When to Water: The Bamboo Stake Method

bamboo stake, water.

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

How do you know when your water? Should I water every day at the same time? How much do I need a water? These are all relevant questions that I get asked on a daily basis. Basically you water when the plant needs it depending on conditions. I want to provide you a simple and effective hack that determines when you need to water your particular plant.

Bamboo stakes are the most practical and affordable gardening accessory used. They can be used for staking up trees, supporting vines, tomatoes, berry plants, grapes, peas/beans, holding up long stem flowers, teepees, trellises, tool handles, decorative railings, holding up plant signs, making miniature hoop houses, and even garden fencing. But did you know that the mighty bamboo stake could also be used to determine when and how much you should water.

This may sound like an odd and unconventional way to use a bamboo stake, but experienced plant experts have been using wooden skewers and chopsticks to gauge soil moisture for years. Think of when you bake a cake, you poke a skewer in the middle of it to see if it is ready, if dough sticks to the skewer it is not ready yet, it needs to bake more, if dough does not stick to the skewer it is ready and you are done baking the cake. The principle is simple; moist particles of soil adhere to the wood. A clean stake means the soil is too dry, a muddy stake means too much moisture, and a stake flecked with large soil particles means the moisture is fine. This same idea can be used to apply using a tall bamboo stake or any height for that matter that suits the situation in your garden whether it be in the ground or a container.

Most gardeners are familiar with using the finger method or the moisture meter method. In the finger method, you insert any of your eight fingers or thumbs down to the second knuckle and feel. If you feel moisture at the tip, you do not need to water at that time. This method gives you a good reading of the soil moisture in the first two inches of soil and that’s all. For shallow rooted potted plants such as houseplants, you can improvise by using your finger, instead of a bamboo stake. But however, the bamboo stake makes a smaller and cleaner hole where it doesn’t disturb the soil as much. What if you have a bigger plant with a larger root ball, the root zone will be much deeper. The key is to have a reading of soil moisture that is half way down the plants root ball and this could easily be deeper than two inches.

The other popular method is a sleek moisture meter. Here the problems are several. The probe does not tell you what is happening at all soil levels. The devices oftentimes gives you a false reading because it wasn’t cleaned properly or foreign materials are still attached to it giving you an inaccurate rereading. The probe only goes down a short distance (about 18 inches) therefore ineffective for many types of applications (larger pots, older, more mature plants whose roots go much farther than where a moisture meter reaches).

You may be wondering how does this bamboo stake method work. The process is simple, easy, and straight forward. You almost never go wrong and it takes minimal time.

Use a standard ½-inch diameter bamboo stake with no lacquers or plastic, as these coverings can throw off the measurements. Make sure the stake is dry. I leave mine outside in a dry area all day. There length of the bamboo stake will vary depending on the size of the plant. Smaller plants with shallow roots use a smaller stake, bigger plants with deeper roots use a taller bamboo stake.

For new plants in the ground or potted plants, select a place just to the edge of the rootball from the plant base and insert (probe) the stake straight and halfway down the rootball and wait a couple of seconds, then pull it up quickly. For older, more established plants in the ground it is best to probe the soil just outside the canopy of the plant is i.e the drip line. It is wise to probe the soil in several places (just like the face of a clock: 12, 3, ,6, and 9 o’clock ) rather than just one place to take measurements, because one section of the root ball may be dry, while another section might be wet. This method applies tool plants whether in the ground or in containers.

Examine the stake and observe the following: A clean bamboo stake (no soil water sticking to the device) means low soil moisture. This means you need to apply water. A light coating of soil particles indicates good soil moisture, thus there is no need to water at that time. A slightly muddy tip on the stake means the soil is getting saturated at the deepest level. No need to water, you may be approaching over watering. Evenly distributed flecks (crumbs) of soil indicate good soil moisture at all root zone levels. No need to water.

With the bamboo stake method you can actually see on the stake itself soil water levels i.e. dry, wet, or damp distributed throughout the stake.

You may need to repeat the same process after you water to determine if you watered thoroughly enough. Likewise, you may need to do the above process before you are considering to water to actually determine it you need to water.

During certain conditions, it may be necessary to preform the steps more often (hot, dry, low humidity, windy, drafts, and heat). Likewise if the opposite occurs the steps may be preformed less often.

From repeated applications you can determine a pattern and rough schedule about when you need to water the particular plant. It wise wise to take in account different variables that reflect when you need to water such as the ones listed above and age of plant, type of soil , time of year, and type of plant.

I find that if it is difficult to insert a probe in the soil, the soil may be hard and compact. With hard and compact soil, water is unable to penetrate the soil or it may run off, resulting in an unwatered or poorly watered plant roots. You may, in this case need to loosen the soil, add a soil conditioner to improve soil conditions so water can be properly delivered to your plants so they can grow better and prosper.

The bamboo stake method is quick, simple and effective. The result will be growing, watering, and caring for your landscape plants more successfully. If you have any garden or plant related questions or need to find a cool plant please stop by your favorite Green Thumb Nursery.

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