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How to Water Properly

Generally Speaking

Improper watering of plant material is the number one cause of plant fatality! No two plants require the exact amount of water. Over watering can & will kill your plants! Under watering can & will kill your plants!  Are you worried yet about the thousands of dollars you spent on your garden?  Don’t be. There’s a work around.

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How is it possible to properly water your landscaping plant material? You could look up the specific recommendations for every single plant you have, which believe it or not, is a very good idea. It’s easy to do online for any plant you have. However, I would do this for the purpose of building a reference library, and to educate yourself on the plant material you own.

I would not suggest using this information as a basis for a watering program. It would be impossible to orchestrate such a daunting task even if you had that kind of patience (nobody does). I would use the information to put your plants into 3 categories: plants that like wet feet, plants that like it dry, and plants that tolerate both conditions.

Simply put, you want to make sure more water goes to the plants that really need it, and less water to the plants that like to bake. Just have that general knowledge at hand.

A Little More Specific Please

For a brand new planting, it’s easy. All new plants need more water than established plant material, even the desert plants. So, what you want to do in the beginning is the following:  Check the soil for moisture to accurately determine how dry or wet it is. This can be done by  pulling back the mulch and feeling the soil with your fingers along side the root ball about four inches below ground level.

During the spring and fall, you should check the soil moisture approximately every 3-5 days if there hasn’t been any significant rain. During the hot and summer months, this should be done every 2-3 days for smaller plants and every 3-5 days for larger plants and trees. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly until the entire root ball and surrounding soil is wet again. If it is moist, do not water and check the soil in another few days. The object of watering is to find that happy medium... neither too wet nor too dry. You don’t want the soil ever to get to the “dust” phase.  Conversely, the roots need to dry out between watering periods, but again, not dust dry. Follow those simple guidelines for the first year and you’ll have no problem. Just remember there is a whole lot of difference in root ball size with a tree compared to a perennial, so when I say check the root ball moisture, much more water is needed to saturate the tree root ball of course. Once you get an idea how much water it takes, you wont have to do the finger test so much.


Do not rely on an irrigation system to properly water brand new plantings! An irrigation system is really a tuff beast to pin down. The problem is it broadcasts the same amount of water to every plant. So if you set your system to water  your newly planted Birch trees in a bed with ornamental grasses around the tree, you’ll undoubtedly kill all the grasses before too long. The reverse is also true to a degree. So what do you do? You just spent thousands on an irrigation system. What the heck is it good for?

You  should set your irrigation system to put the proper amount of water on the plants that need the least amount of water (finger test). The first year in particular, you’ll need to HAND WATER (uuuuuuuggh) the trees, large shrubs, etc. All good irrigation systems will have an electronic rain gauge so the system won’t come on if you just had a significant rain storm. They are programmable.

Don’t trust your irrigation company to get this right! They mean well but most do not have the plant knowledge they need to do this properly. They will not do the finger test. You need to do this yourself, and either get your irrigation guy to show you how to program the system yourself (not difficult at all), or have them come out and make any necessary adjustments based on the finger test you just did for the last week. Doing it yourself is by far the best way to go.

Watering Trees

You can take a regular garden hose and turn the water on at a slow trickle and set the end of the hose right over top of the root ball of a plant. Again, how long you let the water run will be determined by the size of the plant. For example, during hot and dry weather on a large tree with a trunk that is 2 1/2" in diameter, you should let the hose run for approximately 1  hours. Since water often will follow a path, it is best to move the end of the hose several times during watering to ensure that the entire root ball is saturated.

GATOR BAGS are best. You can go to any Southern States, or a local nursery and buy them. They are green plastic bags that you wrap around the tree trunk. They have very small drains at the bottom and a fill plug at the top. You simply strap the bag on the tree (leave it there as long as you need to hand water), fill it up with a hose, and you move on! The bag lets the water seep out slowly for maximum soil penetration so the water gets to the roots and doesn’t run away... A great way to water trees

Tips on Watering:

  • Remember that container grown plants tend to dry out more quickly than "balled and burlapped" plants. During periods of dry weather, use a watering wand to soak the root ball as needed.
  • It is very important to water trees and shrubs thoroughly as needed during the summer months and in the late fall (November/December) before the onset of winter.
  • Summer thunderstorms can provide some helpful moisture, but should not be considered a substitute for deep watering.
  • Large trees can take several years to become established in the landscape. Additional watering is necessary during dry spells and summer droughts. This is especially important during the first few years to keep your trees healthy and vigorous.
  • Plants that are growing in shady conditions caused by large trees can dry out more quickly because of the competition for moisture from the large tree roots.
  • Wilted leaves can result from the soil being either too dry or too wet. Be sure to feel the soil to determine which scenario may be happening before watering.

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