Keeping your plants well hydrated is key to helping them thrive all year round. Use these tips to make sure they get all the moisture they need.

By BH&G Garden Editors
Updated July 17, 2020
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Much like you, your plants get thirsty, too, especially during those long, hot summer days without a cloud in sight. And a wilted plant is a stressed plant, which means it won't grow as well and is less able to fend off pests and diseases. Figuring out how much to water your garden can be a little tricky because it depends on a number of different environmental influences such as weather conditions and season, as well as the types of plants you're growing. Get your healthiest, well-hydrated landscape ever while more efficiently using every last drop by understanding a few basics about each of these factors.

watering lettuce plants in garden sunlight in the background
Credit: Baker Creek Heirloom Farm/Watering Can Project

When to Water Your Garden By Season

The time of year and precipitation (or lack of it) impact the amount of water you may need to supply. Plants grow less quickly, if at all, during the cooler months, which means they don't require as much moisture to support stems and leaves. But even cold-hardy trees, shrubs, and perennials that are dormant in winter still need enough hydration. Most areas of the country do experience some drought so your job is to help your plants through those dry spells.

Spring

Because of more plentiful precipitation in the springtime, Mother Nature will take care of a lot of the watering. Be aware of how much rainfall you are getting; if you get less than one inch per week, you still may need to supplement.

Summer

As the weather heats up and droughts occur, you'll need to step in with more watering. When temperatures go above 85°F, you can expect to water your plants every day to keep them from wilting.

Fall

The end of the growing season usually won't require as much watering because temperatures start cooling off and precipitation often increases. Plus, most hardy plants will start slowing down their growth and losing leaves in preparation for winter, so they aren't as thirsty. Water your plants about 2 times per week when temperatures are above 40°F and snow hasn't fallen yet.

Winter

Watering is only necessary before the frost hits and your hardy plants have gone dormant for the winter.  Until then, water your plants 2-3 times per week whenever temperatures are above 40°F. Once you've got snow on the ground, you can relax until springtime rolls around.

Test Garden Tip: Keeping track of your area's precipitation is easy with a good rain gauge ($3.98, The Home Depot). Place it away from trees or other overhanging structures to get the most accurate reading.

drip irrigation system with lettuce
Credit: Helen Norman

How to Water Your Plants

You can deliver water to your garden by hand with a watering can or hose, or use sprinklers or irrigation systems. It doesn't matter much to your plants, it's more about what's most convenient and affordable for you. For example, for a small garden or just a few plants, a watering can or walking around with a hose works well enough. But if you have a lot of plants over a large area, you may want to consider investing in drip irrigation or a sprinkler system on a timer, which also can help you conserve water.

When using a watering can, keep water temperature in mind. You're not alone in disliking cold showers or baths; many plants hate really cold water, too. Always use cool or tepid water, never freezing cold, especially for seedlings and young plants because they are less able to tolerate the temperature shock. You'll also want to avoid the other extreme of water that's too hot. This can happen when a hose or watering can (especially metal models) has been sitting in the sun. It's best to first run the hose over pavement until you feel cool water from it again. Refill overheated watering cans before using.

Test Garden Tip: If watering plants from overhead, try not to get the leaves wet. It also helps to start early enough in the day that the foliage dries before nightfall to discourage foliar diseases.

Two people planting a new tree in a yard
Credit: Chalirmpoj Pimpisarn, EyeEm/Getty Images

Tips for Watering New Plants

It usually takes a year after planting for most perennials, shrubs, and trees to become fully established, meaning they've had a chance to develop a strong root system. During their first season in your garden, make sure your new plants never wilt or completely dry out. This will help them concentrate more energy on growing healthy roots instead of having to do damage control whenever they get drought-stressed.

New annual and vegetable transplants also need soil that is evenly and constantly moist, but not soggy, at least for the first 2 weeks. When planting small peat pots directly into the soil (a practice often used with plants that don't tolerate root disturbance well), be sure that no part of that pot sticks up above the soil. If it does, the dry peat will act like a wick, pulling water from the soil and letting it evaporate into the air.

Test Garden Tip: When watering small seedlings with a watering can, turn the rose at the tip so that the holes point upward to the sky instead of down toward the earth. This minimizes soil disturbance and keeps them from being flattened to the soil.

How Much to Water Your Plants

Some plants are more drought-tolerant than others (succulents are among the least thirsty plants) so they can get by with less water. But in general, you can think of plants like living straws that suck water out of the ground and release it into the air. This process speeds up during hot, sunny weather and especially when there is a noticeable breeze or wind, which helps water evaporate more quickly. If there isn't enough water for roots to send to leaves and stems, your plants will wilt and eventually die. The trick is to make sure your plants, especially new ones still getting established, always have enough moisture so they don't wilt but not so much that they drown (roots need to breathe, too).

And no, just wetting the surface isn't nearly enough. Apply water thoroughly, letting it soak into the ground where the roots need it. It can take a little time for water to percolate down deep in your soil, so it's best to add moisture slowly with low water pressure rather than going with a quick blast from the hose (the force can damage more delicate plants, too).

If you see puddles immediately forming or run-off happening, you're adding water faster than the ground can absorb it. Try moving on to another area, then return 5-10 minutes later to add a little more water at a slower rate. This will give moisture time to trickle down into the earth more.

Of course, it's possible to overwater your plants, too. If you're concerned about that, remember that most plants can recover from wilting once you give them a drink again, but if they start rotting from too much moisture, your plants usually can't be saved. Make sure to add plenty of compost to your soil to improve drainage. This will help prevent too much water from drowning roots.

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