Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Summer vegetable watering

The question of how much to water or how often to water vegetable gardens is a loaded one. There is no one answer because of variations in soil type, how well the gardener has increased the organic matter through amendment additions, temperature, wind, plant spacing and competition, mulched or not, rooting depth and other factors.

Studies show that gardeners tend to overwater. It’s possible to overwater even with drip systems by letting them run all night instead of an hour or two. The misconception seems to be “it obviously takes a long time to apply enough water because the water drips so slowly.”

Tomatoes, pepper and eggplant have a lower water requirement than many vegetables. Overwatering and underwatering both cause blossom end rot of tomato and pepper fruit. Keep soils medium moist but allow soil to partially dry down between waterings. The most critical time to water is during flowering and fruiting. Blossom drop is sometimes experienced in hot, windy weather, in spite of adequate watering. Avoid the temptation to overwater in these circumstances.

Water stress on corn will delay silking but not tassel development. This causes poor pollination of ears when pollen is shed from tassels before silk appears. The pollination problems from water stress causes poorly filled ears or stunted ear development.

Beans require more frequent irrigation than most other vegetables for optimal production. Beans in the blossom and fruit growth stages use the most water of any vegetable. Depending on temperature and wind, beans may use one-half inch or more of water per day. Blossom drop and reduced bloom indicate that beans have been too dry at some time. Even with adequate soil moisture, hot winds can cause beans to drop their blossoms. Tadpole-shaped beans (plump on one end and skinny at the other) are another symptom of past water stress.

An even-moisture supply throughout growth enhances the flavor of leafy vegetables. Cabbage family crops like broccoli and cauliflower develop strong flavors if allowed to become dry.

Water root crops consistently but note that extra water promotes excess leaf growth at the expense of root development. Excess water applied to root crops following a dry period will cause root cracking. Potatoes become knobby if they become too dry, and may decay in the ground if kept overly wet.

It’s probably obvious that the vegetable garden is no place to try to cut corners with water because moisture lapses decrease the quality of harvested vegetables. Avoid problems by consistent watering. Check soil by inserting a screwdriver or digging with a trowel and checking for a cool, damp feel that indicates moisture. Powdery soil that lacks a cool feel indicates dryness and that it's time to water. Checking the soil also avoids overwatering that decreases quality as well as wasting water.

Photo credits: Peppers, sweet corn, Swiss chard, red beets and carrots - Carl Wilson

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