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Is watering our garden during winter the new reality?

“Day after day one looked up to skies of enameled blue, praying for rain. But no rain came.”

— Beverley Nichols, “Down the Garden Path,” 1932

For English writer and fledgling gardener Beverley Nichols, the lack of rain during his first summer at the Tudor cottage in Glatton was nerve-wracking. He watched his roses droop their exhausted flowerheads and his pansies protrude “purple tongues over the crumbling earth, demanding mercy.”

Nichols writes, “For several anxious weeks, I scrambled about the neighborhood in search of water.” He found a pond “in a distant field, which was often raided at dusk, when its owner was safely in the local pub.”

He and his friends would steal through the field, carrying their pails back and forth and assuaging their guilt by “thinking always of the dry, dying roots which we were so soon to succor.”

What Nichols called a boyish adventure in 1932 would certainly land him in legal trouble or at the end of his neighbor’s shotgun today. Last fall, the Mail Tribune reported water theft has become a big concern in recent years, exacerbated by drought conditions caused by the lowest levels of precipitation that our region has experienced in a century.

Unfortunately, the water situation for 2022 is looking no better. After promising levels of rain and snowfall in December, the National Weather Service reported only half an inch of rain in January, 2.11 inches below average. No measurable snowfall was recorded in January, which so far leaves Medford well below the average annual snowfall level of 4 inches.

As I’m writing this week, there’s a hopeful 60% chance of rain Monday, but I’ll reserve my exuberance since previous predictions for rain have fizzled. The last time my garden got water from the sky was Christmas Day.

Is watering our garden during winter the new reality?

The answer to that question is nebulous, like so much else related to weather as climactic conditions shift from relatively stable patterns that defined the Holocene epoch to more erratic and extreme weather variations of the Anthropocene. Gardeners must be vigilant and as prepared as possible for extended dry periods, as well as deluges that can drown our precious plants as surely as triple-digit temperatures can fry them.

However, before turning on our automatic drip systems or dragging around the watering hose during winter (either of which could easily freeze up during cold nights), it’s prudent to go out to the garden and test the soil. A moisture meter is an essential gardening tool, and I recommend investing in a meter with various probe lengths — 6 inches to test soil for shallow-rooted vegetable plants, 12 inches for herbaceous perennials, and 24 inches to test soil for established shrubs and trees.

You might be surprised to learn that below the dryer topsoil the soil is moist, particularly if the soil has a lot of clay in it. If you’ve been following my advice and applying about 4 inches of mulch around your plants, then you’ll find moister soil underneath.

Another factor is the depth of the water table on your land. Our property in Medford has a high water table, which is why our sump pump beneath the house is still draining water even though it’s hasn’t rained in several weeks.

On the other hand, it’s a mistake to assume that plants don’t need water if they are dormant. They are still performing basic metabolic functions during the winter, so the plant roots need to continue drawing moisture from the soil to keep them healthy. This is especially true for shallow-rooted lawn grass and herbaceous perennials in dormancy, which often don’t show evidence of damage until summertime when their weakened state lowers their resiliency against heat and insect pests.

Of course, our winter vegetable gardens must continue to have about an inch of water per week, either from rain or irrigation, in order to stay healthy and produce food. Set a clean tuna fish can in the soil and water the garden twice a week until the can fills about halfway during each watering.

Don’t forget about your outdoor potted plants, which dry out faster than those planted in the ground.

Although established trees and shrubs often have deeper root systems, they will benefit from a thorough watering within the root zone if the soil is dry. Pay particular attention to trees and shrubs that were planted last year as consistently available water is important if they are to establish successfully.

The best time to water is when the temperature rises above 40 degrees, which lately has been around mid-morning. This gives the plant roots several hours to absorb moisture before nighttime freezing temperatures set in. I learned that judicious winter watering can actually protect plant roots from freezing by trapping in heat, much like a container of water placed in a greenhouse traps heat during the day and releases it slowly at night, keeping air in the greenhouse warmer.

For winter vegetable gardens, covering the plants at night also helps to retain daytime warmth.

Watering our gardens during the winter may be the new normal, which means we will need to be even more cautious about our water usage during the dry months of summer. Pilfering water from your neighbor’s pond is highly discouraged.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.