Frugal garden watering to encourage strong root growth and resilience

Frugal garden watering to encourage strong root growth and resilience

When it comes to gardening, we all know that the right amount of water is essential for growth and healthy plants, especially to get those seedlings started or transplanted.

But once those seedling are established— what if I told you that regular watering might actually be making your plants less resilient? It's a surprising concept, but constantly ‘pampering’ your plants with water can discourage them from developing strong root systems.
Plants wanna survive-- they’ve evolved some pretty cool survival strategies to do just that. One of them is growing strong root systems. Roots help plants stay grounded, withstand strong winds, establish mutually beneficial relationships with soil microbes, go after the nutrients they need to be healthy, and find their own water.
Here's the twist…
When we water our plants too often, they can become lazy. They don’t have to ‘dig deep’ for water-- ‘cuz it's being delivered on a regular basis!
Plants that get watered regularly tend to have shallow root systems compared to those that are allowed to experience occasional dry spells. These shallow roots struggle to reach water during droughts, making the plants more vulnerable to stress. They can’t fend for themselves and become reliant on the constant watering!
Less roots also means less interaction with the beneficial microbes in the soil and less ability to mine the soil for the nutrients they need. It impacts the plants' ability to ‘anchor’ themselves during stormy weather—against wind, driving rains, hail, soggy soils, etc.
To make matters worse, overwatering can also cause soil fertility to leach out of reach of the plant’s shallow root zone. Think of it as ‘watered down’ nutrition! Pun intended!
What's even more concerning is that plants receiving constant watering tend to prioritize above-ground growth, like producing leaves and flowers, instead of investing in their roots. While this might make them look pretty in the short term, it weakens their ability to survive tough conditions in the long run.

The most concerning reason not to overwater is root rot! The causes of root rot are two very aggressive pathogens that love wet soil—namely, Pythium and rhizoctonia. The problem with root rot is that the symptoms are confusing. You’ll see plants that are wilted and yellowing and their growth is stunted. You may think the plants need more water-- compounding the problem!

Kinda like—no pain, no gain!
Believe it or not, plants become stronger and more resilient when you water them less frequently. By allowing the soil to dry out between watering sessions, plants are forced to search for water deeper in the ground. This encourages the growth of deep, sturdy roots that can handle drought like champs.

Peas in our deep mulch garden system
We ‘dry land’ farm all our seed crops—that means we don't water them! They get whatever rain falls and we select for the strongest most resilient plants-- the ones that can handle the stress. We like to say there are no ‘wimpy, wimpy, wimpies’ here! They have to be able to handle periods of drought!
And there always seems to be a period of drought during the growing season—where we get NO RAIN and experience high heat. The plants that survive AND produce good seed—they’re the ones that make it into our seed packets.
What that means for you is…
The plants you grow from our seed are no strangers to stress. They ‘expect’ periods of drought and ‘know’ they need to develop a strong root system. It’s coded into their genetics ‘cuz remember—only the strong survive and produce good seed! And that’s the seed you plant when you grow our varieties.
That said—let me also say that what we do with our seed crops is for the purpose of producing and selecting for strong, resilient varieties. We are focused on quality seed production—not quantity. That gives you an edge in the face of adverse growing conditions.

Handfuls of bean and sweet corn seed at Prairie Road Organic Seed
As a gardener…
YOUR focus is also on high quality production but also on maximizing your harvests. Over- or under-watering can affect the quality and quantity of your production in a number of ways. There’s a fine line there and that means striking a balance.
Of course, it's important to remember that the impact of water can vary across different types of crops. It's crucial to understand the specific needs of your plants and adjust your watering habits accordingly. 
To strike a balance keep an eye on the moisture levels in the soil. You can use a moisture meter to test your soil, like this one here. Another strategy is to dig a test hole. How far down do you have to go before you find moisture? How deep are your plant roots? Do they go deep enough to reach the available moisture?

If you experience a hot, dry period where moisture levels are dropping-- walk your gardens in the early morning to see how well your plants recovered overnight. If they recover, there's still water available to them. If they're still wilted in the morning, the situation needs to be remedied. Water when necessary.
Letting your plants experience some stress from time to time can actually be beneficial. It encourages them to ‘dig deep’ to develop stronger roots that can go after water as needed and become more resilient to the stressors of the growing season.
Improving soil quality is another way to boost plant resilience. Well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter helps roots grow and allows plants to access water more efficiently.

Adding mulch can also help retain moisture in the soil, encourages microbial soil health, and reduces the need for frequent watering while still keeping your plants hydrated. See our deep mulch garden system here.
The type of water you use matters.
Rainwater is the best; it's slightly acidic and carries with it nourishing oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. A rainwater catchment system is ideal.

Rainwater catchment system at Prairie Road Organic Seed
Tap water is slightly basic in pH and often contains chlorine, fluoride, sodium, calcium and magnesium. Well water should be tested for its pH levels, salinity and sodium, heavy metals, and even detrimental bacterial pathogens. Watering sparingly with these water sources will greatly benefit your plant health and soil quality.
While regular watering is seen as a gardening must-do…
It's worth considering the potential downsides. By constantly showering plants with water, you may unintentionally weaken their ability to handle tough conditions and damage soil quality.

So, let's strike a balance, and encourage our plants to grow strong roots. After all, resilient plants make for happier gardens!

Our best to you,