It’s time to water the garden. Plan ahead to avoid stressing the plants. – Chicago Tribune

After shivering and wading through a cold, wet spring, it may be hard to imagine, but it’s time to think about watering the garden.

“Trees and other plants in the Midwest go through a kind of mini-drought every July and August,” said Sharon Yiesla, plant knowledge specialist at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. “It’s only a few months away, so owners would be wise to prepare for it now.”

By planning ahead, you can help your plants avoid water stress, which can weaken them and make them more vulnerable to pests and diseases. The mass of a mature tree is about 35% water, and that of a tomato plant is at least 90% water.

“All kinds of plants need enough water to stay healthy all summer long,” Yiesla said. By July, they will have long since exhausted the water brought to the ground by the rains of April and May.

Yet, if we are not careful, it is also easy to overwater. “It’s not just wasteful, it’s harmful,” Yiesla said. “Overwatering can distort plant growth and lead to certain types of disease and pest problems.”

For example, over-watered lawns provide the perfect habitat for larvae, many of which hatch into Japanese beetles.

Here are some suggestions from Yiesla for preparing for watering this summer.

“Watering on a set schedule is a recipe for overwatering or underwatering,” Yiesla said. “If the system comes on when there is already moisture in the ground, it will promote white grubs and root rot. If it comes on briefly two or three times a week, it will barely moisten the soil surface. This will leave grass and other plants underwater while driving up the water bill.

Instead, turn off the timer. Turn sprinklers on manually to water deeply only when you have determined that the soil is actually dry.

“We have to be more careful these days because our climate has changed and made the weather more unstable and unpredictable,” she said. “We can’t rely on assumptions from 20 or 30 years ago.”

Many gardeners have a habit of watering every morning or every Saturday. Instead, make a habit of checking the soil to see if it needs watering or not. The easiest way is to dig a few inches with a trowel, feel the ground to see if it’s wet, and examine the plants growing there.

“For lettuce seedlings, you need moisture in the top inch of the soil, but for established trees, shrubs, perennials and lawns, you just need the soil to be 2 inches moist,” Yiesla said.

Your goal should be to moisten the top 6 inches of soil. Then allow enough time—more time in cool weather, less time in hot weather—for the water to drain deeper and the top few inches of soil to dry out. Water again after checking the soil moisture.

When these pipes are laid on the ground of the flowerbeds, their tiny perforations allow water to flow slowly along their entire length. Soaker pipes carry water down to the ground where the roots are.

“They reduce the risk of plant diseases because they don’t wet the foliage,” Yiesla said.

As the water penetrates so gradually, the roots have time to absorb it. Soaker hoses are less expensive than sprinklers because they don’t shoot water into the air to lose it through evaporation. Place the casings early, then cover them with mulch and leave them in place all season.

Because their root systems are immature, trees and shrubs need supplemental watering for their first two to three years. You can water them with a soaker hose, a sprinkler, special watering bags that close around the trunk of a tree, or even a bucket.

“Water deeply, just near the base of the trunk where the roots are,” Yiesla says. “As a rule of thumb, plan for 10 to 15 gallons each time at weekly or 10-day intervals, depending on the weather.”

Among many other benefits, a layer of mulch prevents water from evaporating from the soil. In perennial beds, an even layer 1 or 2 inches deep is sufficient. Around trees and shrubs, spread the mulch evenly over a wide area about 3 to 4 inches deep. “Just be careful not to pile mulch against the trunk,” Yiesla said.

For advice on trees and plants, contact the Morton Arboretum Plant Clinic (630-719-2424,, Where [email protected]). Beth Botts is an editor at the Arboretum.

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