The first three years of a plant’s life are most critical as far as watering is concerned.

Watering garden and landscape plants is obviously important in order to keep them happy and hydrated.

For outdoor plants, I prefer to water small to medium-sized plants for around 30 seconds at a time, making sure to soak all of the ground surrounding the plants while avoiding water on the stems or foliage of the plants whenever possible.

Larger plants, like small trees and shrubs, take about twice that. Watering in the morning is always preferable as it usually allows the plants time to dry off before sundown, avoiding fungal and disease problems that can plague plants that experience prolonged periods of moisture. If you notice large water beads building up on a plant’s foliage as you water, shake the excess water off.

In general I find that outdoor plants can benefit from more water than you’d think. The first three years of a plant’s life are the most critical as far as watering needs – these are generally devoted to massive root growth, and the plant requires constant moisture in order to have the energy and soft surrounding soil to do so.

It’s always a good practice to stick a finger into the soil around plants when you’re curious about soil moisture. Make sure you reach down at least two inches into the soil, as the top layer can sometimes be very different in moisture than where most roots are. Feeling the soil for moisture can be a good way to get a feel for the water needs of a location.

In combination with these feel tests, let your landscape tell you when it needs water. Look for signs of thirst in your plants. Pay close attention to the natural stance of the rooty residents of your garden, and as you notice leaves and small shoots slightly droop, water the area surrounding their base deeply. Letting the ground around plants dry out to a point before watering encourages them to grow deeper roots in search of water, making them more resilient to similar dry spells in the future.

Avoid frequent yet shallow watering whenever possible, as this generally promotes shallow root growth that is unable to plumb the depths for reserves when the weather dries up. After three years, most new plants have established themselves enough to require little outside watering.

This holds especially true for plants native to the region, as they have evolved to best survive in local soils and weather conditions. This is one of the main reasons I always recommend planting native plants whenever possible.

The cooler weather of fall can sometimes trick us into thinking that we can stop watering as much. While this is generally the case, fall can also be surprisingly dry. Especially for first-year plantings, it is important to give your plants enough water in a dry fall so that they can grow roots resilient enough to survive the winter.

If you want to give your plants an extra nutritional punch, adding an application of compost tea to your watering schedule every week or two is a great way to give them a boost. Studies have shown that compost tea can also ward off diseases at the same time. You can purchase mixes that make brewing your own compost tea relatively easy, and plenty of guides can be found online that show how to make it at home without any outside mixes at all.

By deeply watering your outdoor plants during dry weeks for the first few years, while still allowing the ground time to dry a bit between waterings, you will be setting them up for a future of success without the need for much further human hydro-intervention. 

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.