, Port Arthur, Texas


November 13, 2012

Fundamentals of watering plants

One fundamental all gardeners know is that water is essential for plant life.

Roots absorb available water, which helps transfer nutrients and then transpire through foliage. If this cycle is hindered by too little or too much water, plants will suffer, usually showing distress with wilting or yellow-tipped leaves.

How much water is enough?

Watering time will vary, depending on soil conditions, such as sandy (shorter times) or clay soils (longer times) and a particular plant’s needs. Most vegetables, small shrubs and garden plants need between one and two gallons a week. This doesn’t mean pouring a gallon over each plant once a week. It means that much water needs to soak down to the root ball and out into the plant’s drip line.

Watering frequently for short periods encourages shallow root growth in the top few inches of soil.  This causes two problems.  One, shallow roots do not give plants a good base to grow on and will not support larger plants such as shrubs or even tomato plants.  Also, with shallow watering, the top two inches quickly dry out. That diminishes water and nutrient absorption, stressing the plant.

Deep watering is better because it encourages deep roots. This will ensure slow, steady water supply for the plant. In Southeast Texas, fifteen minutes of watering with a sprinkler will only soak into the first inch of the average soil.  How can you tell if you are watering long enough? The easiest method is to water for 30 minutes and then poke your finger in the ground.  If the soil is wet deeper than your second knuckle (or 2 inches) you are watering adequately for most plants. If the soil is moist to the tip of your finger, that’s even better. If the soil is soggy, however, either you are watering too much or the soil needs amendments to help it drain well.

 Mulching around your plants is an easy method to help retain moisture. Mulch helps prevent rapid evaporation from wind and sun. It also helps keep the water closer to the plant, allowing it more time to soak down to the roots before it runs off.

 Another fairly inexpensive method is drip irrigation, which offers slow, deep watering when emitters are placed properly and set to the correct drip speed and length of time.  It’s one of the best ways to water.

Water early in the morning before the heat of the day, which allows plants time to take up water. Watering too late in the evening can lead to problems with slugs and moisture-related diseases.  

Paying attention to soil conditions and monitoring plant needs will minimize stress and produce healthier plants, which ultimately means less work for you.

Reach Jefferson County Master Gardener Intern Tim Schreck at  or call the Texas Agrilife Extension office at (409) 835-8461 with gardening questions.


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