Are my plants getting enough water?

How much water is too much water? 

I would say aside from garden pests, I get asked the most questions about the best way to water plants. I get the concern. When I first started gardening 18 years ago, I managed to kill plants and still have no idea whether they died of thirst or drowned in my good intentions.

Let’s start with this: The absolute best water for your garden comes from the sky. Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t always very consistent (or generous) with her watering, especially in drier climates like ours here in Central Texas.

Getting the water part right is a major component of keeping plants happy and healthy. That means that when we’re not getting regular rainfall, it’s up to us to deliver the H2O to our garden.

Here are 5 different ways you can water your vegetable garden:

  • watering can
  • hose with sprayer head
  • spigot drip connection
  • irrigation system connection
  • Oyas

Let’s look at each method and their benefits and drawbacks so that you can determine which one works best for you and your garden.

Later, we’ll explore how to tell if your garden is getting enough water, the best time of day to water, and how to adjust your watering routine based on the climate.

watering a raised bed by hand

WAYS TO WATER PLANTS #1: WATERING CAN

If you only have a couple of outdoor plants on a patio, then a watering can is probably the method that will make the most sense for you.

Otherwise, this is the least efficient way to water your garden, both in terms of your time and water usage. Even with a large watering can and a small garden, you’ll likely need to make several trips between your water source and your plants. You’ll also be standing there for a long time waiting on the soil to become fully saturated.

Overall, I’ve found that plants that are watered by hand are less healthy than those that get water on a more reliable schedule. I don’t mean to imply that you as a person are unreliable—I just know how life gets in the way and gardening falls to the bottom of our list! Or we go out of town for a couple of days.

 

How to water with a watering can

  1. Fill your watering can. (Leave it out during light storms to collect mineral-rich rainwater if possible.)
  2. Hold the spout as close to the soil as possible and aim the water at the roots, not at the leaves of the plant. Hold leaves and stems out of the way so that you can get right to the base of the plant.
  3. Water across the soil line and then go back and forth, creating little puddles around the roots of the plant. Note how long it takes for those puddles to disappear. If they disappear quickly (less than 3 seconds), keep watering. Lastly, do a finger test of the watered area near your plants. We are looking for moist soil over an inch below the soil level. I find that the mid knuckle on my finger as a great guage for this test.
the best way to water a garden

The benefits of using a watering can

  • There’s no setup required.
  • Watering cans are inexpensive and something you should probably have on hand anyways as a gardener.
  • Some gardeners find this repetitive task as therapeutic and enjoy spending more time in the garden taking individual care of each of their plants.
  • Watering cans are a must have for liquid fertilizer application. Learn more about fertilizing your garden here.

The drawbacks of using a watering can

  • You’re more likely to give plants frequent but shallow watering, which leads to shallow root systems (not ideal).
  • You lose a lot of water to evaporation, especially on windy days.
  • You’ll spend a long time watering, and in hotter months, you’ll need to come out and water every single day.
how to water a garden by hand

WAYS TO WATER PLANTS #2: HOSE WITH SPRAYER

A good ol’ garden hose with a spray attachment is a big step up when it comes to watering by hand.

How to water with a garden hose

  1. Switch the head to the softest spray possible. You want to mimic a soft rainfall. Giving your soil a power wash is never a good thing for your plants.
  2. Again, hold the nozzle as close to the soil as possible and aim the water at the soil, not at the leaves of the plant. Hold leaves and stems out of the way so that you can get right to the base of the plant.
  3. Water across the soil line and then go back and forth, creating little puddles around the roots of the plant. Note how long it takes for those puddles to disappear. If they disappear quickly (less than 3 seconds), keep watering. Lastly, do a finger test of the watered area near your plants. We are looking for moist soil over an inch below the soil level. I find that the mid knuckle on my finger as a great guage for this test.
how to water your garden

The benefits of using a garden hose

  • There’s really no setup required. You just need a garden hose and, ideally, a sprayer nozzle attachment.
  • You can deliver water faster to the garden and without having to make 20 trips to and from the spigot.

