Ants in the Garden: Both Friends and Enemies

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If you garden, you’ll certainly run into ants. They are everywhere! Different species occur on all the continents except Antarctica and in all imaginable environments, from deserts to swamps and from the tropics to the frozen North. While some people are horrified by their presence and insist on eliminating them at all costs, a wise gardener will learn to tolerate them, reacting only when they cause a real problem.

It’s important to understand that ants are both beneficial and harmful … and for the most part, it’s the beneficial side that takes precedence.

On the Plus Side

Ants as Predators

Few gardeners suspect the major effect the ants wandering their yard can have on other garden pests. If your garden is not being overrun by aphids and caterpillars, it’s often because the local ant population has been nipping such infestations in the bud. Many ants are predatory and avidly hunt small insects and other creatures: flea beetles, earwigs, slugs, etc. Or eat their prey’s eggs, keeping populations down. Some plants (the peony is the best-known example) even offer nectar and other resources to ants, because their presence repels insects that can harm them. In former times, farmers used to encourage the presence of anthills in their fields as protection against the really serious pests.

Ants as Bird Food

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is particularly fond of ants. Video: Pets, Animals, Travel, Docs, & Rare Musical Stuff, http://www.youtube.com

Ants help a lot of useful animals indirectly by serving as a food source. All sorts of insect-eating birds, including woodpeckers, grouse and wrens, feed on ants, and so do other animals: toads, lizards, shrews, and many, many more. And we want these insectivores in our gardens, as they keep other pests under control. So if you can tolerate ants, just their presence helps maintain a healthy population of pest eaters.

Detritivores

If you take the trouble to observe ants, you’ll see them carrying all sorts of “junk” back to their nests: petals from faded flowers, dead insects, weed seeds, etc. They are, in fact, Mother Nature’s cleanup crew, like mini vacuum cleaners! Carpenter ants go even further and help decompose dead wood (stumps, roots, etc.), not only by digging tunnels into the wood, but also by transporting fungi and bacteria that contribute further to the wood’s decomposition. That way, they free up space for other cultures.

Soil Aerators

As they dig their tunnels, the ants aerate the soil. Photo: colleen721, DeviantArt

Most anthills are above ground where you can see them, but what you don’t see as easily is the whole series of galleries ants dig underground as they tunnel to often quite impressive depths and distances. These tunnels improve air and water circulation to plant roots and are therefore a plus for your garden.

The Downside of Ants

So, ants can be very useful to our gardens, but sometimes they cause trouble too.

Ants Indoors

Nobody wants to see ants inside the house. Photo: http://www.consumerreports.org

Whatever good ants may do outdoors, they are not wanted indoors. When ants wander into your home, you have every right to want to drive them away, even if they only steal a few crumbs from the pantry.

But food theft is probably the least of your worries. What you really don’t want indoors are carpenter ants. They can be a real nuisance indoors, as they don’t see the difference between an old stump you don’t mind them helping to decompose and the wood that holds your house upright. Their tunnels and nests can so serious damage … and they are very hard to eliminate. This is the kind of situation serious enough that you may want to call in an exterminator.

Farmer Ants

Some ants actually raise and care for aphids. Photo: http://www.planetnatural.com

The same ants that protect our garden plants from some insects and pests may also be raising others on the side. Such is the case with some sucking insects such as aphids, scale insects and mealybugs. These insects secrete a sweet liquid called honeydew that ants love. They go so far as to milk (figuratively speaking) sucking insects to stimulate a greater production of honeydew. They’ll defend these “insect cows” against their predators (ladybugs, lacewings, hoverfly larvae, etc.) and can even transport their food source from one plant to another to start a new colony. 

There is at least one advantage to this ant husbandry: it often leads you to discover where the sucking insects are hiding. If you see a procession of ants climbing into a tree or shrub, don’t kill the ants: they’re the courier, not the problem! But 10 to 1 there are sucking insects of some sort in the branches above you may want treat.

Stinging Ants

Note the stinger at the end of this fire ant’s abdomen. Photo: http://www.npr.org

Then there is the problem of stinging ants, species that you would not want to have in your gardens because of their aggressive nature and their painful sting. 

Now, many ants will bite with their mandibles if you bother their nest, but usually you can simply brush them off, no serious harm done. But stinging ants have a stinger like a wasp or a bee and they don’t hesitate to use it both on humans and pets. They tend to be naturally aggressive and it doesn’t take much to annoy them. Mowing the lawn, weeding the garden or hanging clothes on the line near one of their nests may become unthinkable and you certainly won’t be able to let children play outdoors when they are around.

