One of the basic facts of gardening is that plants need water. Without the right amount of water a plant wilts and dies leaving a hole in the landscape. Water must be supplied in sufficient quantities and at the right time for a garden to grow and look its best. Most plants require at least 1” of water a week and unfortunately nature does not provide that amount consistently through the growing season so gardeners must supply the difference. Several different watering systems are available.
No one system is going to solve all your watering needs. You may need one kind of system for your vegetable garden and a very different one for your lawn. Every system has advantages and disadvantages and your choice of system or systems will be a trade-off.
Let’s start off the simplest and move on to the more complex.
Hand Watering: We all have to hand water at times. For some areas it is the best way to water because you can deliver what each plants needs. Hand watering works if you have lots of time or only a few plants but if your garden is large hand watering is too time consuming to be practical.
Portable Sprinklers: Sprinklers come in many sizes and shapes, some with oscillating water delivery. They can be used effectively for watering lawns, perennial and annual beds, shrubs, and trees but are not very good for potted plants. In addition they usually waste a considerable amount of water especially during the hot sunny part of the day when evaporation is high. The sprinklers must be manually turned on and off and moved around on a daily or seasonal basis so it can make considerable demands on your time.
Soaker Hoses: By delivering the water directly to the ground, the soaker hose reduces waste but is still not is not highly efficient. It also has the disadvantage of an uneven delivery of water; the plants that are closest to the water source receive more water than those further down the line. This problem can be reduced by using a large gauge hose.
Underground sprinkler system. This system consists of a large number of interconnected buried pipes (usually plastic) interspersed with sprinkler heads that spray water above ground. They are usually on timers that turn them on and off on a cyclic basis but can be manually turned off or on in accordance with the whims of Mother Nature. This type of system is especially suited to lawns and ground covers but can be used for garden beds and vegetable gardens especially when they are very large and contain a great number of plants. It wastes a considerable amount of water as the portable sprinkler systems do but is a big time saver. It is best installed before the garden is planted and is not easily changed as the garden changes. If used where shrubs or trees are growing, the sprinkler heads may have to be raised to accommodate their height and girth. Underground sprinkler systems can be expensive to have installed but the work can be done by a gardener who is willing and able to do the heavy work of digging the trenches for the irrigation pipe.
Drip Irrigation: By brining the water directly to the roots of individual plants and supplying a specified amount, drip irrigation is not only a good water conservation technique but is best for the growth of the plants. It is suitable for trees, shrubs, and modest sized gardens of annuals, perennials, and vegetables, but can’t be used for lawns or ground covers. Drip irrigation is also not practical for large gardens with many plants because the number of tubes and emitters needed would be enormous (just think of a corn field with a drip tube to each corn plant.) Like underground sprinkler systems, drip irrigation is best installed before the garden is planted but after the design has been made, and it does not lend itself to change from year to year. In addition, the emitters tend to get clogged with mineral deposits and have to be checked and cleaned on a yearly basis. Drip irrigation is expensive to have installed but can be done by the home gardener. A modified drip irrigation system can be used for potted plants although the aesthetics of the gardener might be offended. Drip irrigation is the most environmental friendly method of watering a garden and it can be effectively combined with the use of a rain barrel that collects the run-off from the house.
A combination of systems is probably the best solution to watering a garden; hand watering for pots, underground sprinklers for lawns and ground covers, drip irrigation for garden beds and borders, and soakers and portable sprinklers for odd spots that can’t be reached by any other means. A combination of systems can be expensive but it does not need to be done all at once and some parts can be done by the gardener.