Of all the questions I get asked as a gardening expert, “How often should I water my garden?” easily cracks the top 10. It can be difficult to get watering frequency, watering amounts, and even watering methods just right. But doing so is critical to your success, as they influence everything from the flavor and storage capacity of the food you grow to the size and timing of blooms on perennial plants. There are plenty of tools and techniques to help you get a handle on how often you should water and how you can deliver the right amount of water when and where your plants need it. If you’ve ever wondered ‘How often should I water my garden?’ we’ve got the answers! Keep reading to learn when and how long to water.
How do I know when it’s time to water my garden?
If you look closely, your plants and the soil itself can help you answer the common question, “How often should I water my garden?”. One simple test is to check the top few inches of soil for wetness. Stick a finger into the earth an inch or two. If it feels very dry, it’s likely time to water.
Here are some additional signs indicating that you’d better get out the hose:
- Overall wilting and drooping—When a plant’s roots don’t have access to enough water, cells within the plant lose moisture. This, in turn, can cause formerly firm cell walls to contract—and the plant itself wilts. When you add water, the plant’s cells’ rigidity is eventually restored, causing droopy stems and leaves to perk up.
- Scorched, discolored plants—Over time, serious drought can scorch plant foliage. Damaged leaves may go from green to yellow to brown and then drop off entirely. Eventually, these overly dry plants die.
- Limp lawns—In the lawn, water-deprived grass will also wilt initially. With prolonged dry conditions, you may even be able to see your footprints left behind in the turf. As with dried-out plants, grass will lose its color, going from shades of green to brown.
- Hardpan soil—Your soil, too, can indicate when it’s time to water. Dry soil is lighter colored than moist soil. With very dry conditions, soil can become hard and cracked, making it difficult for water to reach plant roots. To combat the quick runoff of water you apply, you may need to gently hand cultivate very dry soil patches to break up surface crust. That way, the water can reach the root growth below.
What is the best time of day to water?
Besides “How often should I water my garden?” you might also be wondering when you should bring on the H2O. Offering your lawn, ornamentals, and vegetables water at the right times of day can make a difference. Early morning—before daytime temps really heat up—is the best time.
As you might imagine, midday is the worst time to water. When the sun is high overhead and the days are particularly hot, watering at this point doesn’t do your plants as much good. That’s because, under these conditions, you can lose a lot of water to evaporation.
Early evening is the next best time of day to water. If you can, you should avoid getting a lot of water on plant leaves. Why? Wet leaves and dropping evening temperatures are a recipe for fungal disease. If you must water in the evening, use a long-handled watering wand and direct the flow of water to the soil, not the leaves.
How much water to apply
Knowing how much water to apply flummoxes some gardeners as much as the original “How often should I water my garden?” question does. Water too little and plant leaves droop and wilt. In the face of prolonged drought, plant growth is stunted and lettuce and other cool-weather crops may bolt.
But overwatering is problematic in its own way—particularly if you have poorly draining soil. When water sits at the root zone for prolonged periods, affected plants can become so oxygen-deprived that they yellow and die. In the vegetable garden, flooded conditions can rot crops like onions, garlic, and potatoes.
So, what amount of water is just right? The general rule is that most lawns, ornamentals, and vegetable plants need an inch of water each week. But what does that mean in terms of actual gallons of water? There’s an equation for that!
First, let’s say you have an area measuring 12 inches by 12 inches or one square foot. If you multiply 12 by 12, you get 144 square inches. Because one U.S. gallon officially holds 231 cubic inches, we can divide 144 (square inches) by 231 (cubic inches) to determine how much an inch of water is in terms of gallons. And we end up with 0.62. So, in your one-square-foot area, there’s 0.62 gallons in that inch of water.
You can apply that number to the actual size of your garden to figure out how many gallons of water are needed over a week’s time. For instance, if you have a raised bed measuring five feet by five feet, that’s 25 square feet of space. Multiply that by 0.62 and you end up with 15.5 gallons of water per week.
How do I know when I’ve watered enough?
You can check to see whether you’ve watered enough during an individual watering session by carefully digging down into the soil. Has water penetrated the top few inches to the root zone? Or does this area still look and feel dry?
Also, recall that your overall goal is roughly an inch of water per week. Using a rain gauge can help you to determine how close you are to reaching that goal. If, for example, you’ve only had half an inch of rain by mid-week, you might want to water more deeply. You can use the formula from the previous section “How much water to apply” to help determine how much water your garden needs. Then, you can attach a flow rate meter to your garden hose. This tracks how much water you’ve applied to the lawn or garden during each watering session.
For small areas and pots, you can use a hand-held soil moisture meter. This measures the soil’s moisture level. Use the reading you get to help you to decide whether you’ve added enough water or you need more.
How often should I water my garden?
In truth, there isn’t one simple answer to the question, “How often should I water my garden?”. It really depends on several factors including recent rainfall, soil type, soil organic matter, and the kinds of plants you’re growing.