The fire ant is a tiny reddish ant that doesn’t look that impressive, but its size belies its aggressive nature. Photo: Scott Bauer, Wikimedia Commons

The most famous stinging ant is the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), also called the red imported fire ant (RIFA). This tiny reddish ant was introduced by accident to the United States from South America in the 1930s and spread rapidly throughout the south of the country. It’s limited in its northward expansion because of its inability to tolerate cold winters. Still, give it a mild winter or two and it will move well up into more temperate areas. It is now also found in Asia (Hong Kong is experiencing a major infestation), in Australia and in the Caribbean. 

Fire ants are becoming a planetary issue as they migrate from country to country. Ill.: James Wetterer, Wikimedia Commons

The fire ant is considered one of the worst invasive species on the planet. It is very aggressive towards humans and pets, racing out its nest by the hundreds if you manage to step on it. When it stings you, you’ll know why it’s called “fire ant”: the burning sensation is excruciating. It actually injects venom when it stings, like a wasp, causing skin rashes, blisters and pustules. Sometimes people end up in the hospital. And a very few, unfortunately, are allergic to the stings and need immediate treatment for anaphylactic shock or they can die.

This European red ant was photographed in Vancouver, Canada. It’s come a long way from its home in Western Europe! Photo: Sean McCann, http://www.flickr.com

Another stinging ant is the red ant or European red ant (Myrmica rubra), common throughout most of Europe, including Great Britain. It’s a very nasty ant, but its stings aren’t nearly as serious as those of the fire ant. Unfortunately, the press has taken to calling it European fire ant, leading people to confound the two. (“Fire ant” just sounds so much more dramatic that “red ant,” doesn’t it?)

Distribution of the European red ant. Ill.: James Wetterer, Wikimedia Commons

It too has taken to traveling and was apparently imported accidentally to Maine over 50 years ago. A much hardier ant, it can survive Scandinavian winters in the wild, so there is not much to stop it in the US and Canada where it’s established here and there, notably in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington D. C., Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It has has shown up most recently in Washington and British Columbia.

Because of their dangerousness, neither the true fire ant nor the European red ant should be allowed free rein in any garden. Both, too, are very hard to eliminate, as they tend to make multiple nests that cover large areas, so you’ll have several nests to control, some often in a neighbor’s garden.

With stinging ants, the best treatment is to call in an exterminator.

Controlling Ordinary Garden Ants

Returning to more typical garden ants, the ones that aren’t threatening to humans: in most cases, it’s best to simply learn to live with them. At mentioned at the beginning of this article, they tend to be more beneficial than harmful. And you’ll never get rid of them all anyway. Even if you wipe out a few colonies, more will move in. So, live and let live: that’s the attitude a good laidback gardener should take.

In the rare cases where ants really cause you problems and you absolutely need to eliminate an anthill, any hardware store or garden center will offer you a wide range of ant control products you can use. In most cases, the active ingredient is boron, a natural element that is toxic only at high doses. The secret to using boron is that the bait should only contain only a weak dose. That way the worker ant won’t be poisoned and can safely carry it back to the nest, which is what you want. With workers feeding the queen small amounts of poison on a regular basis, she eventually dies and then the colony disappears.

When boron is mixed with sugar, ants don’t seem to realize they’re carrying home a poison. Photo: http://www.indiamart.com

If you prefer a homemade recipe, mix try mixing 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of borax (a cleaning product sold in supermarkets and supermarkets) or of boric acid (a sterilizer sold in pharmacies) with an equal amount of icing sugar. Pour the mixture into a container so that the bait is protected from the rain (for example, an empty soda or beer can) and place it near the nest you want to eliminate. The ants will find the sugar and carry it back to their queen without noticing that it is tainted with boron.

Boron treatments take three to four weeks to be effective, so you have to be patient.


Ants: sometimes they’re our friends, sometimes they’re our enemies, but in most cases, you really don’t need to control them.

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Garden Your Way to a Longer Life

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You’ve probably heard that gardeners tend to live longer than the average. I know I have. But did you know this is not just a belief, but there seems to be plenty of scientific evidence to back it up?

