Don’t Forget to Water

As Summer slowly begins to slip into Fall here in the Magical Mid-Atlantic, we enter the hot, dry weather of August and early September. The first signs of Fall are just becoming evident: shorter days; a new, golden quality to the late afternoon and evening light; and the fading of many flowers and vegetables in our gardens. Besides watering and weeding, there is not much else to do in our gardens. Still, these are two very important items—don’t let them slide.


Longwood Gardens, July 2015

Watering. After all the rain we’ve had this Spring and Summer, it seems impossible that we’d even need to talk about watering—yet here we are. Right on schedule, we are drying out again, and it will likely remain this way until late September or early October, unless we have a hurricane (let’s hope not).
If you have new shrubs and trees that were installed within the last year or two, and you have a sprinkler system, don’t depend on the sprinkler system to do a proper job of watering your newer plants. Irrigation systems are great for established gardens, lawns, and shallow-rooted plants, but you’ve got to deep-soak your new things, especially when the temperatures are above 90F and we haven’t had rain for awhile. Here are some further notes:

When plants are rooted and growing leaves, they are taking up water from the ground. It’s like suction (and much like our sweating): the leaves “sweat”, and in the process, pull the water from the ground with the roots, up through the plant, and out through the leaves. This is called transpiration. The hotter, drier, and sunnier the weather, the faster the transpiration, thus the increased water need. It’s like a continuous loop of water drawn in and sweated out. When the days shorten in the Fall, plants anticipate the coming cold weather, drop their leaves, and go dormant. Evergreens just go dormant, of course, without dropping all their leaves/needles…most plants in our region just stop from the ground up. The roots will continue to grow until the ground gets below 40 degrees. This is all very simplistic, of course…so much more is going on, but you get the drift.


St. Francis, in the back garden at Woodland Cottage. A favorite spot for the birds.

Things are different when a plant is first planted. That’s because it takes time to root…in other words, the little feeder roots that take up the water have not yet come from the rootball of the transplanted plant and established themselves into the surrounding soil. Therefore, we must baby it for a few weeks until this happens. Too little water, and it can drop its leaves as a defense mechanism because it is trying to conserve water in the stems so that when water is again available, it has the strength saved up to leaf out again. Conversely, when too much water is around the roots and the rootball cannot get any oxygen (because this is important, too), the plant’s leaves often turn a soaked-looking dark brown, and either hang onto the plant or drop, because the plant doesn’t need any water and the systems shut down. Both of these things are really easy to do after plants are just put in…there is a fine balance. Believe it or not, more plants die of over-watering than under watering. Isn’t that crazy? But it’s true.

As the days shorten, and the sun becomes less intense as we move towards Fall, your plants will require less and less water…you can probably cut the frequency a bit. Likewise, plants dry out more quickly when the humidity is low; less quickly when the humidity is high. Monitor carefully so you don’t over- or under-water. Just remember to soak deeply when you do water.

Get to know your garden and its “hot spots”—places that dry more quickly than others. This is true even if you have an irrigation system. Put your fingers under the mulch, into the soil, and check for moisture. Don’t depend on a quick thunderstorm to water for you (much of the heavy rain will run off and not soak into the ground)…deep soak your garden as needed. Let the lawn go dormant or provide one inch of water per week to keep it green. If hand–watering your plants, take the nozzle off the hose, and aim that nice, steady stream of water directly at the center of the plant where it meets the soil. Let the water soak in deeply. When using sprinklers, rain gauges are a big help…or (better) check the soil with your fingers. And remember: like winter-damaged plants, those left unwatered are not guaranteed…another incentive to get out the hose!


The view from Paris Mountain, VA, August 2015

Weeds. Ugh. I know, I know…it’s too hot, too dry, there are too many…etc. etc. Really, though, you must get to them before they go to seed or you are really going to have your work cut out for you. At the very least, go out and cut off those seedheads before they ripen and fall!

I find that the best time to pull weeds is after a good rain or just after I’ve watered. The weeds slip right out of the ground, for the most part, except for a few stubborn ones; then, I have to get out the pointed trowel (a wonderful tool) or a dandelion weeder.

After you weed, you can put down some mulch to cover the bare ground, if you’d like…it helps to control weeds and helps keep the soil from drying out so quickly.

A field of Queen Anne's Lace at Blandy Farm, The State Arboretum of Virginia, August 2015. Photo by Catherine Giovannoni.

A field of Queen Anne’s Lace at Blandy Farm, The State Arboretum of Virginia, August 2015. Photo by Catherine Giovannoni.

Vacation time. This month, I’m excited about a trip to Southern California. An old friend’s son is getting married in Los Angeles; we’ll attend the wedding, tour some Southern California gardens, and spend some time in San Diego visiting some friends (and our new grandson!), too. What have you all been up to this Summer? I look forward to seeing many of you this Fall and hearing all about your adventures. Please let me know if you’ll need my help this Fall—I have been booking for Fall all Summer!


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