The Crestone Eagle • June, 2020

Garden Guru: Conserving precious water

by Matie Belle Lakish

As I write this, the middle of May, 2020, our part of the SLV is at 27% of normal precipitation, in an area where normal is between 7” and 10” of moisture, depending on where one is located. It is incredibly dry at the same time that many people are beginning, or increasing, their gardens in response to COVID-19. It is imperative on all of us, as gardeners, to conserve as much water as possible. We must make every irrigation drop count.

If you are new to gardening, some irrigation-related terms may be confusing. The early farmers in the valley used flood irrigation, meaning that they flooded their fields from a ditch running next to the field, usually diverting water with some device, now commonly plastic sheeting, to flood the planting area for a specific time. This is still done, especially in the southern valley. However, most commercial farmers now use center-pivot sprinklers. These can be adjusted to deliver water in more precise and uniform amounts to a whole field. Neither of these methods is practical in our gardens.

We often use a hand-held hose or sprinkler to water a defined area, such as a garden bed or a lawn. Using a hand-held nozzle, you can direct the water just where you want it, and with the volume that you want. I often use this method when watering small plants which require daily attention, or when watering a small area. Sprinklers are good at covering a wide area, such as a lawn, uniformly. With sprinklers, however, much water is lost to evaporation, and they also encourage weeds by watering everything in the vicinity of the crop plant.

Drip and soaker hose systems are better at placing the water where it is needed. Drip systems have become very popular as the climate has warmed and become drier. These usually involve a black plastic line with emitters installed at intervals to drip or spray a constant amount of water to an individual plant. There are numerous variations on this theme, and an internet search will give you a lot of options. Most are sold as a “system” with specific types of emitters and regulators. I have worked with a few of these, and found it difficult to deviate from the “system” without causing complications. For instance, you cannot usually have different types of emitters for spinach and for fruit trees. Over the years I have migrated to soaker hoses as more versatile and easier to control. They are also usually less expensive, as the drip systems require lots of components that are system-specific, and therefore costlier.

Soaker hoses are porous hoses that “weep” a small amount of water along the entire length. They easily screw onto a standard garden hose and don’t usually require any special fittings. There are exceptions, however. There is variation in diameter, porosity, and materials used in manufacture. They are well suited for rows or circles of plants, and for circling fruit trees and bushes. Their flexibility makes placing them in odd locations much easier than less flexible pipe. However, if there are distances between plants, a less porous hose may be better for spanning that distance.

While soaker hose made from virgin materials are now available, some is still made from recycled rubber. Because of possible residual PCBs, many gardeners prefer not to use recycled rubber, although PCBs have been banned for years and are not common in hoses at this time. It seems that all hoses have some environmental and health risks, including vinyl hoses. This can be mitigated by covering them with mulch, as intense sun heat increases outgassing, which can end up in water.

I have used both thinner and thicker hose. The thinner hose, sometimes called “soaker tubing” is about 1/4” in diameter, and requires special fittings to attach it to a thicker hose, called “distribution tubing”. It requires a special tool for making holes in the distribution tubing, and has various fittings to accomplish various tasks around plants. This system is best used on a small scale with small plants. After using it for a few years, I have found it to be too delicate and easily broken, or chewed by rodents, for my uses. Currently I am using three types of 1/2” tubing, each in its own location. I have found out, the hard way, that it is better not to mix types of soakers in one bed. There is enough variation in porosity that some plants will get more water than others.

I make circular systems, with water feeding into both ends of the system. This is done by using a Y or T at the beginning, and attaching the garden, or feeder hose, from the faucet to the open end, while the soaker is attached to open ends of the Y or T.

First, attach the soaker hose to one side of the Y or T, then place the hose along the ground in the area you wish to water. If it is an open bed, you may make circles or curves, but not sharp bends, as water will be impeded by sharp corners in your hose. If making rows, I stretch the hose the length of the bed, round the corners on a bend, and then bring the hose back to the side where I started. Continue until all rows are done. I use hose staples, a U-shaped metal type sold at the Merc, to hold the hoses in place, but you can also place rocks on the hose to hold it. If plants are already in place, the hose should be within 3 inches of the plants. Bring the other end of the hose back to the Y. Using a double-female fitting, attach the end of the hose to the other side of the V. Now, when you turn on the water, you will have fairly equal water pressure all along your hose, rather than a lot of water at the beginning and nothing at the end. This will work better if the hose is roughly level. Big changes in elevation will cause pooling in low places.

I find that I can do about 150 ft. of hose in this way. That is enough to do most small garden beds. If the bed is larger, I can put up to 300 feet of hose, but I need to put a second source of water to the circle. I do this by putting a second Y in the middle of the longer loop, and a second hose feeding water at the same time.

Often, I need to repair hose, or cut sections to a specific length, so I keep a selection of hose fittings on hand for repairs. These can be bought at most hardware stores or garden centers. For instance, if your hose gets a hole, cut the hose and insert a plastic hose repair tube, then clamp it on with small clamps. I also keep male and female hose fittings to repair ends. When inserting a tube into the hose, I soak the hose end in hot water for a few minutes. It usually slides on easily after that.

Mulching is the last step. Once your soakers are in place, cover them with a straw, leaf, or wood chip mulch to hold the moisture in the ground and keep your hoses somewhat cooler.

While I have described a simple system, a large garden may have several portions with different soaker loops. Janet Woodman is, in my opinion, a master at complicated soaker hose irrigation. Like the big systems, it is a matter of moving, containing, and conserving water, lifeblood for us all.