With the excessive heat this summer, many gardeners have turned to shade cloth to protect their crops and tender plants.

Shade cloth is an open-weave, synthetic fabric that reduces the amount of air, light and water that passes through to the plants. Shade cloth is available in 30 percent, 60 percent and 80 percent light reduction, with 60 percent being most commonly available at garden centers and big box stores. It is usually 6 feet wide and sold by the linear foot; sometimes it comes in pre-measured lengths of 50 or 100 feet.

Before buying shade cloth it is important to ask what you want it to do: reduce light or reduce heat? They are not the same. Shading for light intensity is different than shading for cooling. Black shade cloth provides the darkest shade, but absorbs more of the sun’s heat, which means there is less cooling effect; unless the plants are shade loving, they may be more spindly and leggy as they grow toward the light.

Light-colored shade cloth allows the same percentage of light to pass through, but is more reflective so the light inside the structure bounces around more, making the light more usable to plants. The reflective nature of light-colored shade cloth means that it absorbs less heat and provides a slightly cooler environment. By raising the fabric cover several feet above the leaf canopy and leaving one side open (the side away from direct sunlight) you will allow more reflected light to enter the structure and better ventilation to help vent the heat. Some people report using less water inside shade cloth structures, as much as 65 percent less water, so be sure to adjust your irrigation as needed.

Improper watering is one of the most common gardening mistakes, especially during the hot summer months. Use of overhead sprinklers, especially in the evening, can cause blossoms on fruit-producing crops to rot and drop off before setting fruit. Foliage becomes an ideal breeding ground for fungus. Another common problem is frequent shallow watering, rather than occasional prolonged watering provided after determining, by examining the plants or by probing the soil bed, that water is in fact needed. A good organically enriched garden loam holds a lot of water. Drip irrigation is the best way to go.

Early spring

Except when transplanting and sowing, watering is not usually necessary for the first early plantings of spring (March and April) because normal precipitation should supply the garden with all the moisture it needs. However, if the soil looks dry on top when there’s seed underneath, you’d better water.

Late spring

The ground will have started to dry out in May. You may have to soak the ground before planting seed but you will definitely have to do so before and after planting tomatoes or cucumbers to help them get over the trauma of transplantation. Soak the seedlings before you plant them because a dry seedling will take much longer to recover.

Early summer

Your irrigation system becomes more important in June. Let the condition of your soil and plants be your guide so you don’t risk overwatering.

Full summer

From July until the beginning of harvest in September, the garden needs more water because summer heat dries up the soil faster and the plants will have grown and developed more avid thirsts. During your daily garden visits, you ought to notice right away when the ground is too dry, if the plants have begun to wilt, or if they have taken on an unhealthy complexion.

General guidelines

Water in the morning to discourage fungus and slugs.

Water only when the garden needs it. Watering soil to a depth of 8 inches or so encourages deep roots that withstand drought and winds.

Wait until plants have just begun to wilt before you water. Try this to keep from watering prematurely: Probe the soil between rows to a depth of 6 inches or so. If the soil is dry for the first 2 inches to 4 inches but damp at 4 inches to 6 inches, it means there is still enough moisture in the soil bed for healthy plants to reach and use. Wait another day or two to encourage the plants to dig a little deeper and thus enlarge their feeding area.

Water thoroughly when you do water. A deep watering is one that leaves the soil bed moist to a depth of 8 inches to 12 inches.

Water at soil level to avoid fungus problems. If you plan to be away once in awhile during the growing season, even for a day, it is best to install drip irrigation with in-line emitters and use a timer to be able to water slowly to get that deep watering accomplished.

WSU Extension Master Gardener Program is an organization of trained volunteers dedicated to horticulture and community service. The Master Gardener Walk-In Diagnostic Clinic operates from 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Direct questions about gardening, landscaping or this program to the Master Gardener Clinic at 509-574-1604, or leave samples for identification at the WSU Extension office. Leave a message with your name, phone number, email address and the nature of your problem or question. You can also email your questions to gardener@co.yakima.wa.us and include pictures if you have them. A member of the Master Gardener Clinic team will check voicemails and emails, and reply as soon as possible. The WSU Extension office is at 2403 S. 18th St., Suite 100, in Union Gap. Call 509-574-1600. New volunteers are welcome.