“April showers bring May flowers.” Where? Not here. I had many years of gardening under my belt before I realized the falsity of that little saying. Yes, it happens to be raining as I write these words at the end of April. But generally, April is dry, and today’s rain amounted to a mere quarter-inch.
For years, I would sow radishes, lettuce, arugula and other early, cool-season vegetables in April, and figure that “April showers” would take care of watering needs – which they did not. With frosts still likely around here, April was too early to get the drip irrigation going. So watering vegetable beds requires tedious lugging of hoses, making sure, as I pull on them, not to knock over plants or mess up carefully formed beds.
Hand-watering also required patience. A light sprinkling of the ground does nothing but wet the surface fraction of an inch. If you care to know, the amount of water needed to wet a soil about six inches deep is three-quarters of a gallon per square foot or, equivalently, a one-inch depth of water. And said water needs to be applied slowly enough to percolate into the ground rather than running off elsewhere.
Fortunately, with cool temperatures and plant growth only just beginning, much of the moisture from previous months’ rain and snow still sits in the soil. The surface often looks dry while moisture is sufficient below. So all that’s needed is to keep the soil moist from the surface to a depth where the ground is still moist.
Eyes or the gut are not reliable indicators of when to water. Sometimes I’ll just poke my finger into the ground to assess moisture level. But does it really feel wet, or does the soil feel cool because it’s April?
All that are needed are your hands for the more accurate “feel method” of soil-moisture determination. For this method, you need to know your soil’s texture – that is, is the soil a sand, a loam or a clay? Crumbling it, feeling its slickness and attempting to form it into a ball or a ribbon gives some indication, depending on the texture, of moisture content (see www.ext.colostate.edu/sam/moisture.pdf for details).
All sorts of high-tech soil-moisture measuring devices are available: electrical resistance blocks, tensiometer, time domain reflectometer, neutron probe and more – all beyond the wallet and accuracy required by most gardeners.
On the other hand, inexpensive soil-moisture meters are readily available. What they lack in accuracy they make up for in convenience. Sliding the thin metal rod into the ground gives a pretty good qualitative measure of moisture anywhere from just below the surface to the length of the rod, which, depending on the device, is eight to 12 inches.
Watering is an important key to success in gardening, and for $10 to $50, these relatively accurate moisture meters are well-worth the money. The more expensive monitors previously mentioned can be left in the ground. The inexpensive meters must be removed and their probes cleaned after each measurement.
Even if April showers do not bring May flowers, April – the month – does bring a few May flowers, but mostly flowers in June and beyond. That’s because April is the month when I sow many flowers for transplanting out into the garden after warm weather settles in. On the slate for this year are Lemon Gem marigold, sunflowers of all stripes, chamomile, moonflower, morning glory… (Where am I going to plant all these flowers? Spring’s got a hold on me.)
“April showers bring May flowers” really does have some truth to it — if you’re in the UK, where the rhyme originated. There, the northward-moving jet stream picks up more and more moisture as it travels across the Atlantic Ocean; the result is rain by the time the winds reach the UK. (On this side of the “Pond,” the jet stream, traveling across land, has picked up relatively little moisture.)
So Thomas Tusser, who allegedly penned “Sweet April showers/Do spring May flowers” in the 16th century (in A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry), was not wrong, for Great Britain. Here, we have to water in April – but not too much.
Join me for a Drip Irrigation Workshop at the Phillies Bridge Farm Project in New Paltz on Saturday, May 14 from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Learn how drip saves 60 percent in watering, why drip keeps plants healthier and how it saves you time by reducing weeding and being easily automated. This workshop will include a hands-on design and installation of a drip system. The cost is $57. Registration is necessary. For more information and registration, go to www.leereich.com/workshops.
Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at [email protected] and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, visit our website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.