Growing Concern: How Water Quality Impacts Your Fruits and Vegetables

A Guide to Choosing the Right Water for Your Vegetable Garden

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Whether it’s talking to your plants or adding nutrient-rich fertilizer, there are a multitude of ways people help their plants grow. A great way to ensure healthy plants is to use the right water to nourish them. Water quality can impact your plants in a variety of ways, and this is even more important when it comes to growing fruits and vegetables. The things you grow in your vegetable garden presumably make it into your body. This not only means that clean water impacts your plants’ health, but it can have an effect on your health, as well.

We’re here to explain:

  1. How water quality impacts your vegetable garden
  2. What type of water you should you use to water your produce
  3. Other factors influence the quality of your fruits and vegetables

How Water Quality Impacts Your Vegetable Garden

Just as food nourishes our bodies, water serves as the lifeblood for plants. Plants absorb water through their roots that subsequently moves through their vascular system. As water disperses across a plant’s leaves, stems, buds, flowers, and fruit, it carries with it a variety of crucial nutrients–functioning similarly to the human circulatory system. However, just like water carries the vital elements throughout a plant, it also may carry contaminants. These contaminants range from biological (microbes) to chemical (heavy metals). While contamination is less of a concern for ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables given poor quality water can directly impact your health. Increasing evidence not only suggests that contaminated water causes nutritional imbalance within the plant, it also indicates a link to increased foodborne illnesses from microbes, parasites, and viruses, in humans. The concern is greatest in leafy vegetables that tend to be eaten without cooking.

This begs the question: What’s the best type of water to use when watering your plants?

What Type of Water Should You Use to Water Your Plants

From tap water to bottled water, there can be a lot of confusion surrounding the best water for growing fruits and vegetables. We’re here to here to clarify what water leads to the healthiest plants–and in turn, the healthiest you.

The first thing we want to note, however, is that the parameters of what is ‘safe’ for plants are different than what is ‘safe’ for  human consumption. The next thing to remember is that, no matter what source you use to supply your garden with water–temperature matters. Our tip: avoid extremes. Exceedingly cold water can lead to root shock, while excessively hot temperatures can burn the plant.

Watering Plants with Municipal Water:

The most common concern people often have about using city water when irrigating their vegetable gardens is the added chlorine. If you receive your water from a public water supplier, it is highly likely–98% likely, to be specific–that your tap water contains some amount of the disinfectant (up to 4 parts per million). Chlorine serves as an effective means of removing pathogens from drinking water, but many gardeners fear that it will also eliminate many of the beneficial microbes in the soil. However, there are two key factors that do not make chlorine a major threat to microorganism populations:

  1. Microorganism reproduce at such a rapid rate that–even if chlorine kills some of the microbes–their populations can easily rebound in a short amount of time if you have healthy soil quality.
  2. When chlorine enters the ground, it binds to the surface soil particles and does not travel to the beneficial microorganism colonies that live in the lower soil layers.

While the average chlorine concentration in tap water (up to 4 parts per million) has not been shown do lasting damage to plants, chlorine toxicity is still possible. A tell-tale sign that your fruits and veggies may be suffering too much chlorine is if their leaves appear burnt.

How can you remove chlorine from your tap water? An easy (and inexpensive fix) is to let the water sit for a day or two in an open container. This allows the chlorine to vent in gas form. Note: if your water contains chloramines, this method will not work. In order to eliminate these chlorine/ammonia compounds is to use an active removal system (such as a catalytic carbon filter).  

If you are concerned about other contaminants in your water–like heavy metals–, we recommend investing in a water filter–especially if you use your tap water for drinking! Check out our guide to water filters to help you make the right choice–we know it’s confusing! One rule to follow: water that has passed through a water softener should not be used for horticulture. it is likely to be high in potassium or sodium. Elevated levels in either can buildup up in soil over time and high salt levels can cause your plant to die of thirst.

Watering Plants with Well Water:

Although ground water (i.e. your well source) is less likely to contain microbial contaminants than surface water, your well water may still wind up with a host of different contaminants. Well water begins as rain and snowmelt. It makes its way into your well by filtering through the ground. As it soaks through the soil, it can pick up a variety of contaminants depending on what chemicals or pathogens are present.

Evidence on how heavy metals impact vegetables suggest that some plants take up metals more readily than others, but scientists have found elevated of arsenic in California wines due to grape vines taking-up naturally occurring arsenic from soil and groundwater.

Our suggestion: if you have a well you should test it and consider testing your soil quality, too. Whether or not you are growing zucchinis, it’s always best to know what you are putting in your food (and body.)

Watering Plants with Bottled Water:

There are  a lot of myths surrounding the health benefits of bottled water. Despite what you may think, bottled water is not always cleaner or safer than tap water. Shockingly, about ~25% of bottled water appears to come just from tap water with or without added treatment. Additionally, bottled water is tested less frequently than tap water.

Our suggestion: considering both the financial and environmental costs of bottled water–tap water tends to be a better choice for your plants.

Other Factors Impacting Your Fruits and Veggies

Prior to selecting a certain type of water to irrigate your fruits or vegetables, it is best to gather as much information as possible. That means testing your water (whether it is city or well).

While water quality can have impacts on the overall plant health, an even more important factor is soil composition and quality. The balance of pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon, and oxygen can significantly dictate the health of your plants. For more information regarding soil quality and ways to test it, you can reach us at hello@simplewater.us

Sources: 

http://lawr.ucdavis.edu/cooperative-extension/irrigation/drought-tips/water-quality-guidelines-vegetable-and-row-crops

https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/vegetable/guides/organic-vegetable-production-guide/key-factors-in-vegetable-production/

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/watering/testing-water-for-plants.htm

https://www.newstimes.com/news/article/Keep-food-safety-in-mind-when-planning-vegetable-52093.php

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4515668/

https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/SP740-B.pdf

https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html

https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/chlorine-toxicity-trees-and-shrubs

http://www.ncagr.gov/CYBER/kidswrld/plant/nutrient.htm

https://waterandhealth.org/safe-drinking-water/drinking-water/chlorine-in-tap-water-is-safe-to-drink/

http://albopepper.com/watering-with-tap-water.php

https://chlorine.americanchemistry.com/Chlorine/DrinkingWaterFAQ/

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.495.8268&rep=rep1&type=pdf

http://www.onlineeducation.net/bottled_water

https://www.nrdc.org/stories/truth-about-tap

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/1-soils-and-plant-nutrients



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