WATERING 101 & BEYOND: “The What’s-What of Water”

Q: I don’t always have a lot of time for gardening, but I DO make sure to, at least, give everything a quick rinse, every morning, before heading off to work. And STILL plants are drying up & withering away. Meanwhile, my neighbor, who neglects his garden all week, then floods his whole yard on weekends, HIS garden looks great. What gives?!”

Signed, “Water, Water Everyday & Still My Garden Stinks”

P.S.: Care to share your watering routine?


You have hit on one of the most commonly shared problems and, perhaps, equally misunderstood subjects. So, let’s start with the end goal. Strong, healthy, not-dead (or ‘undead’) plants!! The “how to get there” entails...



The Golden Rule of Watering:
“Water more less often”, rather than “less more often”.

Deep watering equals deep roots. Roots follow the water. By swamping your garden every 3 days (every 2 days, as needed. Extreme heatwaves, etc.), you are encouraging deep root penetration, where they are more protected from drought, disease and damage.

For several 1,000’s years, (following the principle of “roots follow the water”, etc.), gardeners & farmers alike, have employed the ancient art of “Moon Gardening, which bases most agricultural planning & practices (when to sow seed, plant, harvest, etc.) on the phases of the moon, due to it‘s (cyclic) gravitational & luminary affect on, among other things, tides & ground water, in order to maximize their gardening efforts, given the lack of computerized irrigation systems. So there you go. I already just saved you money on your water bill. *(Cost of blank calendar, not included.)

By watering ‘less, more often’ (say, 10 minutes day), you are encouraging plant roots to establish closer to the surface, where the water is. Where they are less stable, and more drought, disease & damage prone plants (& lawns). Roots follow the water.

Q: If watering deeper is better, wouldn’t watering deeper daily be even better?

A: Plant roots need to “breathe”. Frequent overwatering can have the effect of suffocating roots, leading to significantly stunted growth and death, as well as root rot and other disease, as well as INFESTATIONS. Ideally, you want to allow the topsoil to dry out between watering, to minimize this.

Overwatering shares many visual indicators as with underwatering.

Average rates of wetting and drying of soil also effects the availability and accessibility of certain essential nutrients. For example, over-saturation of phosphorus has the effect of hardening soils, which diminishes the oxygen levels necessary for plant roots to be able to access phosphorus in the soil. The same is true of frequently water logged soils with poor drainage. Cooler, water-logged soils diminish most plant’s ability to absorb phosphorus.

Similarly, the rate at which potassium is released into the soil is influenced by environmental factors within and acting upon the soil, like soil structure, pH levels, temperature, drainage, wetting and drying patterns/rates, etc.. Potassium is less available in dry soil, while in wet soil, poor drainage reduces aeration, and thus plant’s ability to absorb it.

You have, no doubt, come across endless articles, all claiming a standard of 1” inch of water a week. These people are crazy. Don’t talk or make eye-contact with them. These are often the folks, out there creatively “making the most” of their 50ft of soaker hose, to keep a handful plants limping along, while the rest of the yard’s one big dustbowl.

The deal is, there’s numerous factors, such as what Hardiness Zone, garden type & conditions (shade or full sun, drought tolerant, native or non, plants, open field vegetable garden, “perfect lawn”, etc., average rainfall for the region, to name a few) to consider. For the Pacific NW, more like 1” inch a watering. And mostly, around May - October, or as needed.

The best way to determine if your garden is due for watering is to push your finger deep into the soil. If it feels slightly damp, like a rung out sponge, you’re still good. Check again in a day or two. If it’s dry, soak it. Let your topsoil dry out a bit, between waterings.

How much is that in rain?

*1/4 (0.25) inch of rain = approx. LIGHT RAIN for 2-3 hrs,
moderate rain for 30-60 min., or heavy rain for 15 min.

Rain gauges are an affordable tool for helping determine your watering needs. Or, in a pinch, an empty tuna fish can (approx. 1.5-2“ deep) works just fine.


Soil conditions are a huge factor in determining the outcome of your efforts, not to mention the size of your water bill. For example:

  • SAND: Drains & dries too quickly. Poor nutrient & moisture retention. HUUUGE water bills!!
  • CLAY: When wet, dense, heavy, water-logged. When dry, rock hard. Poor drainage & aeration.
  • SILT: Higher nutrient content & moisture retention. Compacts easily, thus reducing water & air penetration.
  • PEAT: A more ACIDIC pH soil. Higher organic matter content. Reduced available nutrients. Retains water, drains poorly.
  • LOAM: Ideal for lawns & gardens. Perfect, even mix of the better attributes of sand, silt, clay, organic matter. Perfect balance of best rate of drainage & moisture retention.

If you regularly clean-up the fallen leaves, dead plants, etc. from your garden, you can help maintain LOAM conditions by spreading 3-4” of mulch throughout your garden, at least once a year. 1/2“ for lawns, with your spring & autumn lawn care/repair routine. The larger chunks of organic matter, in mulch, help 1.) maintain proper drainage, while 2.) retaining moisture more efficiently, as well as 3.) help protect plant roots from harsh conditions.


For containers, poor draining soils can quickly lead to root rot, plant death, due to diminished aeration, disease & infestations. PEAT, a main ingredient of most POTTING SOIL MIXES, is used for it’s increased moisture retention properties, while other ingredients are incorporated to maintain proper drainage rate, essential nutrients, etc. Coconut coir is a better, more pH neutral, eco-friendly alternative to peat.

