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Shifting gears for the summer

It all seems to happen so fast. For months and endless months this year we have been dealing with cold cloudy days and sloppy soils. The thought of dragging out a hose and watering something wasn't anywhere near the top of my to-do list. In fact, often times I was trying to figure out how to get excess moisture out of my garden. Well, guess what? It's time to shift gears and get back on a watering regime that is both beneficial to the needs of our garden and sensitive to the laws of conservation. In other words, it's time for my summer diatribe on proper watering.

It seems hard to imagine that after all these cold wet days that the ground might actually need some water but I was quickly reminded of this just yesterday when I went to dig a hole for a new plant in my tropical bed. I was adding a golden catalpa to my border for the bold foliar effects that its large leaves provide. Catalpas normally make a large 30 feet tall tree with an equally wide spread. You can find a few of the green versions scattered through the older parts of Marysville. This time of year they come into bloom with clusters of white flowers followed by long seed pods. The common name for this tree is Indian Bean. In my case however, my catalpa will never bloom and never get taller than 10-12 feet which is what it will grow in a season after I whack it back to the ground every spring. But I am digressing.

In the process of digging a hole for my catalpa I discovered that the soil was bone dry all the way down to the bottom (about 14-16 inches deep), which brought me to the realization that it was time to get serious about summer watering. Whether planting new plants or maintaining existing ones, proper and efficient application of water is good for the garden, the pocket book and the environment.

In the case of my catalpa, what I needed to do to insure that it would "take" was to pre-soak the hole before dropping the tree in. That was the only effective way to get water in and around the new root ball. After letting the water soak in, I placed the tree and filled the hole about half full of dirt and flooded it once more. Finally, I replaced the rest of the soil and formed a watering basin about 2 feet in diameter and 3-4 inches high that I could fill with an inch or two of water. I ended up filling that basin about three times before I felt like I had applied enough water around the root ball to supply the tree for several days. I have no doubt that my catalpa will not skip a beat in its new home.

The reason for this long preamble is two fold. First, I want to bring home the fact that it is perfectly okay to plant this time of year. My catalpa is a classic example of the proper way to plant in the summer when the soils are excessively dry. As long as you get enough moisture down and around the root balls of your new plants they should do just fine. The second reason is to remind everyone of the need to water deeply.

Think of soils as a large sponge. They have a capacity to hold a specific amount of water. If you submerge a dry sponge until it stops bubbling then it will be filled to its maximum capacity and will be more or less uniformly wet throughout its entire profile. But if you take that same dry sponge and just sprinkle it until it looks wet you will probably only have moistened to top portion of it. And this is exactly what happens when we go out into the yard in the evening with a glass of wine in one hand and the hose in the other and we "water" the garden. We are only wetting the surface of the soil. Plants with roots deeper than a few inches receive no benefit from this kind of watering.

"Wine glass watering" can get us by for a while but sooner or later we will need to do a real soaking if we want our shrubs and trees and deeper rooted perennials to thrive and depending on your soil type this can be a challenge. Next week I will elaborate on some effective techniques for deep watering that should help you get through the summer without any losses in your garden. In the mean time don't be afraid to plant and if all else fails, keep drinking your wine.

Steve Smith is owner of

Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, a retail garden center that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. You can reach Steve at 425-334-2002 or online at

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