3 keys to success Watering

Assumptions/Watering/Onions and Most other Vegetables/3 keys

Since I first started TendingMyGarden.com in 2010, one of the things that I’ve found to be strong within gardeners is the urge to water.

The urge is so strong that unless someone literally has no way of watering (other than maybe hauling an occasional watering can to a plant – like my situation) they never really know what the plants will or can do.

In this age of marketing, we’ve been programmed to think we have to water in order to garden.

And it’s easy to make wrong assumptions based on what you see taking place, but not really knowing all the variables involved.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

A friend who lives about a mile from me visited yesterday. We walked through the garden and talked about how the almanac called for more dry weather in this area.

A few days ago, even though she uses mulch, my friend felt it necessary to water her onions and some other vegetables in the garden. They really perked up and seemed to “grow” a bit over night. Of course she attributed that to the watering.

As we continued our conversation, it turns out that the same time her onions perked up overnight, was exactly the same time mine perked up and also seemed to grow some. Except mine were not watered. (I’ve not watered onions EVER in the almost 40 years I’ve been growing them.)

Nothing Wrong with Watering especially if –

  • you have good water,
  • the means to water at ground level and water deeply,
  • and water only when needed.

The “when needed” part is probably where most gardeners miss the mark.

If you’re gardening with nature and using the 3 keys (deep soil preparation, adding organic matter/materials, covering the soil) in almost all cases it will be very seldom, if ever, that you need to water.

I’m living proof that’s true. But there’s plenty of documented proof as well.

Here are a few facts that I covered in a previous post:

  • Working with nature (using the 3 keys) will allow you to garden with 67% to 88% LESS water.
  • Only 20 inches of rain per year can produce the “best yields in the world” when working with nature.
  • Soil that has been deeply prepared will have the capacity to hold 25% of its volume in water. For example: 24 inches of deeply prepared soil can hold 6 inches of water.
  • Covering your soil (shading your soil) reduces evaporation by 13 to 63%.
  • Once your soil is improved to have the right nutrients, plants transpire (give off) 10 to 75% LESS water.
  • Having only 2% organic matter will reduce the water needs of plants by 75%!

For example: if the soil has 1/2% organic matter a plant may use 200 gallons of water. At 1% organic matter it would need 150 gallons of water. But at 2% organic matter the plant would need about 50 gallons, which is 75% less than the 200 gallons.

Final Thought

If we’re working in harmony with nature,  the water needed to grow a pound of food is reduced to about 3% of what is normally required (in conventional gardening/farming). That being the case, the vast majority would never really need to water.


Suggested Reading:

3 Keys to Successful Gardening – More Proof They Work

Needs One Inch of Rain a Week. Oh Yeah?

Watering. It’s Overrated.


All content including photos is copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com.  All Rights Reserved.


  • Thank you for your columns and book. I have a question about using straw as a mulch. Following your advice I am mulching with (organic) (not hay) in my raised beds. How do you handle the grassy weeds that come up from the seeds in the straw.

  • I have easy access to water and have used soaker hose under my mulch for years. The longer I have had the system, the less I use it but the longer I leave it on. I mulch heavily and as long as the lower layer is moist I don’t water. The interesting fact is that different areas in the same soaker line show different need for water. Working on that issue.

    Happy gardening
    Ray Kent

  • Great info. I tried that with my garden last year. Unfortunately, I lost three blueberry bushes and a huckleberry. I will have to reassess my knowledge and technique. I don’t know if it has to do with our 4 months of no rain and no humidity or something else I’m not doing right…?

  • Barbara, it’s wonderful that you were able to have access to organic straw. Few folks that I know are able to get it. For others reading, here’s the post I wrote on that –http://tendingmygarden.com/garden-mulch-straw-does-it-have-to-be-organic-to-be-safe/

    I am going to assume that your straw is the wheat stubble since you said “grassy weeds”. If the farmer is able to harvest on time and assuming all equipment is working as it should, the seeds of the wheat will NOT be in the straw. Over the years I’ve had that happen to me a couple of times, It’s a nuisance and I didn’t like it, but I just pulled it out when I saw it. Fortunately for me I’ve only experienced that a couple of times.