Use equal parts POTTING SOIL & COMPOST.


I guess the best way to get into this is by way of your 2nd question, then giving my reasons. I will no doubt draw outraged reader letters & dirty looks at the garden center, from the anti-overhead-watering extremists but....

I prefer a combination of a good ole’ fashioned, ground mounted, oscillating wide-fan spray sprinklers, like the kind you used to run through, when you were a kid, and more focused hand watering.

First, the common criticisms:

“Overhead watering causes the spread of diseases like black-spot, by magically splashing spores up from the soil, onto the plants” .

A: MYTH!! Diseases like BLACK-SPOT, POWDERY MILDEW, etc. are mostly spread one of two ways, spores broadcast on the wind or transmitted by plant-sucking pests, such as aphids. The likely-hood of such diseases have more to due with regular damp, humid conditions. One reason why watering early in the morning, as opposed to at night is important. Rinsing down foliage is perfectly fine. Even beneficial. You want water to have time to fully penetrate into the soil, before evaporating in the afternoon sun. You also want to limit the duration of standing surface moisture, in order to minimize favorable conditions for such said diseases. Morning watering affords you the ideal duration, in both regards.

Nighttime watering, you’re just inviting trouble.

“Most of the water evaporates out of the air before ever reaching the ground, when you overhead water!!”

A: Just water in the early morning. Instead of mid-day. In 90 degree weather. Problem solved.

“What you want is more focused watering.”

A: There is a direct correlation of the size of a tree or plant’s canopy, foliage size, shape, texture & spacing, etc. to the outer reaches of their expanding root systems, where water is needed most. AND at the rate best suited for each individual plant. Ex. topsoil around conifers tend to be looser & easily inclined towards run-off, with more focused heavy watering methods. Whereas, the needles of conifers are great for collecting rainwater and releasing it down to the soil, in a slow, even rate, thus allowing for better penetration & distribution. Doesn’t get more “focused” than that!

Other points in favor of “The Oscill-ator 2000”:

  1. EVERYTHING gets watered! Your SOIL is one big, living, breathing, bustling, ecosystem, sustaining your garden!! The health of your soil, in general, is absolutely an essential element of success. When your soil goes, so goes the rest of the garden. WATER EVERYTHING!!
  2. Birds, animals, bugs, bees.... all frolicking about droplets of water cascading through the limbs & leaves.... The whole garden comes alive!! GOOD TIMES!!
  3. It’s the only seemingly dignified-looking way to run through a sprinkler (to “pick up and move”) as an adult, without catching side-eye from the mailman and neighbor’s dog.


My SPRAY-GUN settings are:

  1. “SHOWER” for focused watering,
  2. “FLAT” for larger areas or lightly spraying dust off plants,
  3. “JET” for jerk yellow-jackets.

The “ANGLE” setting, I never understood. Unless I’m receiving return fire and have to take cover around the corner, what do I do with this??!…

With my schedule, the only chance I get to water the garden is after work, with just enough time for surface moisture to evaporate, before sundown. I actually look forward to these times of the week, when I can come home, pour a glass of wine, grab the hose and go see what’s going on in the garden. It’s a great way to reduce stress, gets you to slow down, get “grounded”, be with your thoughts, etc. Very relaxing, even therapeutic. AND I find I always wind up sleeping great, later that night!

i inevitably get asked,

Q: “But what, with all this watering, my dominant watering hand gets all freakishly buff, while my other arm withers from atrophy??!”

A: Simply correct the weight disparity with an equal portion of wine in the other hand. I find a soft, yet complex pinot noir pairs nicely with my 10 lb. old-timey brass firehose nozzle with double reinforced 3/4” leather sure-grip safety straps.

Spending most of my time in other people’s gardens, I’m confronted with a wide range of watering systems, methods, etc. Here are some general observations of common soil conditions, associated with some common systems:

  • TIMED SYSTEMS: Loose topsoil, erosion, disease prone plants, lots of weeds.
  • SOAKER HOSES: Dustbowl anywhere out of hose range. Poorly producing plants, stunted growth, higher rates of disease & infestation. Soaker hoses can be a great supplemental tool in your watering routine, especially for helping establish new trees and plants, but not as a primary watering method.
  • RAPID-FIRE HORIZONTAL SPRAY SPRINKLERS: Soil erosion issues, poor water penetration, run-off, shallow root growth, drought, disease prone plants, damage from force of spray.
  • This goes for you “JET-SETTER” hand waterers, too.


“Although the Gardener officially declared the ‘cause of death’ of my plant, to be ‘suicide’, seemed also to be insinuating that ‘Perhaps, if I was a little more attentive….’ ”

Follow these few basic principles and I guarantee you will see a noticeable improvement:

  1. Be vigilant. Look for signs of over or under-watering. Be ready, from the sidelines, with an assist, as needed.
  2. Water heavy. Check back in a couple days. Finger in the dirt. Damp? Check back in a day or two. Dry? Water heavy. Repeat.
  3. Be proactive in addressing issues, such as poor soil conditions, adjusting routine, etc. before they “precipitate” bigger, more costly problems.
  4. Get out there!! Kick your shoes off!! Get “nature-y”!! Meet some new birds & animals!! WATER YOUR GARDEN!!! And if you don’t have a garden, water someone else's GARDEN!! (Incidentally, this is the only time when it’s advisable to water at night.)
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