watering the garden (not the plants), a 101 with daryl beyers

watering the garden (not the plants), a 101 with daryl beyers

Daryl Beyers, author of “The New Gardener’s Handbook” (affiliate link). The popular course that Daryl teaches at NYBG is called Fundamentals of Gardening. And now Daryl, who has more than 25 years’ professional landscaping experience besides his teaching role, has put all the fundamentals into “The New Gardener’s Handbook.”

Read along as you listen to the June 29, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: Enter to win Daryl’s new book by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page.

Plus: Links to his free Monday evening Zoom Q&A sessions; a webinar-style talk he’s giving online July 9 in the evening, and other “extras” (including the interview I did with him for “The New York Times”) are at the bottom of the interview transcript.


Margaret Roach: So welcome back, Daryl, how are you?

Daryl: Hi, Margaret. I’m doing well, I’m a little bit dry, but I’d like to get wetter hopefully someday.

Margaret: Yeah. Where’s the rain? You promised when you came on the show, you’d tell me how to make it rain.

Daryl: Well, my trick is to plant lots and lots of new plants, and then say a little prayer and hopefully it works out.

Margaret: O.K. So I loved in your book that you got to quote, you managed to somehow figure out how to quote, Leonardo da Vinci in a garden book. Do you remember that quote?

Daryl: I do remember that.

Margaret: “Water is the driver of nature,” you said—or you quoted him saying. [Laughter.]

Daryl: Yes. It was in the introduction, yeah. Well I mean, Leonardo knew a little bit about everything, basically, so I think he actually knew something about water, and watering in the garden as well. Because your garden will not grow without the proper amount of water. And it doesn’t mean that it always needs a lot of water, but it does mean that it needs some water.

Margaret: In the book there were so many factoids about watering to make me think about it differently. You talk about a 50-foot shade tree loses up to 60 gallons of water per hour. A healthy tomato plant will absorb at least, and release at least, 30 gallons of water throughout a growing season. I mean, things like that that you start to visualize how important it is. Can you tell us about the different functions of how water is used by plants during times of growth?

what we talked about last time, where we talk about balancing the roots and the shoots. So the stronger and more vigorous your roots are the better, bigger and brighter and happier the top of the plant is going to be. So the soil needs to have some moisture in it for these roots to expand.

And so what we’re always trying to do as gardeners and stewards of the land is to make our soil better. It’s the foundation upon which we grow our gardens and adding organic matter improves our soil in a lot of different ways. And one of the ways that it improves our soil is it increases the water-holding ability of our soil. It improves our soil structure, so then it can hold water better. In other words, it creates more air pockets for water then to get into.

The organic matter helps the water cling to the soil particles, it forms like a film around the soil particles—makes your soil a little bit more like a sponge and less like just a collection of marbles and sand and stuff like that. That’s what makes your soil spongy and holding water.

There’s something called field capacity, which is the amount of moisture that your soil can hold. And so you’re always trying to improve your soil so it has a higher field capacity, which basically means that’s the amount water that your plants get to use.

It could rain 10 inches, but if your soil can only hold a half an inch of that, it doesn’t matter how much it rains. And so it could rain on Monday, and if you have soil that doesn’t hold water very well, then by Tuesday afternoon you may need to water again. Whereas if you had soil, the nice, rich organic soil that had good, what we call field capacity and moisture holding ability, you probably don’t have to water till Friday. And then maybe by then it rains again and then you didn’t have to water again.

So I’m always trying to get gardeners to build up their soil so it holds water well and then they don’t become reliant so much on the summer of dragging hoses, right?

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Daryl: They don’t have to drag as many hoses around because maybe you get lucky and it rains in time before things dry out too much. So you’re always working on that, trying to make the soil hold more water. And then the thing is, it also gets complicated because then it depends on the plant as well, the plants that you’re growing and that starts to mix things up again. Gardening is never as simple as it sounds, there’s just always an added wrinkle.

Margaret: Should we give up now? [Laughter.]

Daryl: No, no, part of it it’s all fun, it’s the whole idea.

