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Water in the Organic Garden

Watering Organic Seed Potatoes with Watering Wand
Watering Organic Seed Potatoes with Watering Wand

We all need water. It is the life force that sustains us. Nothing is more refreshing or invigorating than a splash in a cold pond, a nice shower after a hard day or a big glass of water after a long walk.

It’s exactly the same for the wonderful plants that make up our gardens. They love a nice, natural soaking from a spring storm, or to be watered early in the day before the summer heat comes on. They even like a good hosing off to get rid of pests and sooty mold. You see, plants are a lot like us…

Watering Organic Romaine Lettuce with Melnor Wand
Watering Organic Romaine Lettuce with Melnor Wand

It’s funny to me after all of my years of gardening to hear the questions in my classes about the problems that people are having with their plants, and the questions that they ask about all types of deficiencies and tales of horrible growing conditions. They always think that there is some big mystery at work here. Sometimes there is, but most times, nine times out of ten, the culprit is water!

Nothing kills plants faster than overwatering or under-watering them. The old yellow leaf, burnt leaf tip and the shrivel are all signs that every gardener has ever seen. The tale of plants we’ve killed or almost killed as we learned to garden is usually long and sad (for the plants) and humorous (for us), if we’re honest. And, although watering faux pas are embarrassing, they are a necessary part of the gardening learning curve.

A couple of really good rules of thumb are:

1.) Check your irrigation. Most of the time, either we, or the installer, did it wrong, have the wrong the heads, the wrong spray, too much time, too little time, or we are simply asking something of the system that was not intended.

White irrigation pipes botched sitting above the soil.
Botched Irrigation System

2.) The overuse in recent times of drip irrigation has caused more under-watering of plants and soil, than any other issue that I have seen in the modern garden.

Two rows of green seedlings growing along two irrigation tubes with dry soil at center and sides.
Why Drip Irrigation Is Not the Best Choice

3.) The underuse and appreciation for hand watering. There is nothing better than actually controlling the flow and type of release (spray) that we are administering to the garden. I love to hand water with my old fashioned Dramm (the real old metal one) watering wand on a shower setting. It allows me to completely control how much water and where I am applying it. It keeps the water off of delicate leaves which helps stop leaf burn and also keeps moisture and humidity off of plants susceptible to powdery mildew.

Dramm watering wand spraying garden shrubs and grasses.
Dramm Watering Wand

End nozzle of a Dramm watering wand with shrubs in background.

But the biggest reason that I love to hand water is because I am a 100% TRUE ORGANIC gardener. I don’t use Faux Organic products or protocols, and I am only interested in growing a clean, true organic, safe and healthy garden.

When I became a true organic gardener, I also became a biological gardener. That’s when I metamorphasized and made the transition from gardener to organic gardener to true organic gardener. It was then that the relationship between water and I became even more important. As a biological gardener, what I am really doing is growing microbes in my garden, my plants really play second fiddle to everything beneath the surface.

Tea drenching an organic vegetable garden with watering can

As the temps hit the 90’s in Southern California this past week, I was reminded of just how quickly moisture evaporates in the heat. For microbial life in the soil to thrive and do their job for us, well for our plants, they need to have the proper moisture in the soil for them to survive and to mineralize the nutrients from the organic matter in the soil. If the soil dries out, the microbes slow down. Ultimately some of them will be killed off, just as any living creature without water.

From this point forward I would like to give all of you a thought to take you across the bridge of a paradigm shift. None of you are growing plants anymore, you’re growing soil. And if you do that, you will have amazingly healthy plants and a garden more vital than you could have ever imagined.

Remember, good soil that is full of microbial diversity is living soil. You can feel all of that life in a nice handful of fresh soil when you scoop it out of the garden. Proper moisture retention for healthy soil is about a 30% moisture rate. This is what gives that soil a not-dried-out feeling or that muddy texture when you grab a handful and hold all of it in your hand.

Two hands holding organic compost above a compost bin.

In fact, here is a homework assignment for everyone. Grab a handful of soil and hold for five minutes or more in your hand. Close your eyes and just concentrate on what’s happening in your hand. Does it feel energized? Does it feel lifeless? Does it feel as dull as a 7th grade history lesson from good ol’ Mr. Shields?

There should be something going on here. If there isn’t then you need to be growing the biology in your soil. These wonderful microbes are the builders of tilth in your soil. They also help create the structure of your soil, which is critical for proper moisture retention. And if that’s not enough remember, they break down the organic matter that give your plants the nutrients they need to survive. The microbes in your soil also help to regulate the pH of your soil.

Remember, if you want a healthy garden, you’ve got to be growing microbes, not just plants. If you underwater your gong to kill off microbes in your soil. If you over-water, then you are going to cause all kinds of problems like compaction, but even more importantly, you’ll create pockets of anaerobic soil that pathogenic bacteria thrive in. Over-watering can cause a serious imbalance of the overall soil health of your garden.

To me, the best course of action is to do as I always say, “If you take care of the microbes, they’ll take care of you.” And, nothing can be more true of that statement, then how we gardeners, true organic gardeners, water in the organic garden.

© Randy Ritchie 2020

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