- Soil type—Get to know your soil type and the degree to which it holds moisture. Clay soils hold onto water much longer than sandy soils because water drains through sand more quickly. Bottom line: you may need to water plants growing in sandy soils more often than those stuck in clay.
- Organic matter—If you’ve amended your soil with lots leaf mold, worm castings, compost, or other types of organic matter, it will hold moisture better. That means you might not have to water as often as you otherwise might. Mulching the top of your garden bed with an organic material is another great way to preserve even moisture levels.
- Plant types—Pay attention to your plants’ individual preferences to inform watering decisions. If you’re growing drought-resistant varieties or native plants which, once established, naturally tolerate dry times, you might not need to water as often.
- Rainfall to date—Already had lots of rain this week? Then you may not need to water. That said, moisture-loving plants may still need an extra drink. Thirsty plants include ornamentals like cardinal flowers and Siberian irises, as well as crops like melons and gourds.
- Microclimate—Plants growing in a particular microclimate may need watering more frequently than others. Consider a garden situated on top of a very windy hill versus one growing in a sheltered, low-growing space. Drying winds can wick moisture away from the soil—meaning you might need to water that hilltop garden more often.
What are the best watering tools?
How much and how often should I water my garden are at least partially based on local climate and specific plant needs. So too, is the task of choosing the best watering tools for the job. For a small balcony garden, you may be able to get away with a classic watering can. For larger, in-ground gardens, these basic watering tools below can make life much easier:
- Hoses—If your garden beds are close to your water supply, you may be able to get away with a single, short hose. Otherwise, spring for a high-quality, extra-long hose.
- Nozzles and wands—Whether you want to temporarily shut off the water without having to run to the spigot or you’d like to mimic a gentle rain, twisting a spray nozzle or watering wand onto the end of your hose provides extra control when you need it.
- Sprinklers—Via a single sprinkler or sprinkler system you can provide the garden with a good, deep soaking—while freeing yourself up to work on other things. Just be sure to set a timer or use a flow rate meter to avoid overwatering.
Do you want to learn more about how often and how much to water your garden? Watch this video:
Irrigation system options
If you have a very large garden or ultra-thick plantings, you might want to invest in an irrigation system. Unlike basic watering wands and sprinklers, these deliver water more directly to plant roots. At time same time, they’re also keeping water off of plant leaves. Here’s a quick run-down of 3 of the most common types:
- Soaker hoses—Among the least expensive options, a soaker hose enables water to slowly pass through tiny pores that run along its length. Unlike their more complex counterparts, soaker hoses are very flexible and portable.
- Drip systems—Often made up of a series of configurable, interconnected hoses, drip systems are generally pricier and more elaborate. A drip irrigation system usually includes multiple water-emitting nozzles or “drippers.” While some systems’ drippers come evenly spaced, others enable users to adjust the location of their drippers.
- Misting systems—Best used with shallowly rooted plants, misting systems use a series of fittings which lightly mist the soil. As with drip systems, some misters may be evenly spaced along a length of hose while others are adjustable.
How often should I water my garden containers
So, we’ve finally laid “How often should I water my garden?” to rest, but what about container gardens? Outdoor potted plants typically require more frequent soil checks than those in the ground. If you live in a hot climate, you might need to check pots at least once daily during the peak of summer to gauge whether they need to be watered.
Of course, container sizes—and the number and sizes of their drainage holes—also play a part. Very small containers dry out more quickly than large ones. Pots with good drainage and those containing especially light soils are also more prone to drying out. To assess your potted plants’ soil moisture levels, carefully feel the top few inches of potting mix with your fingers.
If the soil feels very dry, it’s likely time to water. Keep in mind that you may need to water thirsty specimens like cucumbers and tomatoes more than once a day. On the other hand, plants with deeper root systems may not need to be watered quite as frequently.
To help your container plants to conserve moisture, add a layer of mulch on top of the potting soil. Well-rotted compost, straw, or coconut coir can reduce evaporation rates and keep delicate plant roots cool and moist. Learn more about watering patio pots in this short video.
Less troubled waters
By now, you should have some more definitive answers to the age-old gardening question: “How often should I water my garden?” Certainly, as a general rule, the lawn, vegetable patch, most ornamental plants, and containers need about an inch of water each week. Still, your local weather, the type and quality of your soil, and the specific needs of the plants you grow are also essential to consider.
What’s more, keeping tabs on weekly watering with rain gauges and flow meters can help you to meet your plants’ needs each week—and avoid under-watering or overwatering in the process. And using watering tools like watering wands, soaker hoses, and drip irrigation systems can ensure you deliver water exactly how and where your plants need it most.
For more information on watering gardens and containers, be sure to refer to these expert articles:
- How often should you water basil plants?
- A guide to watering tomatoes
- Tips to create a water-wise garden
- The best types of mulch for the garden
Did we answer your questions of “How often should I water my garden?”