Nothing is more important to a garden than water, but the guesswork behind it -- figuring out the amount of water each plant needs and how long to keep the water trained on the greenery -- can make it seem like an endless chore. There are, however, a number of tools that make the job significantly easier.
A drooping plant is the most obvious sign that the garden is thirsty. Some plants begin to sag before others show any sign of dehydration; once you've learned which plants show symptoms earliest, you can use them as a gauge. Test the soil with a finger before watering. Appearances can often trick you; even if the surface is dry, the soil underneath may be perfectly fine.
When you water, it's important to water deeply. It encourages the plants to send roots farther into the soil, which aids them in times of drought, water-use restrictions, or simple neglect. Deep watering means applying at least an inch of water, which will soak the ground to a 6- to 12-inch depth; the amount of time it takes to shower the garden with an inch of water depends on the water pressure and watering method.
If you're using sprinklers, one way to assess how long it takes for an inch to accumulate is to set out a flat-bottomed bucket or a rain gauge to collect the water. Check periodically, and note the length of time that passes before the water measures an inch. You can expect 45 minutes to an hour of watering for a one-inch accumulation. If you've planted anything recently, make sure the transplants receive a little extra water; their roots haven't had a chance to extend deeply into the soil and, as a result, they'll dehydrate much faster.
For spot watering, a watering can allows you to give a pot or plant a quick, direct drenching. It will cost from $20 to $70, depending on material and size; many come with water breakers at the end of the spout to gently and evenly shower the plants.
Gardeners with only small areas to tend may find a handheld hose is their best option. The water is most effectively dispersed from hoses in one of three ways. Adjustable nozzles can be rotated to change the spray from fine to heavy; the best of them are crafted from brass and range in price from $5 to $15. Trigger nozzles, which allow you to control water flow by pulling the trigger, are also adjustable and cost only a couple of dollars more. Watering wands, commonly used in greenhouses, don't offer as much control, but they do dispense a soft spray that drizzles gently over the plants.
The garden hose itself is probably the most important tool of all. Lengths range from 25 to 100 feet; a 50-foot hose should prove adequate for most gardens, although if your garden is small, a 25-foot hose may be a better option. A good quality hose should be soft, flexible, sturdy, and about five-eighths of an inch in width. The best hoses are five-ply, meaning they're made of five layers and are less likely than thinner hoses to kink and restrict water flow. Proper hose fittings are crucial to prevent leakage and should be either brass or crush-proof plastic. When not in use, the hose should be coiled neatly, so it keeps its shape.
For garden areas, sprinklers can be indispensable. They come in two categories: oscillating, or fan, sprinklers and pulsating sprinklers. Oscillating sprinklers cover rectangular areas and can be put to good use in tight garden spots or smaller swaths of lawn. They are adjustable, cover anywhere from 75 to 3,600 square feet, depending on how the arc of the water spray is adjusted, and cost about $28. Pulsating sprinklers, sometimes called impulse sprinklers, throw water in circular patterns. They can be mounted on tripods to reach over the tops of tall perennials and cover a large area -- about 100 feet in diameter -- and are ideal for watering lawns. By making adjustments, you can change the rotation from a full to a partial circle. Pulsating sprinklers cost from $20 to $38.
For the sake of efficiency, Y-connectors, which allow a single hose to feed more than one sprinkler, are available for around $6. Single shut-off valves are handy to have at the end of the hose because they can stop the flow of water to allow the removal or adjustment of sprinklers or nozzles.
We found the 2.5-gallon watering can and six-function trigger nozzle at Kmart.