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From the Compost Bin – July 2009

(Tips for high-altitude gardeners)

by Suzanne Ward

My sister gardens in the southern United States and complains about the water. “We’ve had too much rain,” she says. Obviously, this is not a problem in our arid Colorado bioregion. Our challenge is to keep enough water on the garden at the right time during the growing season.

Plants, as all life, need water. Water carries the minerals from the soil into the plant’s cells. It is necessary to manufacture their food. Your garden chore this month is to keep your garden watered.

At first, your transplants needed to be watered often. The root hairs of the seedlings were disturbed during transplanting and they needed to grow and reestablish themselves. Once plants are more established, they need to be on a watering schedule.

Plants require two to three inches of water a week during the growing season in order to maintain a steady growth. Since we cannot depend on Mother Nature to do this, we must keep an eye on the garden for its hydration needs. There are various ways to accomplish this. Experiment and find out what works for your soil and your garden site.

Using an overhead sprinkler, like the one you use on your lawn, is one method. This reproduces the effect of a gentle rain. Be careful not to harm the tender young plants with the pressure of the water. Too much pressure also compacts the garden soil.

Watering by the overhead method should be done in the early morning so the leaves will dry before the heat of high noon. The leaves of some plants will wilt with the magnifying effect of the water and the sun. Also, wet leaves at night may lead to mold and rot.

A second method of watering is a porous hose or a soaker hose. These hoses ooze water along the beds, so place them near your plants. One advantage to this method, especially if you mulch your garden, is the lowered evaporation rate compared to overhead watering. It also allows water to go directly to the plant’s root system.

Another method is the drip system. It uses small plastic pipes and emitters, which drip water to each plant. This is often used on ornamentals in the garden and works well for larger plants such as peppers or tomatoes.

Furrow irrigation is often used if the garden is on a flat slope. Furrows are made between the rows of plants and are flooded with water. Water soaks into the soil where the roots are located.

Experiment with watering systems and choose the right one for your soil type, your available time, your budget, and your garden layout.

Your soil type determines how well water is held. Sandy soil drains quickly and thus you will need to do more watering. Loam with organic material holds the water as well as clay soil.

Frequent, light watering encourages shallow roots. Deep, less frequent watering encourages deeper roots. If your soil is dry to a depth of three inches, it’s time to water.

Irrigation is not a “cure all” for your plants. Soil fertility, weeds, weather and timing are also determining factors of a successful garden. Combine your watering program with a plan to improve your soil’s fertility by adding compost or growing a cover crop. Organic soil and water combine to help your plants thrive.

Plan your garden’s watering schedule and stick to it. Don’t run out after work and spray some overhead water onto the plants, especially in the heat of the late afternoon. Know when and how much water your plants are receiving and maintain a schedule of it.

Soon you will be rewarded with the fruits of your labor.


Suzanne Ward lives in Salida.? When she is not gardening she is involved in sustainability projects.