Our summers have been marked by significant dry spells for the last few years, and sometimes two or three weeks pass without a drop of rain. When these hot, dry days come, we must uncoil the garden hose, turn the squeaky handle of the spigot, and bring the very juice of life to our plants.
Watering seems so simple that it is easy to overlook its importance. Just spray some water in the general direction of the green things and everything will be fine, right? Well, it’s more than that.
After we plant new gardens or install a new tree, proper watering in the heat of summer is essential to the survival and health of the plants we have invited into our spaces. And we, being conscious beings with opposable thumbs and a general, innate sense of compassion, have a very important role and responsibility here.
Water is one of the ingredients needed for plants to perform the miraculous foundational process of all life — photosynthesis (6CO2 + 12H2O + light → C6H12O6 + 6O2). Plants have devised a process to convert carbon dioxide, water, and light into sugars for themselves and, as an added kindness, the oxygen we breathe. They have made the first offering; we have a chance to reciprocate.
Water is taken up by the porous, absorptive, thirsty tendrils called roots. Roots dig deep into the earth and reach out wide to provide structure and support and drink in nutrients that ride along in the water.
In order for a plant to get those nutrients, it must have water moving up its vascular system to its leaves and out its little stomates. This process, called transpiration, creates suction that draws water upward through negative water vapor pressure. It is so powerful that a single tree can draw hundreds of gallons through its body in a single day.
So how should we water? Deeply.
The more we encourage water to move down into the soil system, the better the roots will do the thing they do so well and grow where the water is. We must help guide the roots to where they are of greatest service to the plants by getting the water to the place where it can have the greatest effect.
When you plant, use the soil that is taken from the planting hole to create a “water well.” The well is essentially a low berm encircling the plant, like a dish, that helps contain water around the root zone of the plant. When you water, fill the well once, then again, and then again, to ensure deep water infiltration.
When you water on hot, dry days, water deeply. It is better to water deeply and less often than to water lightly and often. Water that does not infiltrate will evaporate. Watering deeply is not just more effective, it is more water efficient.
If your soil is so dry by mid-July that it won’t even drink the water in, use a tool to turn up the first few inches of soil. Build a little well, and sing your favorite song, twice, while you do the holy work of watering.
If watering feels like a chore and you get restless as you hold the hose, instead of thinking of other things you might rather be doing, take a moment to appreciate yourself for the role you are playing. You are actively participating in providing the most essential of all natural elements to another living thing. You are fully engaged in the very process that is the creation of life itself. You are an active participant in a miracle.