Studies done in areas of the world where people frequently live longer than average, to the point where centenarians are not uncommon, show that the local population shares a lot of traits. Among others, they eat well (lots of fresh vegetables, little meat), have healthy exercise habits and benefit from a good social support system. And many of them garden.

Seniors in Okinawa, Japan, the area in the world with the world’s highest ratio of centenarians, tend to garden until very late in life. According to Dr. Bradley Cox of the University of Hawaii, gardening tends to give them ikigai, a reason for living. They also benefit from yuimaru, or a high level of social connectedness in gardening, when they share their produce and interact with other people.

Gardening socially appears to be even better for your health than gardening on your own. Photo: vtnews.vt.edu

Another study done at Harvard University shows that people who were surrounded by lush greenery lived longer, with a lower chance of developing cancer or respiratory illnesses.

Australian researchers concluded that people who gardened regularly have a 36% lower risk of dementia that people who didn’t garden.

And in a Dutch study, which compared light gardening to reading, participants were exposed to a stressful activity, then asked to read quietly indoors or do a bit of gardening. They had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after a 30-minute gardening session, while it actually went up in readers. Gardeners also said they felt “fully restored” to a good mood.

No one is denying that genetics are a major factor in longevity or that there is still much to be discovered about aging in good health, but if you’re a gardener, it’s nice to know that your favorite hobby can help you advance in age in better health and with an improved mental capacity. 

You can find a more detailed article on this subject at http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20181210-gardening-could-be-the-hobby-that-helps-you-live-to-100.

Plant-Robot Hybrid Follows the Sun

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We all knew it would happen one day, didn’t we? Robots so advanced they can scarcely be distinguished from life forms! Well, this one is a cross between a plant and a robot: it’s designed to make sure the plant gets all the light it needs.

The robot will move the plant toward the light.

As the day moves on, the six-legged robot with a plant (Echeveria ‘Hakuhou’) on its top will follow the light, moving the plant to the best spots for its growth. It will also turn so all sides of the plant receive their share of light. And if it gets too hot or the plant has had its quota for the day, it will move, plant and all, to a cooler spot. 

The robot turns so the plant gets equal light on all sides.

The robot was created by Chinese roboticist and entrepreneur Sun Tianqi and is a modified form of a robot you can actually buy (if for some reason you need a robot that looks and moves like a crab): the HEXA, offered by Vincross, on sale for a mere $949 US. 

Water me, please!

Besides giving the plant its daily quotient of sunlight, the modified robot will also do a little dance to let its owner know it needs water and will interact with its owner if it’s touched. 

That’s enough sun for today!

Sun Tianqi explains his reasons for developing the hybrid: 

“For billions of years, plants have never experienced movement of any kind, not even the simplest movement. Their whole lives, they stick to where they were born. Do they desire to break their own settings or have a tendency towards this? If human beings always try to break the settings with technology, how about plants? I do not know the answer, but I would love to try to share some of this human tendency and technology with plants. With a robotic rover base, plants can experience mobility and interaction. I do hope that this project can bring some inspiration to the relationship between technology and natural default settings.”

Is this the future for plants? Will our parks be filled with robot trees seeking the sun and duking it out with other robot trees for the best spots? Will fields of wheat and rice wander about looking for just the right light or saunter down to the lake for a good soaking when they’re dry? Will my houseplants take to scurrying from room to room as the light changes, trampling my dog’s tail? 

This is getting kind of scary: I’m thinking that maybe I’ll want my plants to stay where I put them! 

All photos: www.vincross.com

Giant Wasp, But Essentially Harmless

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Last summer, during the Garden Communicators International annual symposium in Chicago, Illinois, while visiting vast and fabulous Lincoln Park, I saw what looked to me like a most amazing wasp, far bigger than any I had ever seen. I dared take a close-up with my smartphone, although I wasn’t brave enough to put my hand next to it for comparison. 

Big but Not Brutish

Impressive in size. Photo: Thom Mitchell, bugguide.net

It turns out it was a cicada killer wasp, also called a cicada hawk, pretty much harmless to humans. This one was likely the eastern cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus) from eastern North America, but it turns out there are cicada wasps pretty much all over the world … except where I live. (The eastern cicada wasp is apparently present in Southern Ontario, but nowhere else in Canada.) So, while this striking creature was new and surprising to me, perhaps it’s just an everyday insect for other readers.

It’s a robust wasp, black to reddish brown with light-yellow stripes and brownish wings. At up to 5.0 cm (2.0 in) in length, the width of a credit card, that’s nearly 4 times the size of the common social wasps I’m used to. 

