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A quick test to figure out when to water your plants

 
gardener
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I often see the advice given that plants need 1 inch of water per week. But this one size fits all advice misses some key points.

The biggest is that there is a lot of variation in water needs for different plants. But also this advice tends to ignore how much water can naturally be in the soil.

Even if plants need 1 inch of water per week that doesn’t automatically translate to you needing to water your plants every week.

This week’s blog post—How to Water Your Plants (without Over Watering)—dives into this topic and provides a simple test that I use to determine when I need to water my plants.

Check out the post to learn more but let’s dive into the test!

A Finger Test for Watering



The finger test is how I check to see if my plants need watering. This test works best if you have a good layer of mulch around your plants. Without mulch, you’ll need to stick your finger down a couple inches (~5 cm) into the soil instead of just checking the surface. (Bold text indicates when you should water your plants.)

1. Stick your finger down through any mulch until you reach the soil below (or a couple inches [~5 cm] into the soil, if you haven’t mulched your plants).

2. Check to see if the soil is damp and cool.

3. If the soil isn’t damp and cool, then your plants should be watered deeply.

4. If the soil is damp and cool, look for signs of wilting or other stress.

5. If you see signs of wilting/stress then you may need to water.

6. Wait to see if the plants recover in the evening on their own. If they do, and the soil is damp, they should be good.

7. Keep observing your plants. And if they show signs of stress like wilting in the morning, or for a couple days in a row, then make sure to water them.

If you see wilting in plants that were recently planted, then you should give them water. Also, trees and shrubs likely won’t wilt. In these cases, follow the rule of giving them water a couple times a month for the first few months and then follow the finger test to determine if you need to water.

Though I generally just skip watering my shrubs and trees once they’re established. This finger test really works best for annual vegetables.

Watering Plants

I really like this finger approach and it works great for me. If you don’t mulch your garden then this approach is less effective. Though even then it can work—just know the surface will always be dry so you need to check down below a bit more.

The blog post covers this approach in more detail and also mentions some of the tradeoffs that you may have.

I use this approach for all my plants and the result is I rarely water except when I’m getting plants established in the spring. But what about you? Do you use a similar test? What is your approach to watering your plants?

Let me know—I would love to hear from you! Also, head on over to the blog post to learn more about this approach to watering.

While you are over on the blog most make sure to leave a comment! If you are the first to do so you will get a piece of pie! The pie will get you access to some special features on perimes, discounts at some vendors, and you can use it to purchase some products on the permies digital marketplace.

If you leave a comment on the blog post make sure to leave a post here on permies too so I can easily give you the slice of pie.
 
pollinator
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Thank you for such an informative article Daron.  Truly the common sense approach to watering.  I am mulching heavily this year in an effort to reduce watering and weeding and to build up the organic matter in my new beds.
Staff note (Daron Williams) :

Thank you for the comment on the blog post--you were the first so pie for you!

 
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Mulch it is.  I hadn't thought of using it in my vegetable beds.  My day is now full: a hike and then learning about mulching!
 
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Regarding mulch, does anyone know of free options?  

The "mulch" at our township public works center is chopped up branches and sticks.  They still look like branches and sticks, although now in 2-4" lengths and up to about 1" diameter.  I've used it, once. Not really what I'm looking for in my veggie, or flower, garden.

I don't have much access to newspaper anymore, and I was never comfortable with the dyes anyway.  My fall leaves have all decomposed or blown away.

Suggestions?
 
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Hay is working well on some of our beds... x
 
pollinator
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Thank you for this great post, I use straw mulch so your method will be very useful for us.

By the way, is there a chance of you changing the colour of the text for your links? - I can't read them! yes, getting old and eyes are not what they used to be ;o)
 
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Emilie McVey wrote:Regarding mulch, does anyone know of free options?  

The "mulch" at our township public works center is chopped up branches and sticks.  They still look like branches and sticks, although now in 2-4" lengths and up to about 1" diameter.  I've used it, once. Not really what I'm looking for in my veggie, or flower, garden.

I don't have much access to newspaper anymore, and I was never comfortable with the dyes anyway.  My fall leaves have all decomposed or blown away.

Suggestions?



Have you looked into chipdrop? It’s an online service set up to give arborists a place to get rid of wood chips without having to pay the dump.
 
Michelle Heath
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I've been on the he chip drop list for two years with no luck.  Tried to get the right-of-way trimming guys from the power company to drop us off a load (which they promised they would) and that didn't happen either.

We have a chipper that we use for small limbs and branches and also to shred leaves.  Of course I'm in a rural area with a few acres.  If I were in a more urban area, I would look into using grass clippings and possibly look around the neighborhood for yards where the fall leaves weren't cleaned up and ask if you could collect them.  You could buy mulch from a garden center, but I'd inspect it first and forgo the stuff with the artificial coloring.  
 
master pollinator
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I had no luck with chipdrop, either, but I called local tree services and found an eager donor!  I love wood chips in the vegetable garden.  Sure, some of them are too big, but I just take them out or move them aside.  Great mulch.

Daron, I left a comment on the [wonderful] blog post!
 
