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Backyard Gardener: Get smart with watering options

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley Farmers and Gardeners! I hope everyone enjoyed their July Fourth Holiday. In the popular television series “Get Smart,” Maxwell Smart had little catch phrases such as “Missed it by that much!” and “Sorry about that Chief.” This week we are talking about “the old watering in the root zone trick” for not only vegetable plants in the garden but when watering shrubs, trees and container during this hot summer.

The summer heat is definitely upon us here in the second week of July. The heat and lack of rain in the last couple weeks has us all wishing for some cool, rainy days. I am sure gardeners and homeowners have been watering vegetable gardens, flowers and other plants in the landscape. Everything dries out faster in these hot conditions, so don’t wait until the soil is bone dry (or that hanging basket on the porch).

All plants benefit from consistent moisture. Repeated wilting and re-hydrating is detrimental to most plants, so one of the biggest challenges of hot and dry weather is maintaining a steady supply of moisture to the soil. This keeps plants looking their best, promotes healthy growth and assists them in dealing with summer diseases and insects. Plants draw nutrients in through their roots and move the nutrients through the plant in a water solution. A lack of water also means a lack of nutrients.

The questions always comes up, “When is the best time to water?” WVU Extension recommends watering during the early morning hours, for several reasons. Temperatures are cooler in the early morning, meaning more water gets into the soil and doesn’t evaporate. Watering your vegetable garden early before the onset of heat helps to protect the plants. A well-watered soil will stay cooler than a dry soil. Plus, it is usually less windy.

However, if your work schedule has you watering in the late evening, that is fine. Whatever method you use, water at the root level, giving the soil a good soaking for the roots to take in that water. Watering in the heat of the day shouldn’t hurt the plants but is a far less efficient use of water because much of it will evaporate before reaching the roots.

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses work great for delivering water in the vegetable garden. If you are using a hand-held hose, you may underestimate how much water you have applied, so measuring the rate is important.

Reduce the water outflow and place the hose at the base of plants to allow water to soak into the soil. Lower volume will take longer to water and should not be strong enough to wash away the soil from plant roots. Remember, plants need about one inch of rain per week in the summer for good growth and production.

During summer, plants will wilt severely on a hot afternoon. If they are drooping, it’s usually fine to water them later in the day. My concern of watering during the day is using sprinklers for the vegetable garden. Avoid getting plants wet late in the day unless it’s the only possible time you can water them. If they don’t dry before sundown, they’ll stay wet all night and be more prone to fungal and bacterial diseases. I will say again, water at the root zone for the most effective and efficient watering method.

How do you know if you need to water plants? Study the plants’ appearance and the feel of the soil. Wilting during the day, slow growth or dull green color are the best indicators that plants are thirsty. If 1-2 inches of soil is dry, chances are a watering is needed.

Keep in mind any plants growing in containers will dry out more rapidly than if they were in the ground. How often you water will depend both on the size of the container and what you are growing.

There are a certain periods in a vegetable plant’s life cycle when moisture is critical for the formation of the most robust, best-quality produce. For example, beans, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes need more water during flowering and fruit development. Corn needs more water from tassel to silk and ear filling.

As a final note, consider using mulch. When soils don’t have any vegetative covering or mulch, they dry out quickly. Straw, shredded leaves, shredded newspaper, bark or compost can be used as mulch to conserve water in your soil. This will keep soils cooler, increase the activity of microbes in the topsoil and reduce water evaporation.

Mulches do not have to be thick to be effective. Using a layer 1-3 inches deep in between rows or beds will be enough for at least one year. Coarse, fibrous materials such as shredded bark may provide cover for up to three years. Soak the soil before you lay on that first layer of mulch. Just as the mulch hinders evaporation, it also slows penetration of water to the roots. As an extra bonus, mulch suppresses weeds and is adding organic matter as it decomposes.

Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office 304-424-1960 with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

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Question of the Week: Why are my cucumbers so bitter?

Typically, large, over-mature cucumbers become bitter. A bitter taste in cucumbers can also be the result of stress caused by a number of factors, including heredity, moisture, temperature, soil characteristics and disease. Most often this occurs during the hot part of the summer or later in the growing season. Two compounds, cucurbitacins B and C, give rise to the bitter taste. Though often only the stem end is affected, at times the entire fruit is bitter. Most of the bitter taste is found in and just under the skin.

Bitter fruit is not the result of cucumbers cross-pollinating with squash or melons. These plants cannot cross-pollinate with one another. Often newer varieties are less likely to become bitter than older ones. Proper cultural care is also often helpful. Make sure plants have well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Plenty of organic matter also helps and mulch helps conserve moisture and keeps roots cool during hot, dry weather. Be sure plants have adequate water, especially during the fruiting season. Scout for disease and insect issues.

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