There are a number of tools and methods to use when watering your landscape in the absence of rainfall. Efficient water delivery is all about applying the right method in the right circumstance. A water delivery system doesn’t need to be complicated – and it sure doesn’t need to be expensive.
Best of all – the right system in place will reduce the amount of time you need to take to manage water in your garden. Another bonus? You will reduce the amount of water you use – lessening the strain on this precious resource and saving you money on your water and energy bills.
Drip irrigation is one of my favorites. It’s ideal for shrubs and containerized plants. I love the very targeted control this method gives me in delivering water precisely where I need it and at the most beneficial rate. It literally provides pinpoint accuracy with a controlled flow rate to deliver a known amount of water over a period that I specify.
Water is delivered through a supply line – typically flexible, half-inch plastic tubing. Along the supply line, quarter-inch tubing is attached wherever desired to direct and deliver water to precise locations by way of plastic drip emitters. The emitters are plastic tips which control the rate at which the water drips out. They are available in different sizes, depending on your desired flow rate.
Drip irrigation kits and systems are incredibly easy to install. Better still, they are inexpensive and readily available at home improvement stores and garden centers. There are many configuration options, so you can tailor your system to your specific needs. I’ve had great success with using Rain Bird® drip irrigation products.
Whether used in containers, raised bed rows, or even mass plantings; drip irrigation is the most efficient way to cover a lot of ground, yet precisely deliver that water right where it needs to go – the base of the plants and their roots.
As your container plants mature and fill their space, they dry out more quickly. Spending time each morning and evening with overhead watering is inefficient. (How many of us water until we see that moisture pour out of the container drainage holes?)
Watering from above also wets the foliage and increases disease vulnerability. Drip irrigation uses just the proper amount and keeps the roots moist even when you aren’t at home (big hint to anyone planning a vacation this growing season).
This system is also a super star at reducing weeds in your landscape. Because the water is delivered only to your plants and precisely at their root system, the weed seeds lurking in the surrounding terrain won’t get their share of that supplemental moisture. Without light and moisture, weeds seeds can’t even get started.
Once you’ve purchased and installed your system, you can automate the watering process, so you don’t have to spend your time getting water to your plants every day. Your system will do it for you. More on accessories in a moment.
Drip Irrigation Bag
Sometimes, you need the accuracy of the drip irrigation system, but you only need it temporarily. For example, a newly-transplanted bush or tree will benefit from targeted watering which is temporarily more than its plant neighbors are receiving. Enter the drip irrigation bag – a leak-proof bladder with tiny holes in the bottom.
Using a drip irrigation bag couldn’t be any easier. Place the bag at the base of your plant and fill it with water. During the course of the next 6-12 hours, the water will drip slowly into the soil. You can continue to refill the bag with a garden hose until the plant no longer needs that extra attention.
There are a number of style options and sizes (number of gallons the bag will hold), so you can find the bag that will best fit your needs. I’ve liked using the Treegator® in my landscape.
Soaker Hose & Emitter Tube
In situations where you need the accuracy and automation of a specific flow rate, but you need to cover a larger area – your best solution is soaker hose or emitter tube. Both offer a similar, slow-release method of watering right at the soil level and directly to the roots.
Soaker hoses are porous, allowing the water to seep out slowly into the surrounding soil. Non-porous emitter tubing is similar to porous soaker hose, except it waters with an even pressure from the beginning of the tube to the end of the tube, and at measured intervals. Both types are available at home improvement and garden centers.
All soaker hoses are not created equal. I love to recycle, but I don’t love to use soaker hose made out of recycled tire rubber. Most soaker hose is made that way, but I have concerns with chemicals from that recycled rubber leaching into my soil. I prefer to use food grade, polyurethane hoses.
Emitter tubing or a good quality soaker hose is the ideal way to deliver supplemental water around a tree. I place them around all my newly-installed trees out to the drip line. It gives me the peace of mind I need to know my plants are getting the water they need and when they need it, allowing them to establish quickly even as the weather heats up. I wind a 25’, 50’ or 100’ soaker hose or emitter tube outward, starting from near the trunk. My goal is to provide enough coverage to reach the entire root zone and beyond if able.
The soaker hose and emitter tubing systems are also great in raised bed rows. I run emitter tube or soaker hose along the length of my vegetables to deliver water under the foliage and directly to the roots. Since the irrigation is being delivered at ground level, there’s less risk of water splashing up onto crops from the soil surface and carrying any disease spores hiding there. Dry foliage is also better able to fend off airborne disease.
As with drip irrigation, automation accessories save time and water. Once you’ve set them up, you don’t need to give them much more thought (beyond an occasional spot check throughout the growing season).
Just like the drip irrigation bag is a sort of portable drip irrigation system, a bubbler attachment is a portable soaker system. The bubbler is the best choice when you need a healthy dose of water in a relatively small space. I rely on the gentle, controllable flow of a bubbler hose attachment anytime I plant a tree or shrub.
