Water-wise Gardening

I’m definitely not the one to discuss this topic properly since I don’t need to employ most of these topics. I have on occasion used a soaker hose to water areas where we have a bit of a hill and any light rain we might get runs off. But I usually don’t have to turn the thing on until we’ve gone 6 weeks or so without rain–and here in the “Eastern deciduous woodlands” as I think the USDA calls us, that rarely happens.

Interestingly enough, my shady gardens are the driest spots on the property. And for me, dry shade is so difficult to manage. Many of the standard dry shade plants won’t grow in my otherwise heavy clay soil. But then again, if that’s my biggest problem in life, I have no problems.

But I know drought plagues other parts of the country where I travel and have friends–the West and the Southwest and California, for example. And no part of our country is really immune anymore, it seems.

And some of you may remember from my “Let’s Not Be Mindless…” series, my concern that growing vegetables might not really be sustainable–at least for me–because I did have to water those. Thankfully this month, an article in a e-newsletter from Renee’s Garden assured me that I was still being far more sustainable than commercial growers. So bring on the tomatoes! Thank goodness!

If you are not like me, however, and you do need to water, one of the best ways to do this is drip irrigation. There are many myths surrounding drip irrigation. A good deal of this comes from the fact that many folks do not realize that it takes hours and not minutes, with drip irrigation to thoroughly saturate the soil, particularly when watering gardens (as opposed to lawns). How many hours depends on the soil type, how dry it has gotten, the homeowner’s water pressure, whether the homeowner is on a well or city water and the type of irrigation used, among other things, so I can’t just say, “turn the thing on for 2 hours.”

A simple way to determine how long to run the irrigation system is this: an established garden needs an inch of water a week (on average–roses, vegetables and newly planted plants would need more). During the first test of the irrigation system, turn it on early in the morning, and every two hours go out with a trowel to see how deeply the water has penetrated into the soil. When moisture reaches the desired level, that’s how long the system will have to have to run.

Drip irrigation can consist of something as simple as a soaker hose (buried under mulch for even better effectiveness) to a kit that can be purchased, either online, from a catalog or from a home improvement store, generally. These are in-ground watering systems for your gardens, just as many folks have had for the lawn for years.

Timers are available to turn the systems on and off, keeping in mind that with gardens, watering longer and more deeply is always preferable to watering three times a week for twenty minutes the way one does with a lawn, for example. Should you automate the irrigation system, add a rain sensor so that the system will not turn on should it actually rain.

Finally, for even less impact on the environment, there are rain barrels. When they are properly installed and fitted, they do not breed mosquitoes. And while the water is not safe for drinking, and should not be directed to watering edibles, it can water ornamental gardens and trees, which are so difficult to keep watered in drought situations. The water, with proper fittings, can be directed right to drip irrigation systems. As the cost of our municipal water rises, “free” water is always a bonus. Here is a fabulous reference about rain barrels from Rutgers, in New Jersey.

On Friday, I’ll talk about rain gardens.

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