Tag Archives: water management

Farmers Saving Water: Pulse Irrigation

As much of the world faces hotter summer temperatures and less rainfall, farmers and gardeners are trying to adapt their practices to a changing world. Recently, I listened to an episode of the No-Till Flowers Podcast where podcaster and grower Jennie Love interviewed Emma Horswill of Earthenry Farm, and they covered a technique called pulse watering or pulse irrigation. Love discussed making the switch to this method on her own farm. Though she didn’t believe it would work initially, she started to see positive results quickly after making the switch. While using less water, the soil stayed more moist, and her flowers looked healthier. I was immediately intrigued.

What is Pulse Irrigation?

In traditional irrigation setups, crops are watered infrequently for about one to three hours at a time. The thought is that this allows plenty of time for water to seep deep into the soil. The plants receive a good amount of water during this period encouraging them to send their roots deeper to access the water. In theory, this makes for healthier plants.

In a pulse irrigation setup, the irrigation comes on briefly for about 5 to 15 minutes, 5 to 12 times per day, providing the plants with just enough water as is necessary as they need it. 

The University of Kentucky has done some work studying this method. Richard Warner of the UK’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department found that when measuring watering on standard plots, even just 30 minutes of irrigation led to “…a significant amount of water and applied fertilizers that the plant did not use.” Alternatively, pulse irrigation should provide just enough water and fertilizers for the plant to take up at one time and can help eliminate this waste.

Just a small reduction in water usage can greatly impact growers. Timothy Coolong, a UK extension vegetable specialist, noted, “A 20 percent reduction in water usage could be substantial for vegetable farmers in Kentucky, as one acre of staked tomatoes on black plastic can use nearly 500,000 gallons of water a season.” In other words, that 20% reduction would lead to about 100,000 gallons of water saved on just a single acre, a tremendous benefit for farmers and the environment. 

A sand flower garden with sunflowers and pulse drip irrigation
This photo (not at SESE) shows a portion of a sand garden using the drip feed pulse system to operate a drip-line to water the entire garden. The total output is 1 gallon per hour going to 82 drip points (1/82 gallon per hour to each drip point).


Reducing the cost of watering aside, it seems there may be several advantages to a pulse irrigation system. Here are a few of the possible benefits of pulse irrigation:

  • Reduced fertilizer use and expense.
  • Less fertilizer seeping into groundwater or running off in local waterways.
  • Less nutrient leaching, especially in sandy soils.
  • Less runoff, particularly in heavy clay soils.


While it may sound great, there are, of course, a few disadvantages to these systems:

  • Growers must purchase a system or may need to modify an existing irrigation system.
  • Pulse systems usually require good water pressure.
  • Light watering may lead to salt buildup over time, so heavy watering may occasionally be necessary.

Pulse irrigation may not be perfect for every small farm or garden, but it is certainly interesting to see how growers can adapt their practices to cope with climate change. If you’re not ready for pulse irrigation but still want to build your garden’s resiliency, we encourage you to save seed and practice water-wise gardening techniques. When possible, water in the early morning or evening and mulch around plants.

How Much Water Does My Vegetable Garden Need?

Good water management is one of the keys to good production. Over and under-watering can both be detrimental to your vegetable plants, and the symptoms may be surprising. For example, blossom end rot in tomatoes and peppers may actually be a symptom of too much or too little moisture. These plants will struggle to take up enough calcium under these conditions. So how much do you need to water your vegetable garden? This post will cover general guidelines and specific situations for ensuring your crops get what they need.

General Watering Guidelines

Generally speaking, most gardens require an average of 1 to 2 inches of water per week. This amount can come from rain or watering. Placing a few containers throughout your garden with 1 inch marked on them can help you see how much water your garden is getting while it’s raining or you’re running a sprinkler.

That said, you should always check your soil before making assumptions. In cool or very humid climates, you may need less water. You may need more in arid climates, hot periods, or with certain water-hungry crops. A tip for hot weather is that most gardens will need an extra 1/2 inch of water for every 10 degrees above 60°F.

When Should I Water?

You should aim to break up that 1 to 2 inches per week into at least three sessions throughout the week, depending on weather conditions. For best results, water in the early morning or evening when it’s cooler and less water will evaporate.

How to Tell If My Soil Is Moist Enough?

When checking your soil, dig down a couple of inches. The soil may be dry on top and very wet below. Mulch can help prevent the surface of the soil from drying and crusting. The opposite can be true after watering; just because the surface is wet doesn’t mean you’ve watered enough to soak into the bed.

Hand Test

You can grab a handful of soil (not just from the surface) and do a quick check. Squeeze the handful of soil and then open your hand. If the soil falls apart, it’s probably still too dry. If it mostly clumps together, you have enough moisture. If water dripped from your hand while you squeezed, you probably overwatered.

Moisture Meters

They’re not necessary for home gardeners, but if you need help with watering or want to get a bit more scientific about your approach, you can try a moisture meter. Many now provide moisture levels on a scale of 1 to 10, helping you quickly determine when to drag out the sprinkler.

Germinating Seeds

Seeds require consistent moisture to germinate properly. I recommend checking on your soil daily while seeds are germinating, depending on weather conditions. Remember that seeds planted deeply, like peas and beans, may dry out less quickly than tiny seeds, like carrots and lettuce planted close to the surface.

