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Vegetable Watering Tips

Providing the right amount of moisture to the vegetable garden is as important as supplying the right amount of plant food.
Vegetable Watering Tips
Providing the right amount of moisture to the vegetable garden is as important as supplying the right amount of plant food.

Water is essential to the optimum growth of vegetables; the water content of most vegetables is nearly 90 percent. Providing the right amount of moisture to the vegetable garden is as important as supplying the right amount of plant food.

Here are basic vegetable garden watering tips:

Seeds. Water to the age of your crops: seeds require water to germinate, water gently and lightly after sowing seed to enable sprouting. Water carefully at first to avoid washing away seed just below the soil surface.

Seedlings. Seedlings have undeveloped, shallow root systems; water seedlings lightly and frequently to help roots develop.

Transplants. Transplants should be watered every day until they establish root systems. Regular watering will help roots recover from transplant shock. Give transplants a cupful of water each day. Water around each plant rather than watering the entire garden bed.

Established plants. Roots follow soil moisture deep. Water to a depth of 6 inches then allow the soil to almost dry out before watering thoroughly again. Use a trowel to dig down just away from plant drip lines to see how much moisture is below the surface. You will soon get a feel for how much to water.

Finger test. Your finger is a good indicator of how well watered your vegetables are. Stick your finger down 3 to 4 inches into the soil just a few inches away from your crop. If your finger comes away dry, it’s time to water; if your finger comes away glistening wet, let the soil dry out; if your finger comes away just moist with a few flecks of damp soil–your watering is just right.

Leafy crops. Leafy crops are shallow rooted and will do best with frequent light watering.

Fruiting crops. Fruiting crops–beans, squash, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers–require frequent watering during flowering and fruit formation. These crops are deep rooted, however, and once fruit has formed and begun to develop deep and less frequent watering will be sufficient.

Soil. Organic matter will increase your soil’s water holding capacity (by as much as six times), conserve moisture, and reduce evaporation. Add one inch of aged compost to your planting beds twice a year. Work the compost into the soil before planting or add it as a top dressing or mulch during the growing season. Organic matter improves the soil structure. Organic mulches conserve moisture by reducing evaporation and also discourage weeds.

Watering time. Water when plants need it. If crops are droopy in the morning, it’s probably time to water. Give plants a soaking before the day is too old. Avoid watering at midday or in the late afternoon when water will be quickly lost to evaporation. Where the summer is dry and hot, water at night when evaporation is lowest

Wilting. Wilting can be is an indicator that plants need water, but can also be misleading. Some plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant tend to wilt slightly during the heat of the day in warm climates, even if the soil has enough moisture. Check soil moisture to avoid over watering. If plants are wilted in the morning, water.

Over-watering. Over watering can be just as harmful to plants as under-watering. Too much water can create an artificial water dependency and result in too much leafy growth. Over watering can displace soil air which plant roots need to breath–plant roots can die from lack of air. Excessive watering can uproot plants and wash away nutrients in the soil.

Cultivation. Lightly cultivate the soil before watering. This will allow water to soak in to the soil rather than run off. Rain, overhead irrigation, and hot baking weather can cause top soil to form a crust. Break-up the crust to capture rain and irrigation.

Basins and furrows. Form earthen basins around large, deep-rooted plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. A basin will help retain irrigation and rainwater. Use furrows alongside row crops to regulate the water that goes to particular plants. Use temporary damns along furrows to concentrate water delivery to plants in need.

Mulch. Mulch around crops to slow evaporation and choke out weeds competing with vegetables for water and nutrients. Dry grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, straw, and almost any organic matter are good mulches. Be sure your mulch is free of weed seeds. Mulch after the soil has warmed in late spring and after you have given the garden its first good soaking.

Harvest. Harvest vegetables and herbs as soon as they reach maturity. Crops taste best at the peak of ripeness. Watering vegetables that are past ripe and in decline is a waste.

Squash and cucumbers. Squashes, zucchini, and cucumbers need an even supply of wate from flowering through fruiting. Even watering will enhance fruit development and flavor. Avoid over head watering when these plants are flowering; pollination may be adversely affected.