As soon as the plant is in the ground, and I’ve covered it with mulch – my next step is to place the bubbler with automated flow and timing accessories. Depending on the plant, I’ll set the bubbler to run for 5 to 30 minutes and place it at the base of the tree or shrub. The water flow from the bubbler doesn’t wash away the soil and mulch I’ve so carefully placed around the plant. Since the attachment is sitting on the ground, there will be little evaporation, so the water is being put to most efficient use – in the root system.
Home improvement stores and garden centers should all have a bubbler (aka soaker) attachment available for less than $10.
Watering at the surface is always the waterwise choice. However for some applications, that approach is simply not feasible. The most obvious example of that situation is with our lawns. You certainly can’t stretch soaker hose across your front yard.
Overhead delivery of water through an in-ground sprinkler system or portable sprinkler attachment is how we all water our lawns. Of those methods, I recommend in-ground, if possible. In-ground systems require an up-front installation cost, yes. Yet, there are key benefits.
- In-ground sprinkler heads are designed for optimal efficiency.
- Watering of the entire area can be automated for the best time of day.
If you have to move that portable sprinkler around, you probably aren’t able to control the timing or amount and target the area with efficient accuracy.
The money you save on your water bill over time (along with providing all things green the water they need to maintain optimum health) will offset the expense of installation of an in-ground system, and if you’re a do-it-yourself type, the material cost isn’t as high as you might expect.
Not all in-ground systems are equal. There are different spray heads to consider. For example: Rotor heads are more efficient than the pop-up spray variety. Rotor heads typically deliver water at a slower rate than a pop-up head. Once again, that slower rate means better ground absorption.
Head types are specifically-designed to be efficient in different terrain and climates. Using the proper head will make a difference on a steep slope or in a high-wind area on your property.
There have been some great strides in water conservation technology in sprinkler heads, such as heads designed to emit larger drops of water. Larger droplets of water fall to the surface more quickly than fine mist – eliminating some of the inevitable evaporation that comes with overhead watering.
Bottom line: Do a little research and consult with an expert when planning to install an in-ground system. Advanced planning and research will pay off in good efficiency dividends.
Sometimes, good old-fashioned hand watering is the best method. If I notice a plant looking droopy or if I’m concerned my newly-installed shrub needs a little extra help getting through a hot, dry week; I like to turn to my wand attachment.
The wand attachment provides a gentler spray than most other sprayers, and the extension pole makes it easier for me to get that water delivery – you guessed it – right down at the base of the plant. Since I don’t have to stoop over to target the base, I’m able to multitask and spend watering time looking over new growth and keeping an eye out for signs of pests or disease.
I do use other sprayer attachments for hand watering under certain circumstances. I use a sprayer with stronger pressure as I’m planting new trees and shrubs. Once I have the hole filled about halfway, I’ll use the stiff spray for an initial watering, so that the pressure breaks up soil clumps and pushes out any air pockets trapped in the soil near the roots.
Like the bubbler attachment, wand attachments are available at home improvement and garden centers, and they are a beneficial and inexpensive tool to add to your watering arsenal.
One of the best aspects of most of these watering methods is automation. As busy gardeners, we all have so many things to accomplish. The ability to automate water delivery can be a lifesaver. Most importantly, automation is waterwise. In controlling the timing and flow of water delivery, we can get it just right – with very little waste of that precious water resource.
Each of these accessories are inexpensive, easy to install and available at home improvement and garden centers. They each have a benefit; but – like tomato, basil and mozzarella – they are at their best when combined together.
When I set up my drip irrigation, soaker hoses, or bubbler attachment; I start with some Quick Connect Couplers. The coupler makes it easy to attach or remove the system from my water source – i.e a garden hose. Sometimes dirt and grime can get in the threads of attachments which must be screwed on, but the Quick Connect Coupler bypasses that hassle.
Installing a Quick Shutoff Valve alongside the Quick Connect Coupler allows for control of the water flow. The shutoff valve has a lever you turn to completely shut off the water flowing from the supply, or it can be left partially open to control how much water is flowing from the supply. You have the ultimate control over flow rate.
Last, but certainly not least, is the timer. Ah, the timer! How much of my day would be spent in turning my water supplies on and off were it not for these handy little guys. These small, inexpensive devices allow me to set day, time and duration – automating when the water moves through my drip irrigation, soaker hoses and bubbler. When the time I’ve programmed is up, the water shuts off. Waterwise perfection!
With these three accessories on my drip irrigation and soaker hoses, I know that all my raised beds, in-ground beds, containers, etc. are all being watered when I want them to be watered and at the amount I want them to be watered. Even if I’m out of town, the watering goes on as scheduled. My plants are happy and healthy, and I’m happy and spending my time on all those gardening tasks that can’t be automated.
Next week in Part 4 of this 5-part series, let’s harvest that natural resource – rain – and investigate a little further how best to know if you are watering your plants appropriately.