The drawbacks of using a garden hose

  • You’re more likely to give plants frequent but shallow watering, which leads to shallow root systems (not ideal).
  • You lose a lot of water to evaporation, especially on windy days.
  • In hotter months, you’ll need to step out to water every single day.

WAYS TO WATER PLANTS #3: SPIGOT DRIP IRRIGATION CONNECTION

Setting up a spigot drip connection is a quick and easy way to mimic more formal drip irrigation systems. You can add a timer and drip hose to your spigot so that your watering is automated, which means your plants get that nice, consistent watering they crave.

You can grab a drip irrigation kit from a hardware store or online. Kits should include tubing, drip lines, spray emitters, elbow fittings, connections, and a pocket punch to make holes along the line. DripWorks has complete kits for sale on Amazon.

Here are some supplies you might also need if your kit doesn’t include them:

  • a hose splitter (this attaches to your spigot and allows you to still have a free water line, even when your irrigation system is connected to the other side)
  • a pressure regulator (this contains a pressure reducer so that water will flow better through the more narrow irrigation tubing and a backflow preventer)
  • landscape pins to hold your drip line in place

Don’t forget a battery-operated garden hose timer so that your system can be automated.

How to set up a DIY drip irrigation system

  • Attach the hose splitter to your spigot.
  • Fasten the battery-operated timer to one side of the hose splitter.
  • Attach the pressure regulator to the timer.
  • Run tubing without holes from the pressure regulator to the garden area.
  • Pull tubing into each garden bed. Add an elbow bracket.
  • Attach drip tubing to the top of your soil bed. Run the line down the full length of the bed and then switch back to run the other way. Space each line about 6 inches apart. Leave them on the soil surface.
  • Run the system and observe how the water flows. Over the next couple of weeks, you’ll likely need to adjust the timer to change the frequency or duration of each watering session.

If you’re looking for a system that’s easier to install, I recommend Garden in Minutes. Their garden watering systems come pre-assembled—all you have to do is lay the grid over the top of your raised bed and connect it to a garden hose or spigot. You can also hook this up to your sprinkler system with a garden hose adaptor.

The benefits of spigot drip irrigation connections

  • Drip irrigation delivers water right to each root zone—just the way plants like it. You can give plants deep but infrequent watering to really saturate the soil and then encourage plants to develop deeper roots.
  • Your system can be automated and continue to water your plants consistently even while you’re away.
  • Drip irrigation is a super efficient watering method and can even cut down on your water bill. You don’t lose as much water to evaporation.

The drawbacks of spigot drip irrigation connections

  • Even with most kits, there’s definitely some setup involved.
  • You need a spigot within about 50 feet. Otherwise, you’ll need to run a garden hose to connect your drip irrigation lines to the water source.
  • You’ll need to monitor and adjust your system based on a number of factors, including the type of plants you’re growing, the speed of the water driping from the system and the weather. You will need to spend some time figuring out the best timing for your garden each season of the year.

WAYS TO WATER PLANTS #4: DRIP IRRIGATION SYSTEM CONNECTION

This is a step up from a drip irrigation kit. A formal drip irrigation system is connected to a vacuum breaker, typically by a professional.

I recommend hiring an irrigation professional to connect your system to the panel that you use for your sprinkler system so that every watering schedule can be accessed in one place. There are even system panels that you can even control from your phone. Your drip lines will be automatically turned on and off at specific times throughout the week. I recommend adding a rain sensor to conserve water when we’ve gotten enough for the week.

I work with licensed professionals to install formal irrigation lines for all of my Lettuce Grow Something clients.

Rachio Ditch Dated Tech 1200 x 628

The benefits of drip irrigation system connections

  • Just like with a simpler kit, a more formal irrigation system delivers water right to each root zone—just the way plants like it. You can give plants deep but infrequent watering to really saturate the soil and then encourage plants to develop deeper roots.
  • Your system can be automated and continue to water your garden consistently even while you’re away. If you add the rain sensor, then your system will automatically adjust based on rainfall to prevent overwaterering. Super convenient!
  • Again, this is a water-wise way to keep your garden thriving. You’ll likely see a difference in your water bill.

