Ask a Master Gardener: How do I water new plants adequately when restrictions are on?

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 18, 2013 

crimson clover

Crimson clover and other legumes can be used as cover crop in this area, as they obtain their nitrogen from the air and can provide as much nitrogen for your next crops as fertilizer. Legumes need to be tilled into the soil at peak bloom, but before seed has set. Other examples of legumes good in this area are Austrian field peas, hairy vetch, and annual and winter rye.

GARY A. MONROE, USDA — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Question: As a new gardener, I am worried about the water restrictions. Everything I've read says to keep new plants well-watered, so how can I do that if I can't water every day?

Answer: Yes, new plants particularly need to be well-watered for the first year or so. However, being well-watered and watering often aren't the same thing. In fact, the water restrictions may serve you well, as plants vastly prefer deep watering every few days to just sprinkling every day. The point is to get water to the roots, and deep watering does that.

Sprinkle soil for 5 minutes or so, then dig a hole and see how little seeps deeply. So, if on the days you can water, water deeply and long, and water in the early morning. Watering in the heat of the day is wasteful of water, with less going to the plant due to evaporation. Watering in bright sun can also sometimes "sunburn" plants. And watering at night leaves water that might encourage disease on plants. So morning is the best time.

And by all means, investigate an easily installed and relatively cheap drip system or soaker hoses. Also next time you yearn for a plant, think about one that doesn't require too much water.

Q: I want the best results from my garden, and figured it was time to have my soil tested. Where can I have it done?

A: Right on! Soil testing is an easy way to determine how fertile your soil is and to establish a baseline that will help you know what fertilizer and amendments you need to add.

Different labs test for different things, and in different ways, but the most common items included by everyone are the primary nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), secondary nutrients (sulfur, calcium and magnesium), and many of the micro nutrients. Many also measure the pH and often the cation exchange capacity (CEC), which tells you how well your soil will hold and release mineral nutrients.

Many universities with extension services offer soil tests, but here are four regional labs for testing:

• Exact Scientific (Bellingham), 360-733-1205.

• Edge Analytical (Burlington), 360-757-1400.

• Soil Test Farm Consultants (Moses Lake), soiltestlab.com.

• University of Idaho, agls.uidaho.edu.

Fees vary, and when you contact one of the services they will give you exact information on how to collect your samples. When you talk to them, be sure to ask for help in interpreting the report, as it is often hard for a lay person to understand.

Q: My kids have become fascinated by butterflies, and I want to add plants that will attract them to my garden. Can you recommend some?

A: Butterflies (also known as flying flowers!) are one of nature's marvels. Like humans, no two individual butterflies look exactly alike. You can do a great deal to enhance your yard, and increase the chances of seeing butterflies. And not only butterflies, but other pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds.

Milkweed is a butterfly favorite, and essential for swallowtails. Thistles and large, showy flowers make it easy for butterflies to identify nectar sources. Asters, oregano, and lavender are good attractants.

Larger plants, like trees and shrubs, also play a part: Dogwood, Douglas fir, red-flowering currant, salal, and oceanspray all contribute to the presence of butterflies.

What's really great about butterflies is that the plants they like we like, too. It's so good that your kids take an interest in the world around them. You might take your kids to Woodland Park Zoo to see their butterfly raising area. And stay tuned for a Butterfly Park that's coming to Bellingham.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html

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