"Getting the most from your water bill," by the Whistling Gardener

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

As promised, this column deals with proper watering. Yes, I know this could turn out to be a real snoozer but it’s important so pay attention. It could mean the difference between life and death of your plants. Let me get straight to the facts.

1. Most gardeners water too often and not deep enough. Stick your finger into the soil two inches down (if it will go that far) and see if there is any moisture. If there is then DON’T WATER YET. Wait a few more days. If it is dry then apply some water slowly so it has a chance to soak in. Here in lies the crux of the problem. Water doesn’t soak into glacial till which is what most of us have.

2. Most of us are trying to garden on two to four inches of topsoil. You can thank your city/county building departments for leaving you in this untenable situation. If they would only just require the builder to leave us with 12-18 of wonderful topsoil they would solve their storm water runoff problems and make every gardener in Puget Sound very happy. I keep waiting for the light bulb to go on but so far it hasn’t happened as far as I can see. In the meantime about all we can do is to add annual applications of compost and use an appropriate sprinkler to apply our water.

3. Appropriate sprinklers are as follows:

a. Soaker hoses typically ooze or sweat. These are perfect for shrub borders and permanent plantings. Turn them on when you go to work and turn them off that evening or even a couple days later (after you have stuck you finger two inches into the ground to check the moisture penetration).

b. Oscillating or impact sprinklers. You can pay anywhere from $15 to $80 for an oscillating sprinkler. I suppose you get what you pay for. They are perfect for square or rectangular spaces and apply water fairly uniformly. Impact sprinklers like the good old Rainbird styles are more adjustable for odd configurations. Both types work well for large areas and can usually run for 20-40 minutes before you have to move them.

c. For spot watering my all time favorite sprinkler is a Gilmour Fan Sprinkler. For hand watering pots it is hard to beat all the various sprinklers that Dramm manufactures. With their wands and hand held nozzles you can do anything from lightly misting the foliage of a delicate fern to blasting off the bug remains on the windshield of your car. With all the designer colors they come in it can actually be fun to do these chores.

d. Automatic sprinkler systems are nice and I made a living installing them in California but you still have to monitor things to make sure water is being applied uniformly. And please don’t run them every day.

4. Adding compost: this is an essential step in retaining moisture in the soil. Applying a one to two inch layer of mulch to the soil under your shrubs and trees and around the perennials will with reduce the frequency with which you need to water by as much as 50%. That is a very good investment.

So to summarize, first and foremost, stick your finger two inches into the soil to see if you really need to water. Established shrubs and trees need only a once or twice a month watering, perennials, annuals and lawns only a one to three times a week watering and containers only every day or every other day depending on how root bound they are. Water deeply and infrequently using an appropriate sprinkler and always count your blessings that we live in such a civilized society that we have the option to water at all.

Educational opportunity: Saturday, June 13, 2015, at 10 am here at the nursery you can learn all about growing roses in the Pacific Northwest. Come smell the roses with CPH Trevor Cameron. RSVP appreciated.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at

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