Gardening Tips: Managing Moisture

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written. This column last appeared on 30 June 2021.


What to do this week

Now that the cold, rainy weather seems done with (for the moment at least), it is time to talk about moisture management. Let’s call it watering your garden. For the beginner, it can be difficult to sort out how, when and how much to water, so here are a few guidelines.

First of all, don’t water at high noon. It doesn’t do the plants much good then, for various reasons, and it may not be as urgent as it looks. Some plants respond to heat stress by allowing their leaves to go limp. This can be perfectly natural for things like squash. You will notice, if you hold off, that the leaves perk up again nicely once the heat of the day is over. Wilted leaves are a bit more delicate than usual, so watering them can also damage them. You shouldn’t be aiming a jet stream of high pressure water at your plants, but even an accidental strong aim can be hard on the leaves. Also, watering at high noon sends much of your water, which is a resource that has a cost even in the country, into the air as it evaporates rather than soaking down toward the roots.

Irrigation dripper. (Photo by fir0002 | [GFDL 1.2 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

Irrigation dripper. (Photo by fir0002 |, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons)

The best time to water is in the evening. That gives the water the most time to get down into the soil, where the roots need it to be, before it evaporates. If you have a major problem with slugs, you might want to consider watering very early in the morning instead.

If you are trying to be frugal and save water you might consider drip irrigation. You can buy fairly inexpensive kits from hardware stores that will allow you to dribble water at the ground level, below the leaves, rather than spraying with a hose. With a system like that you are aiming the water directly at the soil where it is going to have a better chance of soaking down to the roots. This also means you are putting less moisture into the air: it will be less humid and less friendly to molds and mildews.

Many people are used to seeing drip irrigation on the industrial level and may assume it is too expensive for the backyard gardener. I have a small system that extends to my greenhouse and one part of my garden near the house, and it only cost me $50. Mind you, that was a while ago, but even now it may not be as expensive as you assume.

There is one exception to the benefits of drip irrigation: carrots need their tops to be sprayed. It is just one of those wonderful things about nature.

There is another way to conserve moisture that I don’t use often, but that can work, and that is to use mulch. Some people use eel grass or straw, although straw can rob your soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. In Cape Breton, we are moist compared to other regions, even in dry summers, so we don’t need mulch as much as some people might assume. Also, mulch can backfire by providing the perfect daytime hiding place for slugs. Only use mulch if you are pretty sure you have a handle on the slugs in your neighborhood, and it isn’t too wet a summer. I stay away from it because of slugs.

Decorative watering can. (Photo by By Simon Q from United Kingdom (Decorative Watering CanUploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Decorative watering can. (Photo by By Simon Q from United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t water my crops as much as city folk sometimes think you should. I do sometimes puddle in transplants to give them some help getting started, and I do have the small drip irrigation system I mentioned, but most of my crops are left to mother nature. If there is a very dry spell I might carry in water, and some things do suffer, but nature manages.

If you want to get the maximum out of your kitchen garden, you might want to pay a little more attention to the water needs of your crops than I do, but you don’t have to water every day. In fact, if you do, you are encouraging the plants to avoid spending energy growing a deep root system. Plants are smart and don’t expend energy on things that seem unnecessary, but in the end, a deep root will serve the harvest more.

It is far better to do a good long soak once a week than a lighter daily dosing with the hose. Raised beds may need more frequent watering than weekly, but certainly not daily. In any event, if you have gotten your plants used to daily watering, you will have to gradually wean them off, giving them a chance to adjust. If you have a greenhouse, that is where drip irrigation really comes into its own. The environment within a greenhouse is already very humid, compared to the open air, so you don’t want to use a spray there. If you have to water, use cans that allow you to apply the water directly at the soil level. You will find that you have to water a lot more in the greenhouse, and it will change as the weather warms up, and as the plants grow.

Try to notice what is happening when you water. If the soil in the pots is very dry, and you add a couple of liters of water at once, it might just flow down the inside of the bucket and drip out the bottom, making you think you have watered enough. Add the water gradually instead, giving it time to soak down into the dry soil.

The best insurance against moisture stress is good organic matter in your soil because it tends to act like a sponge that holds just enough water, letting the excess drain away. Building your soil is the best defense against moisture stress, as it is against almost anything that can ail a garden. But even with good soil, with plenty of organic matter, there may be certain summers and certain plants that need a little extra attention. Without seeing the actual greenhouse or garden or raised bed it is difficult to say for sure, but as guidelines, I hope these tips help. If we are lucky it will just conveniently rain every three days (in the middle of the night).


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.