The drawbacks of drip irrigation system connections

  • This is the most expensive option as far as upfront costs go.
  • There will likely be some digging involved to connect to the water system in your yard.
  • It’s a good idea to monitor and adjust your system based on the weather and your garden’s needs.
how to water your garden with drip irrigation

WAYS TO WATER PLANTS #5: OYAS

An Oya is a modern take on ancient technology called ollas (pronounced “oh yahs”). This irrigation method came from China and North Africa about 4,000 years ago.

Basically, you bury a vessel made of a material like clay, and then you fill that vessel with water. Moisture will seep slowly through the porous walls and be taken up by nearby plant roots. Over time, plants will instinctively send their roots to attach to the outside of the vessel. This allows them to absorb only as much water as they need.

 

How to use Oyas

  1. You’ll dig a hole in the middle of your garden bed and bury the Oya. Only the top will stay above the soil.
  2. Use a watering can or hose to fill the Oya with water. Replace the cap.
  3. Continue watering your garden by hand for the first couple of weeks after installation. The roots of your plants need some time to grow toward the Oya.
  4. Refill with water when the reservoir is running low.
growoyas in raised bed gardens

The benefits of Oyas

  • You don’t have to worry about over- or under-watering your garden.
  • Installation is super easy, especially in small gardens.
  • You only have to refill the little reservoir every 3 to 5 days.
  • This watering method conserves water. GrowOya claims Oyas use 70 percent less water than surface watering.

The drawbacks of Oyas

  • You’ll need to purchase several for larger gardens. The largest Oya size covers a 4-foot diameter of garden space.
  • Installation is best done when you’re planting for a new season. This system is most effective if you plant in circles around the Oyas, with more shallow-rooted plants closest to the reservoir and deeper-rooted plants further away.
  • You’ll have to continue watering by hand for a couple weeks after installation. You can’t install an Oya and then leave for 5 days. You also need to hand water after sowing seeds or transplanting seedlings.

HOW OFTEN TO WATER GARDEN PLANTS

The relationship between your garden and water is complicated. The truth is, every garden is different, and a garden’s needs can change from day to day.

I encourage you to observe your soil, become more familiar with what your plants need, and keep the following general principles in mind.

Young plants need to be watered more often than established plants

Seedlings are basically new plants. They haven’t been around these parts long enough to develop good root structures. That means they need water to be right at the surface of the soil or they’ll dry out. Even if you have drip irrigation installed, you’ll likely need to hand water every single day (sometimes even twice on a really hot day) for the first couple of weeks after you’ve transplanted seedlings. This also goes for seeds since water is critical to seeds sprouting and growing.

Once plants are more established (they’ve grown a couple inches up or out), they’re much more tolerant of dry spells.

Watering needs vary by climate and current weather conditions

You’ll need to adjust your watering schedule based on the time of year, the evaporation rate, and the amount of rain.

The evaporation rate is determined by temperature, wind, and humidity, and it can make a huge difference in how often you need to water. Central Texas tends toward dry conditions, which means I have to water more frequently than my gardening friends in muggy Houston just a couple hours away. Thanks to high evaporation rates on hot summer days, my topsoil can be dry just a couple hours after rain.

Your watering needs will likely be highest during summer and go down with the temps in the fall. You might need to water twice a day during a heat wave.

As you continue to garden in the same location, you’ll likely get a feel for when you need to up your watering, like during periods of hot weather when your plants are showing signs of stress. Be flexible and check on the soil moisture frequently.

Pro tip:

​Cities in Central Texas and other dry climates are often restricted to 1-day watering. These limits often do not apply to our vegetable gardens, including use of drip irrigation systems. Be sure to double check with your local city to see what water restrictions are applied to your location.

drip irrigation for young plants in the garden

Watering needs vary based on type of soil

Your soil type can obviously make a difference in how your garden retains moisture. The ideal garden soil is well-draining. That means it holds just enough moisture for plants to absorb over time. Our recommended well-drained soil mix is topsoil, compost, and coarse sand.

