Watering Wisdom

One spring I noticed a particularly beautiful dogwood at the nursery. She had lovely, fresh, variegated green leaves. In fact, sometimes these gorgeous leaves sported three colors—two shades of spring green with soft cream and tinged with rose! I was captivated by its charm. Naturally, I kept my eye on it for several weeks while I decided where to put this beauty here in the shade garden at Chateau Schuchman.

After doing some research, I learned this lovely American dogwood, called Cherokee Sunset (Cornus Florida), reaches about 20 feet by 20 feet at maturity, it likes to live on the edge of the wood, and when well placed, is considered low maintenance. I thought I had the perfect spot in front of the house. Its horizontal habit was perfect for the long, low profile of our home, and its mature 20-by-20 size would fit perfectly in the raised bed by the door.

Those gorgeous variegated leaves would glow in front of the red brick. It was perfect!

We put the tree in the ground, and by mid-summer this beautiful tree looked so bad it was embarrassing. My poor tree was seriously drought stressed. Her beautiful variegated green leaves were white with powdery mildew and deformed with anthracnose. Oh, brother. So much for perfect. And, I knew without serious intervention this tree would be dead or at least maimed to the point it would never be beautiful again. In the heat of the summer, moving it was not an option, so I put the tree on a life-giving watering program and hoped for the best.

People tell me that the most confusing thing about gardening is watering—when, how much, and what to water. So I came up with easy-to-understand general guidelines about watering your new landscape or garden. I say “new” because an established landscape, one that has been in the ground more than three years, most often will be able to take care of itself. The trees and shrubs have been in the ground long enough to develop large root systems that can absorb the water when it comes, store it, and then utilize it.

Not so with a new landscape. It doesn’t matter whether the plants were in containers or balled and burlapped; it takes between two and three years for it to become “established.” The first year after a plant goes in the ground requires the most watering oversight, especially if the landscape was installed in the warm summer months.  Homeowners may find themselves watering every day and not feeling confident about their success.

Your new landscape will put out quite a bit of root growth during the first year, so you may not see much top growth until the following spring. Plant growth is not judged by the size of the foliage but by the size of the root system. And it is the root system that needs to be well-watered. In year three, your landscape will show signs of upward and outward growth. A good rule of thumb is “First they sleep, then they creep, and then they leap.”

Spring came late to Chateau Schuchman that next year. It seemed an eternity before I was able to tell if my sweet dogwood tree recovered enough to be its beautiful self. I think we had half a dozen pink blooms that spring, and the foliage was fresh and beautiful. It required serious attention that first summer due to the rough treatment of the year before, but yes, after many years, that tree has fully recovered.

So what went wrong? Several key issues; first, the front of our house does not have the kind of shade this tree needs. Dogwoods are understory trees, so to do well, they need protection from the hot afternoon sun, preferably by other big trees. Dogwoods also like  loamy soil, evenly moist but not wet, with lots of leaf litter that holds moisture. This bed is extremely well drained, making it too dry for this tree. I watered, but the moisture was gone before the tree roots could gulp it up. And finally, I didn’t catch the problems soon enough. The tree went without adequate hydration for too long. If the plant is in the wrong location, even the best watering practices can’t solve that problem.

After we moved it to the shady paradise in the backyard, I put a soaker hose under it, coiled it several times and added a timer so I could go to work and not worry about my water running all day. I soaked the root zone until it was mushy, and then I stopped. I waited until the soil was just damp to the touch and soaked the root zone again. And that is the right way to water.

The first thing you have to do is get organized.

Watering is a new skill, and the best way to achieve success is to get organized. You need three things—the fourth one is really nice to have but will remain optional.

A really good hose. I really like the new(ish) Zero G hoses. They’re lightweight and really sturdy (try not to drive your car over it and turn the wheel; don’t ask how I know this) and deliver a strong stream of water.


A wind-up hose reel attached to the house. You may think this is not necessary. I beg to differ. The easier it is to get the hose out and put it back, the more likely you are to water your plants. I love that mine even swivels.


Several hose end attachments, like a good pistol grip, a couple of good sprinklers, and my all-time favorite, Quick Connects, couplers that click your devices on and off with ease. Rollier’s has all of it, and they will help you select the best attachments to fit your needs.


Timers. These little devices can be attached to your spigot and work like old-fashioned kitchen timers. You can set your timer for two hours in the morning when you leave for work, so when you get home, the job is done!

And now the “How To’s”

Water the root zone of the plant—the foliage will thank you for giving it a shower, but on a hot sunny day, the roots are where the water is needed. The root zone extends all the way out to the drip line, which is where the leaves end. Use your Dial-a-Shape sprinkler and set it right on top of the root zone. Turn the water on until the spray covers the root zone. Stop watering when the soil is mushy.

Water trees and shrubs infrequently but deeply because the roots are deep. Again, water just until the soil is mushy. In a few days, if the soil is dry to the touch, water again. I wish I could be more specific, but watering doesn’t work that way. It’s all about current conditions.


Water perennials and annuals frequently but for shorter periods of time because annuals and perennials have roots near the surface, and the soil dries out more quickly near the surface.

What about the rain?

I love a good summer rain as much as the next guy, maybe more. The urban forest on Shadowlawn Avenue needs a good shower now and again. Our pond ripples and moves as the rain bounces off the surface. The air feels cooler, and the atmosphere sparkles with droplets of rain not yet splashed on the ground. As the rain slows to a drizzle, I can hardly wait to let the dog out and walk in my garden after. The air is fresh and clean, and the garden has been given a good shower and seems to show off its new clean self proudly, just like a child getting out of her bath after a romp in the mud.

Rain brings new life and new beginnings to a garden. The plants put on new growth both underground and above ground. And without water, plants would not be able to perform the ever-important process of photosynthesis.

But, a nice summer rain doesn’t water the root ball of a newly planted tree.

Beware what the guy down the street tells you.

You may have heard: Water your container gardens until the water comes out the bottom. Truth: If the container is very dry, the soil will be nearly impenetrable and very difficult to re-hydrate. The water will simply run down the edge of the inside of the container, so the plant will not be hydrated at all. The secret is to slowly add water until (say it with me) the soil is mushy and then go back and water every container twice. Sometimes, I fill my wheelbarrow with water and put the pot right in the water for several hours to help the soil soak it up.

You may have heard: If you water your wilted plant on a hot sunny day, it will scorch the leaves. Truth: Just like humans, plants enjoy a cool shower on a hot day. If the plant is seriously wilted, don’t wait until later. Make sure you water the root zone. And it is best to water in the morning.

You may have heard: drought-tolerant plants don’t need to be watered. Truth: All plants need to be watered. Low water plants are able to retain moisture better than others and do not need to be watered often. In fact, to do so will kill them.

You may have heard: your sprinkler system will provide your landscape with enough water. Truth: One size fits all is true for lawns but not true for landscapes. Homeowners often rely on their sprinkler systems instead of their eyes. Your sprinkler system works very well on your lawn because lawn grass needs the same amount of water.