Daron Williams
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Michelle – You’re welcome! I’m glad it was helpful for you! Good luck with your mulching—it really will boost your garden over time!

Susan – Yeah, mulch is great. There are a few downsides but I find the upsides far outweigh the negatives. It can be harder to sow seeds in mulched beds and the beds will be slower to warm up in the spring. But you can pull the mulch back in the spring and then put it back once the plants are up at growing good.

Emilie – Fall leaves are a great option but they do break down quicker as you mentioned. I still have some bags that I’m just getting around to using and I add them to my garden every fall. In some areas wood chips can be gotten for free from tree service companies. You could try to reach out to them. And as was mentioned by Pete straw or hay can work—especially rotted straw/hay.

You could get the branches and sticks mulch you mentioned and make a compost pile out of it if you can get access to some good greens. Let it breakdown a bit more and soften up and then apply it as mulch to your garden. Bit more work but it should work.

Pete – Thanks for sharing!

Lesley – You’re welcome! Happy that it helps! 😊 Yeah, my wife and I have been talking about updating our orange color because of that. It’s part of our “brand” so we are just trying to figure out a good option we like. Sorry its causing problems!

Nathan – Thanks for sharing! Chipdrop can be a good site for free mulch.

Michelle – Yeah, I had the same issue with Chipdrop but I know people in my area who have had luck with it.

I’m growing some trees/shrubs for coppicing that I hope to use to build up my own mulch through chop-and-drop. Living mulch is my long term plan for my perennial areas and I’m even experimenting with it in a new vegetable garden—still figuring out how that will work…

Anne – Thank you for the comment! Really appreciate it! You weren’t the first to comment but I did give you and Susan an apple each as a thank you for the comment.

-----------------------------------------------------------------

Thanks all for the great comments! Since there was a lot of comments about mulch I wanted to share what I do in my vegetable garden.

I start out with wood chips and just use whatever I can get as long as it’s not too big. In the fall I add leaf mold that has been sitting for 1-2 years on top of the wood chips. I then chop and drop most of my old vegetables and use them to help hold the leaf mold in place. In the spring I may add more wood chips if the mulch is getting thin.

I have also added wine cap mushroom spawn to the garden beds which is helping the mulch breakdown faster. But since the ground doesn’t freeze here over the winter things can breakdown fairly quickly which helps to build soil more quickly.

This much mulch won’t be needed later as the soil improves but my soil is poor at the moment and becomes rock hard if it dries out. The heavy mulch is already improving the soil condition and really helps to keep the soil from drying out.

I also add worm tea to the mix and worm castings which helps to build soil life. Plus I’m growing a lot more beans and peas than I will in the future.

All of this is to try to quickly build soil fertility in my kitchen garden. The garden is only in its second year but the plants are doing better than last year and I’m noticing a lot more worms and the soil seems easier to work with.
 
Anne Pratt
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Thanks for the apple!

Also, thanks for pulling all of this information together so well.  I check on your blog periodically, and always learn something vital.
 
Michelle Heath
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Thank you Daron!  So glad to find your blog. Learning so much.
 
Susan Mené
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Thanks for the apple and for all the help!
 
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Emilie McVey
Wrote:

Regarding mulch, does anyone know of free options?  
       



Contact all the tree service companies in your area. Likely at least one of them will have chips available, and even if you had to pay a few $ to get a load, it’s well worth it! I get truckloads of grass clippings from a lawn care guy, but you have to consider some lawns have chemical treatments like fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides. The guy I get mine from only does chem free lawns. Most landfills have a designated area for ‘green’ materials which is everything from brush to leaves and grass clippings. If there’s a brewery in your area, spent grains are an awesome soil amendment and could also be used as mulch, but you need to spread them out in a thin layer to dry out for a few days first, and the odor is a bit strong until they dry. They are high in nitrogen, so could be mixed with wood chips to balance out the carbon. In the fall I sometimes run an ad on Craigslist for bagged leaves. Most people rake them on the weekends, so I will do a Monday morning run with my truck to pick them up. Right now is also prime time to get last year’s hay cheap or free.
 
pollinator
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Emilie McVey wrote:Regarding mulch, does anyone know of free options?  



Hi Emilie,

There are several free options, depending on your area. Each has upside and downside. Here are a few:

Arborist wood chip drops are great, to a point. They are free, provide lots of ready carbon and nutrient for the soil (eventually) and do a great job with weed suppression. However, there is a big downside to putting fresh cut wood on your soil. The reason is that the microbes that compost your fresh wood chips will require nitrogen, which they draw from the surface layer of soil. It's not the end of the world, and might conceivably be mitigated by adding diluted human urine. Fresh wood chips may also change the PH of the soil - depending on the type of wood used. Most landscape mulch is aged and slightly composted, to make the introduction to the garden less dramatic and more beneficial. Furthermore, different kinds of wood may work better or worse for the particular plants you are hoping to grow. So getting random, fresh wood chips is a bit of a crap shoot. Worst case scenario, you could be adding poison ivy or Japanese knotweed to your lawn. Still, I've done it and had good results.