Container plants need to be watered more often

The soil in a container will dry out much faster than the soil in the ground or in a raised bed. Plus, container-grown plants have less room to search for water and other resources. To make up for this water loss, you’ll need to water your container garden more frequently. Make sure every pot or container has drainage holes in the bottom to let out excess water, and water until you see water running out the bottom.

Watering needs depend on what type of plants you’re growing and how they’re planted

Some plants like more water than others. Leafy greens, for instance, prefer to have consistently moist soil. Other plants, herbs in particular, appreciate drying out a bit between watering. This is why it’s helpful to read up on the type of plants you’re growing.

The way you plant in your garden can also impact its watering needs. I like to plant intensively (I plant in rows pretty close together). This helps keep the soil covered, which means less direct exposure to things that can dry it out like wind and sun. In other words, the more plant mass you have covering your garden, the longer that top layer of soil will stay moist.

planting intensively helps keep soil covered and moist

HOW TO TELL WHEN TO WATER YOUR PLANTS

You only want to water your garden when more water is needed. That might sound obvious, but plenty of gardeners slowly drown their plants without meaning to.

Study your plants and soil for signs of over- or under-watering. The leaves of plants in need of water will wilt or turn brown, and the garden’s surface will look dry. The soil in a container garden might pull away from the container.

The leaves of plants that have been given way too much water, on the the other hand, will turn yellow, and you might notice signs of mildew or rot on the stems and roots.

Before your garden gets to either extreme, use one of these techniques to help you know when it’s time to water:

  1. Use a soil moisture meter.
  2. Do the finger test. Stick your pointer finger in the soil down to about your second joint. If the soil feels moist 1 inch down, there’s still plenty of water for roots. If the soil feels dry, then it’s time to water.

The general rule of thumb is that most gardens need about one inch of water per week. If you sometimes rely on rainfall, it’s a good idea to have a rain gauge to measure how much rain you’re actually getting. You’ll still want to do one of the methods above to determine when to water next.

finger testing soil moisture level

THE BEST TIME OF DAY TO WATER

Most gardeners agree that the early morning before heat of the day is the best time to water. That’s when plants are refreshed and ready to take in more nutrients and make their own food. If your system is automated, set it for around 4 to 5 a.m. If you’re watering by hand, you’ll ideally get out there as soon as possible.

For those of you who just can’t bring yourself to rise with the sun, the next best time to water is in the early evening, as soon as the sun is not as strong.

It’s best practice to avoid getting water on the leaves whenever you water, but it’s especially important during daylight hours. Water droplets on leaves can not only lead to fungal disease, they can also refract sunlight and burn the wet leaves (think of each little droplet as a magnifying glass).

If it’s the middle of the day and you notice a plant is really struggling, you can always come out with a watering can and give it some supplemental water, as long as you focus your water around the base.

water your garden early in the morning

HOW LONG TO WATER A VEGETABLE GARDEN WITH DRIP IRRIGATION

I wish I could tell you to water your garden for X minutes every X days. But again, each garden is so unique. It’s up to you to figure out how many times you’ll run your drip irrigation system based on your climate, the soil, and the plants you’re growing.

Keep in mind that drip irrigation puts out much less water per minute than hose nozzles and even watering cans. I mean, it does have “drip” in the name.

Thanks to this slow saturation, you might need to run your system for several hours each week to achieve that deep watering that plants love. Different drip irrigation systems will have different flow rates, so you’ll need to determine about how long it takes to deliver 1 inch of water to the soil. It could be 5 hours or so. You’ll then divide that up into several sessions per week based on your evaporation rate.

Someone in a drier climate might run their system for 45 minutes 3 to 4 times a week. Meanwhile, someone in a humid climate might only run theirs for 10 minutes 2 to 3 times a week.

You’ll need to adjust your run times and frequency with each new growing season. A schedule that works in the winter won’t cut it in July when it’s triple digits outside.

It’s a good idea to periodically watch your system go through a full cycle to make sure everything’s working as it should. Check your garden space to see if certain areas are getting too much or too little water.

SOMETIMES I WET MY PLANTS! 

I hope you’re excited to get out there and support your plants with whichever watering system you’ve decided is best for you and your little green friends.

Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about watering your vegetable garden.