The Ups and Downs of Different Types of Irrigation Systems
When it comes to watering your vegetable garden, flower garden or trees and shrubs there is an extremely wide variety of options to choose from. From the very simple such as watering by hand with the garden hose to the more complex such as drip systems or the “Evolvable Very Low Pressure Micro Irrigation” system. Each has its own positives and negatives. The system you choose will depend on the size of your garden, your local weather patterns, your budget and how easy you want it all to be. Let’s take a look.
Watering By Hand
If your garden is small and/or you have the time and inclination to head out early each morning to water then the garden hose or watering can is probably your friend. You’ll need to be gentle with the watering so you don’t hurt your plants or disturb your soil. A watering can is a good idea simply because the water can only come out as fast as the perforations will allow.
If you use the hose, keep the pressure very low and consider using something like a watering wand that distributes the water evenly and gently. Remember to water the base of the plants and try not to get the leaves wet as this can cause infections or rusts and be sure to water deeply enough! The downside to watering by hand is that it can be very time consuming, the amount and distribution of water can be irregular and you might simply forget!!
While sprinklers are an option, I recommend against it. Sprinklers can give you good coverage and can be quite time-saving for you but again, water on the leaves of your plants can cause disease (this is avoidable by watering early in the morning instead of in the evening or at night), the chance that you may over water is high and you will lose a decent about of your water to evaporation and wind.
A soaker hose is a black hose made of a porous material that allows water to seep out rather evenly along the length of the hose. I use soaker hoses for my trees and shrubs, flowers and vegetables. This is the method I tend to prefer for my garden. For trees and shrubs, place your soaker hose circled around your plant and within your well at the drip line. Stake it down with two-pronged garden stakes. For flowers, loop the hose through the bed on both sides of your plants so that it makes a large “U”. Again, hold it in place with the garden stakes. In my vegetable garden I snake the hose through my planting boxes so that there will be hose between each planting row. I stake it and then plant intensively.
Be sure to cover your soaker with a nice thick layer of mulch. The downside you will face is that of not quite knowing how much you are putting on your plants and for how long you should water. I’ll typically play with the watering early in the spring to see how long it takes the water to soak to a certain depth. After that, I place it on a timer to go on just before sunrise and again just after sunset. One last caution: If you live in an area like mine the water has a high mineral content your soaker hose will fill up with mineral after a year or two and will cease to function properly so you will have to replace it. Thankfully, soaker hoses are quite inexpensive.
Drip allows you to get just the right amount of water to the plants and to do it at the right time. It cuts down on water use and, like the soaker hose, will keep the leaves of your plants dry, thus cutting down on disease. Most importantly, once you have it in place and on a timer you will not need to worry about watering your garden. You won’t have to worry about missing a day or if your neighbor is doing a decent job caring for your garden while you are on vacation. The downside to a drip system is that drip can be a little pricey and difficult to set up (factor in a full day for a moderate sized garden).
Evolvable Very Low Pressure Micro Irrigation
Related to the drip system, this method was developed by backyard gardeners and put on the Internet to be used by anyone. “Micro-irrigation” describes any one of a variety of systems that get water to your plants via small watering gadgets. This method gets water to the plant right at the base of the plant or below the soil surface in the root zone. This is precision watering if there ever was such a thing!
The main goal here is to maximize plant growth while using a very small amount of water. This method is suited for arid lands or urban environments or places where water is just plain expensive. The advantages are in water and energy savings, automation and weed reduction. But, as with drip there is a greater cost and time input up front and the fact that there are a number of maintenance requirements to keep it functioning. A description and tutorial on low pressure micro irrigation is available here by clicking the link.
Living in the high mountain desert, I have experimented with a number of irrigation systems in a never-ending search to maximize efficiency and cut down on water use. One that has worked nicely is taking a bunch of empty wine bottles, filling them with water and turning them upside down in the garden in between your planting rows. I put a bottle every two feet. The water seeps out of the bottles at a steady rate and goes right to the roots while the sun-heated water in the bottles can extend your growing season by a couple days by radiating heat at night. I’ve found that this method only works if you plant your garden very intensively with minimal spacing.
There are a wide variety of battery-operated timers to choose from. While I won’t recommend one above the other, I will recommend that you invest in a timer for your irrigation system. Getting the right amount of water to your plants when you need without ever worrying about missing a watering will take so much stress out of your gardening and lend a powerful boost to your production.
Need more information on watering gardens? Here’s a great resource on Watering Techniques for Home Vegetable Gardens. Below is an excerpt on when you should water your garden:
There are two simple ways to decide when the garden should be watered: by feeling the soil, and by looking at the plants. When the soil sticks in your hand and you can form it into a ball, it is moist enough. But, if it barely holds together in the palm of your hand, or if the surface looks hard, baked, or cracked, it is probably dry and it’s time to water. Another sign is that the plants may wilt and look especially droopy. Since they wilt on very hot days, wait until the sun sets to see of the plant recover.
Jim O’Donnell gardens in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A certified permaculture designer and ecological restoration specialist, Jim’s first book Notes for the Aurora Society was published in 2009.