As the name suggests, it is a predator of cicadas, those big tree-clinging insects whose shrill mating call fills the hot days of summer in so many regions. 

The cicada killer is a solitary species, not forming colonies unlike the smaller but exceedingly aggressive social wasps. The female cicada killer stings her cicada prey to paralyze it, then carries it off to her nest, a tunnel dug in the ground in sandy soil. She’ll bring back two to three cicadas if she lays a female egg (females cicada wasps are bigger and need more food), but only one for a male egg, so she somehow knows the sex of her offspring ahead of time. The larva feeds on the still living but unmoving cicadas, then pupates underground in fall, emerging the following year. 

There is only one generation per year.

Scary Looking, But Not Agressive

Female cicada killers will not sting humans unless they feel they’re under attack. Apparently, their sting is fairly painless. Males don’t sting at all, having no stinger.

Cicada killer about to fly off with a cicada bigger than it is! Photo: wrenchinthegears.com

I saw “my” cicada killer in a wildflower called flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) where it was obviously feeding. It turns out that, when it’s not killing cicadas, it’s a pollinator, therefore beneficial to gardeners. And since cicadas are considered enemies to trees, the wasp is doubly useful.

So, fierce in appearance because of its size and yellow stripes, but harmless to people and even useful to our gardens: the cicada killer. Just one more of Mother Nature’s fascinating creatures! 

Grow Your Own Roses From Cuttings

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If you have a favorite rose bush, you can propagate it through cuttings. The classic method is to root rose cuttings indoors in pots, but you can also do so directly in the garden. 

The method below is one taught to me by my father some 50 years ago … and it still works today!

  1. Cut a green or semi-woody stem from your favorite rosebush. In the Northern Hemisphere, that would likely be in June or July. The cutting should be about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) long.
  2. Remove the lower leaves and any flowers or buds.
  3. Insert the bottom end of the cutting into the ground, directly in the garden, in a partially shaded location. 
  4. Water well.
  5. Place an inverted wide-neck bottle or the bottom of a soda bottle over the cutting to act as a mini-greenhouse.
  6. When new leaves appear, remove the bottle: your cutting will be rooted!
  7. Transplant the cutting to a spot suitable for growing roses (full sun, rich soil with good drainage) … and watch your new rosebush grow!

It couldn’t be easier!

Poison Ivy: Hands Off!

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Readers from Europe and other continents can relax: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is not found in your country. The plant is strictly North American, although there is a sister species, T. orientale, in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Sakhalin.

However, within North America, poison ivy is distributed from northern Mexico to southern Canada, so North Americans—and visitors to North America—must always be on guard. It’s by far the main cause of allergic skin irritations in the areas where it grows. 

The Right Name

Poison ivy is in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae), a plant family known for its poisonous plants (cashews themselves are toxic unless properly prepared). It’s very closely related to sumacs (Rhus spp.) and indeed, is often called poison sumac (along with other Toxicodendron species). The genus name Toxicodendron is a new one and so you may well see poison ivy listed under its old name, Rhus radicans

In spite of the common name, poison ivy is in no way related to true ivies (Hedera, in the Araliaceae family).

Contact Dermatitis

Poison ivy can cause a severe rash. Photo: Nunyabb, en.wikipedia.org

Poison ivy truly deserves the botanical name Toxicodendron: it’s highly toxic in all its parts. If ingested (although this rarely happens), it can cause death, as it affects the airways and digestive tract. Mostly, though, it causes contact dermatitis.: severe and sometimes debilitating skin rashes caused by touching the plant. 

The toxicity comes from an oil called urushiol (sometimes called toxicodendrol). It can cause rashes through direct or indirect contact or by inhalation of smoke. The oil is present on all parts of the plant: leaves, stems, roots and even fruits. Dead branches and roots may still be toxic five years after they are cut. 

“Indirect contact” is a common occurrence, usually caused by petting your cat or your dog after it has rubbed up against the plant in its wanderings. You can also “catch poison ivy” from contaminated tools. Lawn mowers and weed trimmers, in particular, are often a source of serious reactions.

Some people are more severely affected than others. Photo: Daniel Xu, http://www.outdoorhub.com

Not everyone is affected by poison ivy. About 15% of the population is apparently immune to it. But even seemingly immune people can develop sensitivity through repeated contact, since this kind of contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction. Even sensitive individuals won’t necessarily react to it the first time they touch it, but will after a second contact, and then each additional contact will often make the suffering worse.

