Watering your plants the right way is one of the best things you can do to keep your landscape lush and healthy—but it’s a little more complicated than turning on the sprinkler every few days. Weather, plant types, soil conditions, the time of year, and other factors can influence how and when you should be watering, so it’s important to make thoughtful decisions to keep your plants at their best.
Improper watering techniques can lead to lots of different problems: plant diseases, unwanted fungus, stifled growth, drainage issues, insect infestations, and ultimately the death of your plants if the problems carry on for too long. But when you water your plants correctly, they’ll thrive—and you’ll probably also save a few bucks on your water bill. (You can save even more money if you use a rain barrel.)
Here are a few simple watering tips that will go a long way toward keeping your landscape looking beautiful all year long:
Know your plants. Some plants require lots of water while others need very little. Plants like irises, cattails, and many species of ferns can tolerate consistently moist conditions—some can even live in standing water—while other plants like sage, lavender, and yarrow might require little to no watering from you. Young plants and seedlings need more water than mature plants, but as a general rule, make sure the ground is moist but not flooded, as this can quickly suffocate small or weak plants. And try to place plants with similar needs together to make watering easier.
Use the right tools. You have lots of options when choosing how to water your landscape. If you’re going to water the plants yourself, we recommend adding a sprayer attachment to your hose that can spread water out over a wide area. If you’d rather take a more passive approach, drip/soaker hoses are a great choice because they limit evaporation and allow you to water a large area all at once. Sprinklers can also be a good choice, but they tend to waste the most water and can make it tough to water evenly.
Water less frequently but use more water. If you’re watering your landscape every couple of days—but only for a short period of time—you might think you’re doing the right thing by giving your plants a regular drink. But actually, frequent, short watering can be bad for plants because it promotes shallow root growth instead of the deep, healthy roots that develop when they get a good soak. Deep roots absorb more water and nutrients with less effort, which leads to heartier plants. Ideally, soaking your plants should be done about once every seven to ten days depending on weather and soil conditions.
Let your grass drink. Your grasses will be among the thirstiest plants on your landscape, with typical Midwestern lawns needing anywhere between one to one-and-a-half inches of rain per week during the growing season. While Mother Nature will often give your grass what it needs, it can be helpful to supplement with water—especially when turf starts to become dry, stiff, or lose its deep green color. Even though grass needs lots of water, it’s important to be mindful about how much you’re using. Try to position sprinklers so that they’re only watering plants—not the street or sidewalk—and always remember to turn them off.
Know your soil. Here in the Midwest our soil tends to be fertile, but in certain areas it can be mixed with significant amounts of clay and/or sand. Clay soil tends to be tightly packed, is difficult for water to penetrate, and can make it hard for roots to grow. It does retain water fairly well, so if your soil is full of clay, you may need to water less frequently. When soil is sandy, water flows through it and evaporates faster, so it requires more moisture to keep plants strong. While you can find clay soil throughout the Midwest, sandy soil is most commonly found in the northern part of the region, around the Great Lakes.
Pay attention to the time of day, weather, and the season. It’s typically a good idea to water in the morning, as the sun will dry plant leaves quickly. This lowers the chances of plants getting attacked by fungus or diseases that spread in wet conditions. Be sure to check forecasts when planning your watering schedule, and don’t water right before or after a substantial downpour. And keep in mind that plants need the most water in spring, less in summer, even less in fall, and in many cases, no watering at all during winter months.
While watering your plants might seem a little more complicated than it did at first, don’t let all of these tips overwhelm you. The best advice is to manage your landscape by taking a look at your plants every day, which makes it easy to stay on top of small problems before they turn into big issues.