No one wants to stand by and watch their tomato plants wilt away to nothing in dry weather. Then again, who wants to run their well dry or waste water? The challenge is to keep plants happy and, at the same time, conserve water.
Water conservation begins with making sure that every raindrop gets into the soil instead of running elsewhere. Hillside gardens catch rain best if they are terraced or have low ridges built perpendicular to the slope. On flat ground, soil formed into slightly raised basins around individual plants ensures that water runs right to those
Bare soils form surface crusts that shed rainfall almost like concrete. Encourage percolation by loosening the surface with a hoe or, even better, covering the surface with an organic mulch like straw, leaves, or compost. Peat moss is not a good choice because, although very absorbent when moistened, it sheds water when dry.
Once water is in the soil, keep it there for plants as long as possible. Organic mulch also conserves water by preventing evaporation from the soil surface.
Despite efforts to catch and hold rainwater, supplemental watering might be needed. If you use a sprinkler, apply a lot of water infrequently – a 1-inch depth once a week suits most plants. The best time to sprinkle is midmorning so that leaves dry off quickly enough to avoid diseases, yet temperatures are not yet warm enough to cause excessive evaporation.
The idea behind a second watering method – drip irrigation – is to apply water frequently, but only a little each time. Drip irrigation is applied through inexpensive tubes and emitters, and has the advantages of using less water than sprinkling, pinpointing water just where it is needed, and being easily automated.
You also can conserve water by only putting it where and when it is needed. For instance, many types of lawngrass go dormant in dry weather, but will green up again once rainfall returns. Leafy vegetables, on the other hand, need a steady supply of water to remain succulent and flavorful. Cucumber, squash, and corn plants need plenty of water just as their edible portions start growing.
Lee Reich is a features writer for The Associated Press