Best way to settle a debate? Dig deep

Dennis, I need you to settle a disagreement between me and my husband.

The little crabapple tree we planted last year is looking pretty sad with lots of yellow leaves, and now they’re starting to fall off. I say he’s watering it too much and he says it needs the water because it’s so hot and dry. Please help settle this!

— Debbie

There are times I think I needed a couple of classes in marriage counseling when I was going to school!

Actually, debates such as yours happen all the time and my answer is “I don’t know!” Well, I don’t know and neither does anyone else, for that matter, until actually digging down to see what the soil is like.

That really is the key to answering the question of how to water. I’ve talked to people for years and years about watering deeply and infrequently but invariably, the questions arise: What does that mean in my yard? How long should I let the sprinklers run? How long should I wait until I water it again?

The answer to those questions can be found by digging down to see how wet or how dry the soil is.

I guess it’s human nature, but people resist the notion of digging a hole to look. Shoot, I’m guilty of it, too.

We make assumptions that the area is getting a good soaking or that we are not watering it too much or whatever. We think we know, but until we dig, look and feel the soil, we don’t really know.

Let me tell you a recent story that illustrates this. Last week in this column, I talked about fungus problems in a lawn and correcting it with good care, which is primarily about watering adequately.

Well, I started to develop some fungal disease problems on one edge of our lawn in the backyard a couple weeks ago. Figuring that the underlying problem was a lack of water, I dragged a hose over to the area and put a little round sprinkler on the end; turned the water on just enough to cover the bad area and let it run for an hour and twenty minutes. When I returned there were puddles of water throughout the spot so I ASSUMED I had soaked it well and the problem was solved.

A couple of days later, on my day off, I decided to check how the sprinklers were functioning in that area to see if there was something that needed fixing or tweaking (not a bad idea for you to do as well). I actually found four separate problems but one of them was that one of the sprinkler heads on the edge of the area was too low and a little bit of the spray was being blocked by the grass growing around it.

This meant I had to dig out the head and raise it up a bit, and in doing that I found moist soil for the first couple of inches and then it was completely dry.

For crying out loud! I gave it almost an hour and a half of watering two days before and it’s DRY? This serves to show that I’m just as guilty as everyone else of assuming what soil moisture is like.

Understand that the soil didn’t dry out in two days (I checked other spots and the soil was wet plenty deep) the problem was that it didn’t get soaked well when I did run the sprinklers. I don’t know if the spot was a bit high and the water just ran off or the soil there just resisted absorbing water or if the sprinkler didn’t hit that spot well.

I decided that answering the “why” wasn’t important. The reality was that the soil was dry, and what do I do about it? Anyway, I ran water onto the area again until it was soaked well. I know now because I checked.

The bottom line here is that you should go out and dig down 8–12 inches and see what the soil moisture is like. It’s probably a good idea to do that in a couple of spots since soils and water can vary from place to place. Don’t worry about interpreting what the soil moisture is like; the problem and hence the solution should be pretty obvious to you once you get down to look. There have been plenty of people in the store this year who have been amazed by what they’ve seen once they did some digging.

Now I know that digging several holes in the yard can be a problem for some people. Sometimes, there’s gravel and fabric around the plant or whatever.

Many people like to use a long screwdriver or metal rod to stick down into the soil to check moisture. When the soil is moist, it’s softer and the probe penetrates easily and when it’s dry, the soil is too hard to stick it in. That’s helpful, but occasionally misleading.

Personally, I like to dig a hole where I can actually see and feel the soil.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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