    Ray, I have a feeling that just about every gardener has that problem. I have sections (especially where those invasive root are that I speak of all the time) that are absolutely bone dry in the summer.
    Every so many feet over the entire garden seems to have its own microclimate.

    Toni, you said “you tried that”. I’m not sure what you meant. I think you’ve mulched and added organic material to your soil for years, so I figure that’s not what you’re meaning?

    Four months (even 2 months) of no rain definitely qualifies as a time to water if you have the means or ways to do it.. I’ve experienced droughts up to 12 or 13 weeks — but not 4 months. If I had had the means or easy access to good water I would have watered deeply after 2 months of drought. But I didn’t. Most things made it through ok unless I had just planted and then they couldn’t get water after that.

    Blueberries have shallow roots. After late winter or early spring rains I try to mulch mine very heavily to keep that rain available when they need it. This year, we’ve had a dry spring, so I may not get the fruit production I usually get.

    Working with nature gives things a better chance of survival, but in a severe drought like it seems you’ve experienced, it would be normal to lose some things if you didn’t water. And sometimes,
    since municipal water is not always what it should be, and certainly not like rain, you could lose things anyway.

    Let me know if this helps.

  • Theresa, good soil does make all the difference! I wanted to mention a somewhat radical concept that helps with water retention in the soil: hugelkultur. Traditionally, this involves burying logs in the ground and covering them with soil. The logs retain significant amounts of water over a long period of time. I have done modified hugelkultur by just burying pieces of wood, spent sunflowers, anything with lots of carbon. It seems to help, at least over the next season. Small pieces will decompose more quickly than logs.

    Summer seems to arrive here with daily highs in the upper 80’s. This is a timely piece, Theresa!


  • Good input Pat.
    I don’t consider hugelkultur radical. It’s just one of the many ways to introduce organic material into the soil and organic materials/ organic matter can easily double the water capacity in the soil.
    And as you said there are many ways to modify the concept to suit the situation.
    Thanks for taking time to post your experience.

  • We have been using a modified “hugelcultur” by getting pickup truck loads of sawdust (hardwood)from our local sawmill and putting about 4″ in our paths to keep weeds down. Then the next spring, we scrape and shovel all the rotted sawdust into the beds and stir it in the top 6 inches. It is always full of huge red wiglers that came from a worm operation we had years ago. We have been doing this for about 4-5 years and our soil in all 22 beds is like potting soil and full of worms. We don’t even have to work it up before we plant in the spring, just make a furrow and drop in the seeds. I also cover the beds with straw in the fall for winter worm protection and food. Also for summer mulch.

    I can send you a picture if you would like – I don’t see how to include one in this comment area.

  • Lindi, sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job. I’d love to see a picture. I never have figured out how to include a picture in the comment section though. But you could email me.

    Working with nature makes things so easy. Every Spring, as I see conventional gardeners go through the tilling (and all the other work they do that’s unnecessary when you work with nature), I’m so glad I don’t have to do all that. I couldn’t handle the amount I have if I had all their tasks to do.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Hello! Just discovered your site and have found lots of interesting reading material. This is my first year having a vegetable garden and my first year in Western NC (south of Asheville, elevation 2200 ft). As my yard is small I am growing everything in fabric gro-bags. I wonder if you might post something on container gardening, specifically watering needs or direct me to a link? Have researched a lot, but just not finding the answers. Having trouble determining how much to water. Seems most days if I don’t water many of the plants, like my tomatoes, are drooping. But I worry I’m watering too much! Two tomato plants and both have green tomatoes and more blossoms. Thanks!

  • Hi Jane. Welcome to TMG.
    I do very little container growing. But there are two posts on TMG that will have information that might help you. The watering is also addressed.