Margaret: I know, I know. And I think I might have already made that decision many decades ago in my life here—she says, looking out the window at a couple of acres of plants [laughter].

So the other day the plants, the 25ish shrubs that were meant to come in April–that I ordered in the winter that were meant to come in April for a project that I’m doing, which is reclaiming the top of the upper hill of my property to not mow it anymore, and add more native things and let it be wilder and so forth to increase diversity. Those shrubs, all native things, youngish things but nevertheless a couple-of-gallon size to 5-gallon sized things nursery pots. Well, they arrived because COVID-19 had shut down the ability of the nursery to do landscaping jobs, to come and help dig all those things in. Anyway:

So dot, dot, dot, here we are a couple of months late, no rain has happened in forever, it feels like and it’s on the very top of the hill where I don’t have irrigation water. So anyway, so here I am, and I think I’m was reminded of your lesson in as the two guys from my favorite local nursery and I mud… You call it “mudding in” the plants and I call it “puddling in.” So newly planted things, we need to really give them a good start. So quickly can you tell me about that, that process?

Water Right [affiliate link]. And they’re great because they’re light and again, I have to drag hoses, hundreds of feet, and I’m one person.

So they work well for me but everything else I have to say, I’m really disappointed in the junkiness of a lot of the watering equipment, and finding a good hose-end sprayer. Not that I want to spray like I’m washing my car; I don’t want to deal with a plant like that. But what you were talking about before with the breaker on the end, one that lasts, that doesn’t leak. Sprinklers, a good-quality sprinkler I mean, it’s tough to find. What should I be looking for? Do you use sprinklers at all? Because I like to use an oscillating, or you call it a fan type of sprinkler.

Daryl: Yeah. They can be handy in spots. You have to be real careful that you’re not… That none of that direct spray is hitting plants because you can get some fungus problems and other stuff like that. But they can be really useful, especially if you’re trying to establish maybe some lower-growing stuff or just to keep a part of the garden a little bit more moist. Maybe the early vegetable garden before there’s too much foliage and things like that. Yeah.

The more durable, the better—and so in other words, the less plastic parts the better off. And so I’m a big fan of paying a little bit more, and buying the sturdier tool and the sturdier equipment and then it lasts forever.

Margaret: I wish I could find it. I swear, I keep wanting to say, “Where’s the secret source for the really serious professional stuff?” Because really it’s not so good, I used to always use a lot of Gardena stuff years ago. They had models that I really loved, but most of those have been discontinued. A lot of things have changed in manufacturing of everything probably.

Daryl: Yeah. Because Gilmore is a big irrigation company, right? What you might have to do is step it up a notch to the commercial-grade stuff, it’s like a lot of sense.

Margaret: I’m going to explore this, good idea.

Daryl: Yeah. If you want to buy equipment for your kitchen like, pots and pans and things like that. The best score is if you can get yourself into a restaurant supply. And you do the same thing, so you could go to like a landscape contracting company, that sells a lot of the materials and irrigation sets and things like that. They’re going to have the more durable stuff. For example, even with other tools like shears and things like that. You spend $150, you don’t spend $30, and then you buy it once and then you’re done. So same kind of thing, so I’m always looking for metal parts and durables.

Margaret: Metal parts, that’s a good tip.

Daryl: So I want it to last much longer, I don’t want to be buying a new one all the time, so that’s kind of it. Because as far as brands go, I mean they all have different lines. They have different levels and different lines, and explore that.

Daryl’s July 9, 2020 webinar with Berkshire Botanical Garden

  • Free Monday evening Q&A (Zoom link and details on his website)
  • Online Fundamentals of Gardening course at NYBG
  • My “New York Times” story with Daryl on composting
  • Our previous interview, on smarter composting
  • enter to win ‘the new gardener’s handbook’

    “The New Gardener’s Handbook” by Daryl Beyers for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

    What is your watering method, and how’s it going? Planning on making any changes?

    No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like, “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Good luck to all.

    (Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

    (Photo credits: All photos and illustrations from “The New Gardener’s Handbook,” used with permission.)

    prefer the podcast version of the show?

    iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


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