The reaction (itching, redness, blisters, etc.) can occur 24 hours to 7 days after contact and normally lasts about a week, but up to a month for very sensitive people. Most people recover fully and suffer no after-effects. However, some people end up in the hospital and, very occasionally, death can result.

Know Your Enemy

Distribution of poison ivy in North America. Ill.: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Poison ivy is very widely distributed and can be found in almost all non-aquatic environments, from forest to fields, shores, roadsides and swamps, although not in true deserts or in extremely cold regions. It adapts to most soil conditions, from alkaline to acid and humid to dry, and will grow in full sun or deep shade. It’s common in gardens as well, especially along fences. Why fences? Because birds eat the berries (only humans seem to be sensitive to urushiol), then settle on fences where seeds from their droppings germinate and result in new plants.

The most common form of poison ivy is the shrubby form: T. radicans rydbergii (sometimes treated as a separate species, T. rydbergii), most often seen as a creeping shrub under 1 foot (30 cm) tall, although in some regions it can grow to form dense thickets up to 7 feet (2 m) tall. More often, the plant will grow as a groundcover, extending by suckering to create an extensive carpet. 

There is also a climbing form (T. radicans radicans) that can reach up to 65 feet (20 m), reaching the top of trees thanks to clinging aerial roots. The climbing form is most common in the eastern United States and as far north as southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec.

Leaves of Three

Poison ivy typically has three leaflets. This one has smooth edges. Photo: Gordon Dietzman, http://www.nps.gov

Poison ivy is best known for its trifoliate leaves. There is an old rhyme taught to school children in areas where the plant is common: leaves of three, let it be. However, many other plants also bear three leaflets, including strawberries, clovers and beans, so a plant with three leaflets is not necessarily a threat! 

Typical leaflet shapes of poison ivy. Photo: http://www.electricant.net

What makes poison ivy difficult to recognize is that its foliage is so variable.

This clone has notched leaves. Photo: climbers.lsa.umich.eduT

It is usually shiny, but can be dull and often has a smooth margin, but sometimes has notches or even lobes. It may be helpful to know that the leaves are alternate, never opposite (a good way to telling it from a young box elder or Manitoba maple [Acer negundo], which has very similar trifoliate leaves at early stages of its life). Note too that the nerves are prominent and that each leaflet ends in a thin tip. Generally, the leaf is reddish green in spring, dark green in summer and bright red, yellow or orange in fall. 

Fall color on a climbing form of poison ivy. Photo: climbers.lsa.umich.edu

The greenish flowers are insignificant and the grayish-white berries—produced only by female plants—are especially visible after the leaves fall. They can still be on the plant in spring, when the snow melts.

Western poison oak (T. diversilobum) with its three oak leaf shaped leaflets. Photo: nativeplants.csuci.edu

Western poison oak or Pacific poison oak (T. diversilobum), from the West Coast of North America, and Atlantic poison oak (T. pubescens), from the southeastern United States, are close relatives and differ mainly from T. radicans by their trifoliate leaves that are lobed like oak leaves. Of course, they are not related to real oaks (Quercus, of the Fagaceae family).

Together, the three species cover essentially all of North America except the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the far north.

A Summer Problem

Children are often victims of poison ivy. Photo: inside.akronchildrens.org

Although the bare stems of poison ivy (and poison oak) remain poisonous all winter, it’s usually with the return of summer that doctors offices start to fill with poison ivy victims, often children. In summer, we’re outdoors more and dressed lightly to boot: plenty of bare skin for urushiol oil to sink into. Under those circumstances, itchy arms and legs are bound to happen. 

Campers, forestry workers and hikers regularly run into poison ivy and gardeners find it a perennial problem. The worst suffering undoubtedly occurs when hikers inadvertently use poison ivy leaves as toilet paper.

One common myth about poison ivy is that once you’ve had it, the rash will come back every year on the same date. It’s not true, of course—it takes an actual physical contact with urushiol to stimulate a reaction—but if you carry out the same activity on about the same date every year, like opening the cottage at the end of May, your symptoms will likely reappear shortly thereafter.

