There are ways of reducing the time spent in watering vegetable plants in late spring and summer, of lessening the labour – when filled cans or buckets have to be carried far it can be a muscle-aching job – and at the same time increasing the benefits that come to the plants. It simply has to be done in dry weather; if not, crops will suffer, whether these are being grown for tops or roots.
When to Water.
Plants started off with a moist root-run have everything in their favour. The start-off is given by watering the ground (if dry) before seed is sown or plants set out. If plants are going into the ground out of pots or boxes, the soil in these should be soaked through some hours before the plants are removed. A moderate watering will settle them in when planting is finished.
If they droop (the technical word is flag) when sun shines strongly on them, these newly set-out plants are not needing more water so much as shade. This should be given by means of sheets of paper, or small branches of evergreen. The shelter from sun prevents too rapid loss of moisture through the leaves, and after a couple of days the plants will stand stiff again and the shading can be dispensed with.
The best time to give water is late afternoon or evening, when there is no sun to suck moisture up out of the ground. The plants then have several hours of cool conditions ahead in which they can make full use of every drop of water given. Loss by evaporation may be considerable on a hot day when water is given in the morning.
Unless the ground is really moist water should always be given before artificial fertilizers are put down. A light watering will then help the fertilizer to soak down to the roots, where it is wanted. It is doing no good whilst it remains on the surface.
How to Water.
Water soaks in most readily after a light shower, or after the soil surface has been loosened with hoe or fork. It runs away over a hard-caked surface and much of it may go to waste. If there is not time to use the hoe or fork over all the ground to be watered the fork should be driven in deeply and vertically here and there. Water will find its way down the holes so made and roots will find it.
Planting or sowing in deep drills or shallow trenches saves labour as well as water. The channels confine the water to where it is needed; and when rain falls they catch more than is absorbed by the surrounding surface.
Only seed beds and planted-out seedlings should be watered with a rose-fitted can. Plants at a more advanced stage cannot be given enough at a time through a rose; they need a lot of it – out of the spout. Light soil is likely to be disturbed rather violently when water is given in a hurry via the spout. To prevent this, the gush can be broken with the fingers of the disengaged hand. But that entails bending, which may mean backache. A better plan is to wrap a strip of sacking, tube fashion, around the spout, or fit this with a tin tongue.
The 6-in. long strip of sacking is tied around the spout of the watering can so that the outer end of the material flops down about I in.; this prevents the water from rushing out violently ( c).
The tin tongue is cut in the shape of a solid Y. The narrow stem fits tightly into the spout. The other end protrudes about 2 in., widening out to a straight 3-in. edge. The water flows out over this in a broad, gentle shower – the spout being held low down to the ground.
Sprinkling versus Watering.
Overhead sprinklings or syringings are no substitute for watering; they are only temporary refreshers, welcome enough to plants when given during the evening of a hot summer day. Just moistening the surface of the soil doesn’t even perform that function. If the top is kept moist and the soil lower down – where the roots are – is left dry, the roots follow the attraction of the water; they spread outwards and try to go up, instead of driving down. These shallow roots are made thirstier still by the sun’s action when the surface has its dry periods.
It is not the comfort of the plants that is being considered but their well-being, on which the size and quality of the crop depends.
One of the objects of deep digging is to provide inducement for roots to go well down where moisture is present, though maybe only to a small extent, when the top soil is parched. To attract them to the top by driblets of water is to waste precious liquid, time, labour and the plants’ possibilities.
If there is only one bucket of water going spare and peas or beans or cauliflowers are asking for it, give it all to a couple of plants. Shared among half a row the bucketful is wasted.
Of all vegetable plants, those for salad purposes – lettuce, radish, etc.are most in need of water. If they do not get it they become tough, stringy or hot flavoured; or they run up to flower in a desperate effort to produce seed before they expire.
A Plan for Watering.
The knowing grower has both hands filled when he leaves the water supply for the rows awaiting deep refreshment – a filled watering can in one hand, a filled bucket in the other. He contents himself with soaking two or three rows each day, pouring water over the roots in such quantity that it makes the ground wet for several inches down.
Those two or three rows will then be set up for a week or ten days, during which time more rows are soaked in twos or threes.
After the Watering.
As soon as the surface of the soaked ground is in a condition to be hoed, that should be done. Otherwise the top soil cakes over in drying and shuts out air. The looser the top inch can be kept, the less rapid the rate of evaporation.
It is not possible to hoe in a deep drill or shallow trench, and here the best safeguard against too quick licking up of moisture by the sun is a mulch of lawn mowings, cut hedge grass, dead weeds, hop or decayed animal manure. I
Whatever material is used should be put down wet, and as thickly as possible – after the watering. If there is enough it should not only fill the drill or trench but extend as far as possible outwards on either side. The mulch can be applied also where there is no drill or trench, of course. Subsequent waterings are given through the mulch.
Soil in these must not be kept in a constandy sodden condition. Enough water should be given at a time to run out through the drainage holes, and no more until it is essential.
The condition of the surface soil is little to go by, and plants need to be dealt with individually. Even tomato plants in big pots, in full growth, may not all need watering at the same time. To judge of the condition of the soil in a pot, rap the pot sharply with a knuckle, or with a stick with a cotton reel fixed on the end. If the pot rings, give water at once; if it gives out a dull, heavy sound, water is not required just then.
If soil shrinks from the sides of a flower pot, rub a finger or piece of stick all round the soil edge; this fills in the gap, and the plant can be watered without the liquid running away down the sides. Small pots can be immersed almost rim deep in water, until bubbles cease to be produced.
The Water Supply.
If there is any choice in the matter, sun-warmed rain-water should be used. Rain-water collected from a shed or other roof soon warms up in the sun, and in that condition is far more useful to plants than cold water straight from a tap, well or pump. If that cold – and usually hard – water has to be used it can be improved by standing in a barrel or tub or old bath outdoors for a few hours.
A hose simplifies matters in the home garden. It should be used to keep a tank or other outdoor vessel filled, so that there is always a supply of sun-exposed water ready for pouring on the soil where required, and for syringing.