• Bean family. Legumes–beans and peas–need little water until they begin flowering. Water as soon they begin to wilt. Too much water can result in lush leafy growth and lack of flowering. Water twice a week at flowering time and then again as the pods are swelling. Stringiness in beans can be the result of insufficient moisture.

Corn. Corn needs heavy watering at the tasseling stage and again when the kernels are swelling.

Lettuce and greens. Lettuce spinach and other leafy crops need frequent watering but only in the top 6 inches of soil. Leafy crops shallow rooted. Lettuce is less bitter and spinach is slower to bolt if watered regularly.

Cabbage family. Brussels sprouts, cabbages, brocoli, and cauliflower do best when watered regularly. Give these crops a good soaking ten to twenty days before harvest.

Root crops. Root crops such as carrots and turnips need even moisture when young and as roots begin to develop. If the soil is allowed to get too dry, carrot roots may split and turnip centers may turn brown.

Onions. Members of the onion family need frequent, even watering during the early stages of growth to promote good leaf development. Continue even watering as bulbs begin to form. Once bulbs start forming onions and garlic need much less water. For less pungent onions keep them moderately moist. Stop watering when tops begin to brown and dry or ripening may be delayed.

Potatoes. Potatoes need little water until they start to develop tubers. When tubers are marble sized give the plants a good soaking and mulch to conserve moisture.

More watering how-to info at Watering and Water Content of Vegetables and Watering Vegetables in Hot and Dry Weather.

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10 Comments

    • Hand watering and individual attention to each container crop is the best course. Depending on temperature and wind, containers can dry out quickly or retain water. A moisture meter may be a good solution for deep containers. For shallow containers, you can simply put your finger in the soil to take a moisture reading. If it comes away dry, water; if it comes away glistening wet, don’t water. A saucer under each container can allow you to water from the bottom up; fill the saucer with water, if it is quickly dry, add more water until the soil is satisfied.

  1. Hi,
    Last year I made wonderful bread and butter pickles. This year they are good, but the skins seem tough. Last year we had 3-4″ rain in June. This year 10″ in June. Could that cause skins on pickling cucumbers to get tough? Thanks in advance for any help.

    • Yes. Heavy rain can cause cucumbers to enlarge and have tough skins–and the taste is not as good. Cucumbers picked too late–even by a week can make for tough skinned pickles as well. And the quality of pickles can be affected by the time between harvest and pickling. Try to pickle your cucumbers within 24 hours of harvest.

  2. Good day all!
    I have questions about watering. I am container growing and would like to know how often to water the seeds?
    Then once I have sprouts how often do I water them? I have started my plants indoors and keep them in a sunny window.
    I have had some sprouts take off then suddenly stop growing. Can you help me figure out what is happening there?
    I don’t know if it’s a water issue or not.
    Thanks.

    • Watering plants in containers is always a challenge. Try to water to the depth of the roots; imagine the roots are about as deep as the top growth. When you plant a seed you need to keep the soil moist just an inch or so; once the seedling emerges water to the depth of the top growth–2 inches, 4 inches, 6 inches — as the plant grows. You can stick your index finger in the soil; if it comes away dry, water; if it comes away glistening wet, let the soil dry a bit before watering again; if your finger comes away just moist, the soil moisture is just right. As for sprouts that stop growing soon after they emerge, this is likely a malady called damping off. Damping off happens when the soil is too wet or too cold. Don’t overwater when seedlings emerge and keep them warm. Also start seeds in a commercial, sterile starting medium or soil; that way you can be sure the soil is free of disease pathogens.

  3. I have a raised garden. I water often. My soil moisture reader indicates the soil is dry. However, the bottom leaves on many of my plants are turning yellow. I added nitrogen a few days ago. Any suggestions?

    • If the soil is light–lots of organic matter that is not fully decomposed–water may be draining away too quickly leaving the plants without enough water. Roots will be at about the same depth that the plant is tall. Use your moisture meter to read the moisture at that depth. Early in the season, roots are shallow and if the soil is light there may be a lack of moisture near the roots. You may need to water more often until the plants are more established. If you add nitrogen, use a very low nitrogen fertilizer such as a dilute solution of fish emulsion.

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