Keeping Poison Ivy Under Control

Most weeds get into trouble with gardeners and farmers due to their invasiveness, but at least they don’t try to poison us, but poison ivy sure seems to want to. Of course, poison ivy has a place in nature and feeds birds and insects, so in many cases, you can just let it be. However, such a dangerous plant has no place near human beings. If you have some on your land, at least in a place where people or pets will likely be running into it—near paths, in lawns, in gardens, etc. —, it’s really your civil duty to control it. But how?

Total body protection is needed before removing poison ivy. Photo: http://www.advancedlandmanagement.com

Here’s one technique. Put on long-sleeved clothes and waterproof gloves and tear out or dig out the entire plant. Next, clean all tools used with rubbing alcohol while still wearing gloves. Put the plant and gloves in a garbage bag, seal it and put out with the trash or bury the residue under 1 foot (30 cm) of soil. Wash contaminated clothes at least twice in hot, soapy water before reuse. And if you are very sensitive to poison ivy, it’s better to throw the clothes away!

If you are unable to dig it out (the poison ivy often settles in among tree roots or rocks where it simply can’t be extracted), try covering it with a thick black plastic tarp for at least 12 months. Without light, it won’t be able to survive. Or apply a non-selective weedkiller (total herbicide) with a brush, directly onto the foliage. It will usually be necessary to repeat this several times.

Even dead, stems (and roots) still remain toxic for many years, so you’ll still have to cut them back and bag or bury them.

Never burn poison ivy! Its smoke can enter the airways, causing a serious or even fatal reaction!

And don’t put poison ivy in the compost bin either. True enough, urushiol will decompose during composting, but it does so very slowly and the chance that a slight trace could cause a reaction in the user is just too much of a risk to take.

Oops! You Just Touched Poison Ivy?

Wash with cold water. Photo: http://www.videezy.com

Very quickly, within five minutes of contact if possible, wash the affected area with cold water (not hot water, which will open the pores and worsen the situation). You can use a mild soap, but nothing that will irritate the skin. To relieve any itching and redness that follows, cold compresses can be helpful, as can calamine lotion. Your pharmacist may have other suggestions. And don’t hesitate to consult a doctor if the reaction goes beyond an annoying but minor skin irritation.

Above all, study the photos of poison ivy included with this article and memorize the details: it’s when you don’t recognize poison ivy that you most readily become its victim.

How to Tell If You’ve Watered Enough?

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A common mistake of novice gardeners is to water often, but superficially. Many in fact water every day, rapidly spraying the soil with water, then moving on. The result of this shallow watering is that only the surface soil is moistened. Unless there is good rainfall to compensate, plants grown this way react by producing mostly superficial roots, in the upper 2 inches (5 cm) of soil, a situation that leaves plants in risk of serious drought stress, especially if the weather becomes hot and dry.

Ideally, you’d water less often, but for a longer period, enough to soak the soil thoroughly. When rainfall is absent, watering once a week may be enough where temperatures are moderate and the soil holds water well, while a twice-weekly watering is more likely to be required in a hot, dry climate or where the soil retains little water. These infrequent but abundant waterings ensure that the water penetrates far into the soil, which stimulates the plants to also produce roots that extend to all levels, even fairly deep into the ground. That way, if the upper part of the soil starts to dry out, the plant can still find water and won’t suffer.

Please not that this tip is designed for people gardening in the ground. Plants grown in pots are in a very different situation. True, they still need deep watering every time, but they also dry out far more quickly than in-ground plants. In many cases, it may be necessary to water container plants daily, especially if the pot is small, because their root system is limited to the soil inside the pot and has nowhere to go for water in case of drought.

But how do you know if you’ve watered enough? There are so many factors that come into play—type of plant, planting density, presence or absence of weeds, presence or absence of mulch, rain in recent days, type of soil (dense or light, clay or sand), etc.—that it really isn’t possible to tell just like that.

To get a better idea, though, there is a simple test you can do.

Dig a hole in the ground to see how far the water has managed to penetrate. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux.

About an hour after carrying out what you thought was a “thorough watering”, dig a small hole in the soil. If the soil is moist to a depth of at least 6 inches (15 cm), all is well. You can tell the soil is moist, because it will be darker than dry soil. However, if the soil is only moist to a depth of 2 to 4 inches (5 or 10 cm), the plants didn’t receive enough water. Water again. And water for a longer period next time.

Over time, most gardeners pick up the habit of watering thoroughly without wasting water, but in the beginning, it’s better to check first-hand to see if you’re doing it right!