For some small seeds, use the board or cardboard trick to keep the soil moist. Using this method, you cover the bed with boards or cardboard to retain moisture. Carefully watch the bed and remove the cardboard when the seedlings sprout.

Person harvesting banana peppersCheck Plant Guidelines

If you have a water scarcity, focus your watering where it matters most. Some plants like tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, eggplants, and squash need a lot of water to produce well. On the other hand, crops like dent corn, amaranth, mustard greens, pole beans, and okra are generally fairly drought-tolerant once established.

You should also stop watering before harvesting some crops. For example, dent corn and dry beans don’t need water as they finish drying. You should also stop watering onions and garlic a week or two before harvesting.

How to Conserve Water

Folks living in arid areas or those with high water bills may find consistent watering to be more of a challenge. Mulching is one of the best ways to help hold moisture in the soil, and you can often find mulch material for free. Use glass clippings, straw, old leaves, or shredded paper around plants.

You can also start trying to catch and hold water on your property. Rain barrels make excellent additions to garden sheds or even gutters on your home. Some places may also allow you to use gray water from sinks, showers, and washers, but you’ll need to be very careful about the products you put down the drain. You can also take a permaculture approach and add swales to your property. Swales are essentially large ditches that catch rainwater uphill of your garden, slowly releasing it into the beds rather than letting it run quickly over the property.

Proper water management can help you have a more productive garden and save money and energy. Follow these guidelines to keep your soil moist, grow healthy plants, and conserve water in your vegetable garden.

Heat Stress in Plants

We’re into the hottest days of summer now. For many, it’s a bountiful time of year. You may be harvesting armloads of summer squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and other favorites at this point in the season. Unfortunately, you may also begin to spot signs of heat stress in your plants, especially if you live in an area affected by prolonged heat waves. Recognizing heat stress and knowing how to prevent and stop it can improve your harvest.

What Does Heat Stress Look Like?

Heat stress can look different depending on the plant and local conditions. Here are a few common features you might see if plants in your garden are stressed.


Bolting is when a plant goes to flower and usually becomes bitter and inedible. While bolting is a natural part of many crops’ life cycles, premature bolting is often a sign of heat stress. In hot weather, you may notice your broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, and spinach bolting.


While dropping leaves can also be a sign of disease, it’s often a sign of heat stress. If your plants droop during the heat of the day but perk back up in the evening, it’s probably the heat.

Blossom and Fruit Drop

Plants may drop fruit and blossoms in extreme heat to conserve resources for survival. You may also notice misshapen or unreformed fruit like cucumbers. Often these plants will recover after a heat wave passes.


Some crops, particularly tomatoes, melons, and peppers, may develop sun scald on the side of the fruit exposed to the sun. This may look like watery spots, blistering, or discolored spots. It often occurs in plants that have lost much of their foliage to disease. 

Blossom End Rot and Other Disease Issues

Blossom end rot can be annoying when you grab a tomato that looks perfect on top and has a big black sunken spot on the bottom. While many will tell you that blossom end rot is a calcium issue, and that is true, it can be caused by heat stress. When stressed, plants can fail to take up enough calcium for fruit production even when it’s available in the soil. 

Other disease issues may also become more prevalent. Think of a stressed plant as a person with a weak immune system. They’ll be more susceptible to disease if they’re already fighting to survive.

How Do I Prevent Heat Stress?

While you can’t change the temperature, you can help your plants in other ways. Here’s how to prevent heat stress in your garden.

Keep Up With Weeding

When it’s hot in the summer, weeding is no one’s favorite task, but it is essential, particularly during these periods. Weeds compete with your plants for moisture and nutrients, putting extra stress on them. 


Once your garden is weeded, it’s time to apply mulch. Mulch is a simple way to insulate the soil keeping the soil cool and moist. It’s essential around young, and shallow-rooted plants as the top few inches of soil can heat up quickly.


Especially in times of high heat, water consistently if possible. Watering deeply in the morning is ideal because it allows the water to soak in and not evaporate. However, if you notice dry, stressed plants, water them immediately. Watering the roots either by hand or with soaker hoses or irrigation will save water compared to overhead watering.

Provide Some Shade

Especially with cool-season crops, it can be a good idea to create some shade in the summer heat. You can use tulle or row cover to provide shade. You can also use taller crops like corn, pole beans, or sunflowers to offer a bit of shade to shorter crops. Shading the soil with vining plants like squash and cucumbers keeps the soil cooler for taller crops like sunflowers and corn.

Also, spots in your garden that don’t receive full sun may be an excellent space for summer greens. The morning sun tends to be much gentler than the afternoon sun. 

Don’t Plant, Transplant, or Prune

These activities are stressful for plants and are best done in cooler weather. If you need to transplant, do so in the evening or on an overcast day. You may also want to provide transplants with artificial shade. 

Harvest in Cool Weather

Your produce will stay fresh much longer if you harvest in the early morning or evening. Plus, it will be much easier on you! If you must harvest in hotter parts of the day and are going to harvest greens, bring along a bucket of ice water. Immediately plunging greens into the ice water will help them stay crisp and fresh.

Beating the heat isn’t always easy when you’re a gardener! Thankfully, these tips should allow you to keep your plants healthy through the heat of July and August.