowers
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Mistake #1: Using Softened Water

According to Mary Bachert, a landscape design professional in Macungie, PA, the number one water-related problem she sees is plants killed by softened water. “Lots of homeowners have hard water, so they install whole-house water softener systems and have their outside water tap hooked up to the system so it won’t leave water spots when they wash their cars,” says Bachert. “Unfortunately, they use that same water on their yard and the plants die of salt poisoning.” Unless you live at the seaside and grow only native salt-tolerant plants, hook your hose up to an untreated tap or a rain barrel

sprinkler system
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Mistake #2: Relying On Sprinkler Systems

Ignoring automatic sprinklers after their initial setup is another common cause of watering-related damage, says Bachert. All sorts of potential pitfalls await, including poorly designed systems, clogged nozzles, broken parts, or maladjusted timers that turn the system on in the heat of the day. Sometimes sensors malfunction, causing the sprinkler to run when the soil is already moist (or even when it's raining!). Any of these issues can result in over- or under-watering.

The most common losses Bachert sees are new trees planted in clay soil. “Large planting holes dug in clay soil tend to act like bathtubs so even a little excess water from a sprinkler system will soon drown and kill a healthy new tree,” she says. Automatic sprinkler systems can be great, but they need to be maintained and adjusted as needed.

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Mistake #3: Providing Frequent "Quick Drinks"

I shudder when I see Joe or Jill Homeowner with a handheld hose happily spraying their plants, doing little more than getting the leaves wet. Plants drink with their roots, and you need to get the water to those roots—deep in the soil—to do any good. For established plants, you need to add enough water, and do so slowly enough, so that it soaks in about 6 to 8 inches for veggies and perennials, and 12 inches for trees and shrubs.

Slow, deep waterings once or twice a week encourage plants to grow long, efficient roots, and make the plants strong, healthy, and drought-resistant. In most areas, about one inch of water (rain plus what you add) is a good level to aim for—adjust depending on your soil type and the water requirements of your plants. When the soil underneath is moist, the top few inches can dry out without damaging the plants.

Related: A Beginner's Guide To Drip-Irrigation

dried out plant
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Mistake #4: Letting New Seeds And Plants Dry Out

Newly planted seeds and plants are the exception to the “no quick drinks” rule. Until plants have had time to grow roots deep into the natural soil, they need to be watered frequently. For seeds and tiny new seedlings, that means watering lightly as needed—perhaps even every few hours in hot weather—to keep the surface of the soil moist at all times. Gradually decrease the frequency as roots grow. And be sure the soil below the moist surface layer isn’t dry, or the roots will never grow deep, leaving your plants dependent on you for frequent waterings.

Larger new plants also need a little extra water to help them get established, even “low-maintenance, drought-resistant” plants. Don't just water existing roots: Aim to keep the soil around and below them moist, too, so new roots will grow out and down into the soil. For fast-growing annual flowers and veggies, this may be an issue for only a couple of weeks, while larger plants will need extra watering, especially in dry periods, for up to a year.

Related: How To Grow Healthy Plants From Seedlings Every Time

watering flowers
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Mistake #5: Watering Too Fast

It takes time for water to soak into the soil, especially dry soil. Water that runs off over the surface of the soil is a waste of water, time, and energy. Use soaker hoses or drip systems to slowly apply water over a large area for maximum efficiency (bonus: you won’t have to stand around holding the hose).

 
 
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Mistake #6: Watering Only The Stem

It's easy to forget how far roots extend out and down from the stem or trunk—in general roots tend to reach as wide as the branches do. Directing your hose at the stem/trunk of a large plant means most of the roots—especially the young, efficient ones on the outside edge—are missing out on hydration. Water the whole area under a plant or tree, plus a little bit more (to grow into). 

leaves
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Mistake #7: Watering The Leaves

As I frequently tell the kids at the elementary school garden I help with: “Leaves don’t drink, roots do; so put the water where the roots are.” Wet leaves also make happy homes for many plant diseases. Don’t be a leaf waterer; direct water on and into the soil as much as possible.

watering flowers
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Mistake #8: Watering During The Hottest Part Of The Day

Hot air temperatures speed evaporation so the hotter (and windier) it is when you water, the more water will be lost before it has a chance to soak down into the soil. The best time to water is early morning while the air is at its coolest—this allows plants to drink deeply before the heat of the day and the sun to quickly dry off any water that splashes on the leaves, reducing disease problems.

 
 
soil
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Mistake #9: Watering Naked Soil

Water evaporates into the air from moist soil and is lost. A layer of organic mulch, such as wood chips, bark nuggets, straw, or dry grass clippings, creates a barrier that slows this process, keeping the soil moist longer from the same amount of watering. Mulch also speeds water absorption, encourages the soil microorganisms that keep plants healthy and happy, keeps down the weeds, and makes your life easier. What’s not to like? Say no to naked soil.