Gardening in The Fall
Water Longer, But Less Often, During Dry Periods
October tends to be the driest month of the year, in terms of rainfall, in Tallahassee and the Florida Panhandle. That’s great for football tailgates and trips to the beach, but not so good for fall gardening and lawn maintenance. You can spend as much or as little money as you want keeping your landscape watered, because there are lots of options available. The key is to make sure you water correctly.
Unfortunately, some people follow the “frequent small sips” formula for watering, which is not the best way to do it. Turning on sprinklers for a few minutes every day, or several times a day, just teases your plants, and they can’t get a good drink. This is particularly true of lawns. Even worse, it encourages shallow root growth, because roots stay near the surface of the soil since the moisture doesn’t seep down very far with only a light watering. Shallow roots make plants more susceptible to drought and dry spells. It creates an unhealthy cycle for the plant.
Just as you want a tall, cool glass of water to quench your thirst when you’ve been out in the heat, so do your plants. Longer, deeper watering encourages deep roots, which can seek out the moisture in the subsoil. Plants with deep roots are stronger and healthier. Healthy soil retains moisture better than sandy or clay soils, so soil amendments are a good way to help your garden beds make the most of the water they get. Compost, whether homemade or store-bought, is the cure for sandy soil that drains too quickly or clay soil that doesn’t drain well at all. Work the compost in with a garden fork or spade to a depth of several inches, being careful not to damage the roots of your plants, then leave a layer on top to serve as mulch. The mulch will break down and you’ll need to replace it eventually, but it’s a good way to keep your soil nice and crumbly.
If you have an irrigation system already in place, check it with a rain gauge to see how long it needs to run to apply an inch of water to your landscape and to make sure it is hitting all the planting areas you want irrigated. If you don’t have a rain gauge, take a couple of empty tuna cans and use a ruler and permanent marker to mark an inch on the inside.
Don’t turn the water on to full blast; soil can’t absorb moisture at pressure-wash speed and most of it will run off, so you’re wasting water and money and your plants are still thirsty. Check your planting beds and lawn; it’s OK if the water puddles a bit as long as it is sinking into the soil at a steady rate.
Water early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so your lawn can dry before nightfall. Soggy soil at night invites fungi and other problems. Also, don’t water in the middle of the day when the sun is beating down on your lawn. The water droplets can act as a magnifying glass, intensifying the sun’s heat and burning the grass blades.
Use whatever watering system works for you. If you have a small garden or landscape, you might be able to get by with a watering can or a garden hose, although dragging either around in the heat can get tiresome fast. Irrigation systems, either in-ground or hidden under the mulch, can make the chore easier. Make sure you have it set properly, or better yet, turn it on manually so you water only when your lawn and garden really need it and can get the most benefit. Don’t be that gardener whose sprinklers are on when it’s raining.
© 2015 Postscript Publishing, all rights reserved. Audrey Post is a certified Advanced Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Florida IFAS Extension in Leon County. Email her at Questions@MsGrowItAll.com or visit her website at msgrowitall.com. Ms. Grow-It-All® is a registered trademark of Postscript Publishing.