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During the summer be intelligent in your water use

By Al Cooke
Posted Friday, June 17, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - It’s always fascinating to me to hear people talk about water about this time of year. I once spoke with a man who felt pretty sure he was applying at least an inch of water; when I got him to measure it, he found that he was applying less than 1/10 inch. People ring my phone occasionally to describe what sounds like a plant experiencing water deficit. When I mention water, sometime I hear “but we’ve had a lot of rain.” And this time of year rain can be spotty.

I’ve spoken to people who had “2 inches” or “more than 4 inches” at some time recently; but the weather data at the Siler City Airport show no recent date where rainfall exceeded about an inch. And yes, storms that bypassed the airport could easily dump several inches of rain 5 miles away.

Sometimes people tell me that they have been watering regularly. I have to remember that we tend to see more plant death as a result of excessive water than from too little water. And the symptoms of too much water are very similar to those of too little water. Learning how to water and how often is among the most difficult aspects of plant management.

Plants need a lot of water in the summertime, but they also need a lot of oxygen around their roots. Soil that is full of water contains very little available oxygen. For that reason when we water, it’s good to get the soil wet several inches down. Then allow the surface to dry out for several days before watering again. In that way the plant has access to oxygen near the surface and water down below. Less frequent watering is also a good way to reduce plant disease pressure.

Plant water needs depend on a lot of variables. I will be discussing a number of these in my class on Plants and Water on June 30. See details here.

Meanwhile, note that in the month of June daily evaporation has exceeded rainfall by about 5 times – again that’s at the airport. Many plants are well adapted to this type of weather pattern. Trees and shrubs that have been established for a couple of years can usually tolerate extended drought without dying.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to grow tomatoes or any other fruit or vegetable, remember that whatever you harvest is probably more than 90% water. It takes a lot of water for plants to make flowers and fruits.

Finally, let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you go out and water. I’m suggesting you consider your plants’ needs and water accordingly. There is no formula or schedule that works. You have a built-in water meter next to your thumb; use it to help determine water needs. Water is perhaps our most precious resource. Water managers report that human water use increases 30-50% during the summer months. Most Americans use more water in showering than the estimated daily need for cooking, bathing, and drinking.

We need to be intelligent in our water use.

Al Cooke is the Chatham County Horticulture Extension Agent

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During the summer be intelligent in your water use

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