How (not) To Water Plants

Baskets of plants and the Enkianthus in May.
All told the summer has been pretty good albeit hotter than an Equatorial greenhouse. African bulbs mostly bloomed due to the lengthy spurts of heat, and the Colocasias zoomed into hugeness where they remain for now until the frost deflates their oversized leaves.

Each year is a learning experience, and my goal is to never repeat what's past. Not because the present year was so horrible, just because I always make different plans for the one coming up. I'll continue with the bulbs, but will plant more flowers for cutting next season, including Zinnias.

The beautiful white tuberous begonia.
I was unwittingly thrust into a trial setting this summer--one that tested some of my plants' responses to being watered by softened water. For four months. Here's how it happened:

In late April, when Dave went to connect the hose to the spigot in front of the house, it broke off in his hand. Our house rests on top of a crawl space, which I've heard isn't that bad as crawl spaces go because it's at least partially floored in cement. Dave had just spent some time down there to repair a leaky pipe. He had to because we had no water.
The Mednilla myriantha was looking perky
in early July. 

"I was just down there," he said as he led a hose from the spigot in the garage, under the garage door to the outside. The hose, a bright blue one, was saved from crushing by his clever positioning of a length of wood to prop up the garage door. The blue hose snaked along the front porch steps to the little patio beneath the pergola in the front of the house. "This is just temporary."

I won't go into the number of unfinished projects that fall under the "this is just temporary" category, but the list is a long one. Anyway, fast forward to hot and dry in late July, when we made liberal use of any hose we could lay our hands on to water everything from pots to in-ground plantings.

The Pseuderanthemum laxiflorum 'Amethyst Stars' did well.
Then one day, Dave tells me there must be something wrong with the water softener. "I've added six bags of salt in a week," he carped. "Can you call the guy out?"

We rent our water softener to assure the heavy mineral content in the water from our well doesn't destroy our pipes and appliances. The pellets we use are made up of 99.8% pure salt. I got around to calling the technician around mid-August. He pressed some buttons on the unit and announced, "You've been using as much water as a family of seven."

I was flabbergasted, as there are just the two of us, which I told him. He pressed more buttons and showed me the past month's usage, which was around 20,000 gallons. He spied the hose snaking into the garage and ending at the spigot near the water softener. "Where is that hose going," he asked.

"It's for watering the plants," I told him.

He told me to watch the dial on the softener as he walked outside and turned on the nozzle. The penny dropped when I saw the gauge registering usage. The spigot we thought was not connected to the softener IS connected to the softener. We were watering our garden during the hottest, driest days of summer with 99.8 percent saltwater. I had been mixing plant food with it to water the numerous pots in the front, and overhead watering everything from the Metasequoia and weeping Katsura to the Hydrangeas, peonies and much, much more.
The Enkianthus in late September.

It's hard to tell yet if these sprinklings will have any long term effect on the plants in the ground. But the bottom line on some of the containers is more apparent. The most obvious symptoms I noticed was a general "failure to thrive."

The Enkianthus doesn't like heat, and the briny water didn't help it any. The Begonias seemed to take it hard, especially compared with those in the backyard that were watered with unsoftened water.
Begonias watered with softened water were chlorotic and none too pretty.

Begonias watered with unsoftened water were in better condition in general.
The thing with using softened water in your garden is that the salt is absorbed by the soil. It eventually can leach out through rainfall, but it has been shown to compact soil, especially those consisting mainly of clay. It also prevents plants' roots from taking up needed nutrients. I'm hoping for the best and am watching the many plants treated with softened water. Time will tell. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to call a plumber.


  1. How AWFUL!!!! I bet your heart sank when you realized the error. Definitely call the

  2. Well, that's a sad story. I'll be interested in a follow up progress (or lack of same) report. Sorry!