Since various growing conditions can exist around your home, e.g. sun or shade, damp or dry, sloped or flat land, the best indicators to determine if your plants need water are your fingers! If a deciduous (leafy) plant is over-watered or under-watered, you can see the signs on the plant. You may see wilting leaves, fall color, sagging or drooping branches, leaves dropping from the inside or outside of the plant, or the leaves are crispy the soil may be too wet or too dry. Wouldn’t it be nice if they had a signal and turned orange when they need more water and blue when they don’t?
So, what do you do when you see the plant looks a bit off? First, start by digging around under the canopy (branches, leavest, etc…) of the plant. When you dig down about 4-5″, stick your fingers in the dirt and see if the soil is wet or dry. Plants that are staying too wet and signaled you, will most likely have pretty foul smelling dirt when you are digging. The soil will be soggy, and really, just icky over-all. The smell and ickiness is coming from the roots rotting due to lack of oxygen. The root rot then shuts off water & nutrient flow to the branches (remember the signs look the same – too wet and too dry = not enough water is getting to the branches and leaves). When you find the soil is too wet, pull back your mulch from under the plant. Turn irrigation heads away from the plant and let it dry out for a couple days and re-check the soil.
If the soil 4-5″ deep under the plant’s canopy is dry, powdery and crumbly AND your plant shows the stress signs, it means we don’t have enough moisture in the ground and it’s time to water. Water slowly and at different points around the base of the plant under the canopy, either in the morning (best) or in the evening as it’s cooling down. Re-check for moisture in a couple days.
If you are unsure if the soil is too wet or too dry, you can leave the pant alone until the next morning. If the plant perks back up overnight, it could have just been too hot and wilted. If the plant is still wilted in the morning and the soil is not excessively wet, you should give it a good, slow soak and re-check it in a couple days.
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Nebraska Nursery & Color Gardens