Leaves are free - often found conveniently bagged at the side of the road. They are high in nutrient value and, if shredded, can look good too. The downside, again, is that you don't know what you are getting. There may be bits of trash, large branches, and lawn chemicals that can harm your plants. In New England, where I live, they tend to come with a hefty supply of maple seeds. I am sure that is not true everywhere or fewer people would be so excited about leaf mulch. Also, if you do not shred most leaves, you will end up with a thick, wet mat around your plants. I don't know if this is good or bad for the garden, but it probably isn't the look you're going for. If, however, you have a good source of clean, seed-free leaves, and free access to a leaf shredder, leaves might work for you.

Shredded, corrugated, non-glossy cardboard is free (if you have access to a shredder), and worms love it. It is not particularly nutrient-dense, and removes valuable cardboard from the recycling stream, but it could work for you. Some people are concerned about the inks and glue, though the glue appears to be mostly starch-based, and non-glossy ink is often soy-based. Still, there's no real way of knowing unless it's printed on the box. Shredded cardboard also doesn't hold up very well and attracts termites - so don't use it too close to the house. I don't know how you'll like the look after several weeks in the sun and rain. I've used it but not in a decorative setting. I have also used large sheets as a weed barrier for sheet-mulching and lasagna gardening, with good results, though it is worth mentioning that it prevents worms from traveling up to the surface and prevents water from traveling downward.

I have grown tall, decorative, clumping grasses and used that as mulch. This is a great, free, clean option but requires space and time. Come to think of it, I should do that again!

For my food forest, my mulch solution has been to get cheap, aged mulch from our local landfill at $10 per yard. It comes with random bits of chopped up plastic that I'm always fishing out, but it does the job pretty well for the sorts of plants I put in a forest garden environment.

For my primarily annual garden beds, I use salt marsh hay. It works well for weed suppression, is fairly cost-effective (about $15 per 250 square feet), and seems to agree with most of the plants I have in those beds. This is a local solution in New England, but I am not sure it is available anywhere else. Many people use straw for mulch, or seed-free hay, but these solutions can cause slug infestations. I get some slugs with my salt marsh hay but haven't experienced an infestation, perhaps because of the trace salt (yes, I have tasted it). To answer the obvious follow-up question, I don't appear to have any issues with salt in the soil, and the general consensus is that there isn't enough salt in the hay to cause problems. That said, I haven't used it for more than 7 years in any given location, so I don't have a definitive word on that.

Sorry if this isn't entirely optimistic about the possibilities of free mulch. Everything in life comes with trade-offs, and sometimes the trade-off is money for work. Free mulch will probably mean an investment of time and effort, but gardening is always time and effort, no matter how you slice it! So, a small investment in mulch can eliminate enough of the downsides to make it worthwhile. Mulch doesn't need to be a huge expense if you look around and plan ahead, but it is will probably take a little bit of elbow grease. ;)





If you'd like to be in touch, consider following me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/foodforestcardgame/
 
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Darron, I am so grateful for you and for providing this information.  I'm a newbie with the basic common sense but learning about all the annual and perennials have been so helpful. Your site is a wormhole of information I keep getting lost in.
Thank you!
 
Anne Pratt
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Karl, Unhelpfully, I can't remember where I read this, but there was research that showed the wood chips only took Nitrogen from the very top of the soil.

I can't seem to keep my wood chips and soil completely separated, so I use the urinary route!  My plants have seemed quite well-fed, despite this.  Also adding chicken bedding in the fall, so there's that.
 
Karl Treen
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Anne Pratt wrote:Karl, Unhelpfully, I can't remember where I read this, but there was research that showed the wood chips only took Nitrogen from the very top of the soil.

I can't seem to keep my wood chips and soil completely separated, so I use the urinary route!  My plants have seemed quite well-fed, despite this.  Also adding chicken bedding in the fall, so there's that.



That is my understanding, as well. The nitrogen suck hasn't been a huge deal for me, where I've used fresh wood chips, but I do compensate a bit. On the other hand, I've known people who have experienced issues with nitrogen and blame the fresh wood chips. I've been trying to give all sides of an answer recently, because I am constantly reminded how different these things are in different gardens. Gardening can be a very humbling experience.
 
Anne Pratt
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Giving all sides is great! I found the resource, a peer-reviewed paper by Linda Chalker-Scott, of gardenprofessors.com.  Here is the link for the download:

Washington University Extension Service monograph on wood chips as garden mulch

My uninoculated wood chips have mycelium running throughout. (Un-innoculated by me, that is.) Last summer I was able to harvest wonderful soil from the paths between my beds, which were built on construction sand that supported a weed here and there (and then the Bermuda grass arrived).  In other words, amazing fertility from wood chips just sitting there!
 
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Many plants will change their leaf position when water stressed to reduce sun exposure. In my opinion (shared by many, including those I learned this from), the best time to water is when they show mild moisture stress, pointing their leaf tips upward “praying for rain”. If they begin to droop this is a sign of extreme water stress that is not beneficial, but if you get them when they are “praying” it seems to encourage deeper rooting.
 
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