    I don’t know all the details of your situation, but I do know that if you have to water everyday you’re doing something incorrectly. This post might be helpful:http://tendingmygarden.com/one-reason-plants-wilt-and-actions-that-help/

    You shared very little information. Some questions that came to mind right away were:
    Are you growing organically?
    What medium are you growing in?
    How are you providing nutrients for your plants? I take the same approach with my growbags that I take with my soil, as you will read in the posts.
    I seldom watered with that watering can I spoke of in the post.

    Hope this will help you.


  • Hello Theresa and thanks for the speedy response and the links. Potting soil is what I used in the pots (mostly Miracle-Gro). About once a week I am feeding with Miracle-Gro All Purpose plant food (mix with water). I am growing one large pot (felt gro-bags) each of pole beans, sugar snap peas, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Grew the strawberries in hanging bags. Everything gets at least 8 hours of full sun. Have not used any non-organic pest control. The strawberry and pea harvest seems to be over – was very early. I figured it was because of the crazy “spring” (winter!) weather we had so late and then sudden heat. I have lots of green tomatoes and the beans are just beginning to show (have harvested a handful or so). Without rain, the tomatoes are the first to wilt and seem to do so quickly unless they are watered almost daily. I’ve heard too much water makes them mushy so don’t want that!

  • Jane, with the tiny bit of additional information you’ve given me, I’m already beginning to see part of your problem. After reading what I have to say here, and every link I gave you previously and in this reply — you can make more of a decision about which way you’d like to go. If you want to take the organic path (and I mean in the true “spirit of law” rather than the “letter of the law”), it will take you some time to make the changes. Bottom line — don’t be discouraged by that. In the end you’ll have food with good (real) nutritional value.

    Miracle-Gro is chemical. It is in no way organic even if their products say organic on the package. Here are two links that will give you more information to help you decide what you might want to do regarding it’s use.



    Miracle-Gro does not supply real nutrients. It’s chemical. There is no way chemicals can take the place of what nature does. In nature – the soil life is fed with “real” organic materials and they in turn feed the plants.

    That’s more than likely a good part of the problem with you tomatoes. In almost 40 years of growing tomatoes and having severe drought in about 30 of those years (4 to 10 weeks without rain), I’ve NEVER HAD TOMATOES WILT – EVER!

    After giving all this information some thought, let me know your thoughts.

  • Amazing information. I’m a little hesitant to try not watering. I live in high mountain desert where it reaches mid to high nineties most days and get about 13 inches of precipitation per year, including snow. We may go without measurable water for a good 4-5 months. I have a drip line system set up and things seem to need watering everyday. I haven’t used mulch a lot because when I have the voles eat my root crops. One year I got very few beets, potatoes or carrots because of rodents. The veggies were pretty much eaten. Do you ever have this problem, and how would you deal with it? How do I know how much to water? Thanks.

  • Lisa, since you live in the high desert region with only 13 inches of rain you’ll need to water “some”. Without mulch, I don’t know how you can hold any water — or even organic matter – in your soil.

    And yes, voles are awful and do lots of damage if not kept in check.

    This post will give you the proof that you can still keep watering to a minimum even in the high desert:

    This will give you watering guidelines:

    These 3 will tell you how to keep voles under control:




  • Hi Theresa,
    How much watering would you use for a raised garden? I find that my beds really have a tendency to dry out in the summer heat even with leaf mulch on top.
    This year I have found that my blueberries I left in the ground never needed watering but the ones that I had in the raised beds started to shrivel if I didn’t keep them watered.
    Thanks for all your insights.

  • Hi Heather,

    Am I correct in assuming that by raised beds your definition is
    *beds that have framed edges
    *have had some type of soil or growing medium added to them
    *and did not have the ground “prepared” (the 1st key to success)?

    If so, they’re like container gardening and as you already know they dry out quickly even with mulch and have to be watered. It’s part of their maintenance.
    I addressed this in the post:

    I have naturally raised in-ground beds with NO frames. They are about 2 to 3 inches higher than the paths. And as you know I never water.

    Container gardening (or the raised beds that I think you have) can never give you the advantages of in ground gardening. For example: holding the water you need to get you through the summer. You already know that from your blueberry bushes.
    This post will give you guidelines to help you determine when to water:
    Hope this helps Heather.

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