Thanks to our three-year drought, many conscientious growers plan to put away their green thumbs this summer. Even lifelong gardeners are tossing seed catalogs into recycling bins and oiling shovels for long-term storage.
Instead, they could — and should be — investing in drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to the root zone. It helps save gallons of water compared to hand watering, and it's better for plants, such as tomatoes and squash, that don't like water on their leaves anyway. So why do so many gardeners avoid the Big Drip? Perhaps they picture wrestling with twisted piles of black plastic tubing and poking at pop-up sprinklers that refuse to pop up. When a product comes with something called goof plugs, you can predict that installation involves enough cursing to shock the kids next door.
There are easier ways. First off, examine your landscape. If you're on a hill and your faucet is at the bottom, start by running a hose to the top and letting the water drip down through the system. Those on flat ground or with raised beds have an easier task. You can use black tubes or, even easier, soaker hoses. These soft black hoses come in 50- and 75-foot lengths, and they weep like Jimmy Swaggart along their entire length. You can connect them together to cover 150 or even 200 feet. But first uncoil them and lay them flat overnight to remove their tendency to curl up.
Say you have two side-by-side raised beds of about 25 feet long each. Get two 50-foot soaker hoses, join them by a hose Y at the base of the beds, and lay each hose out in a serpentine fashion (think of how a snake travels) on top of each bed. You can hold them down with steel landscape staples, but if you laid the hose flat overnight, just three or four staples for each will be sufficient. You'll be pleasantly surprised how the hose will curve around obstacles or run underneath prized plants, then come back the other way. Make nice easy curves and avoid kinks. Now you've got a drip system that took you twenty minutes to lay out and that will work all season.
If you don't have raised beds or anything like it, run the soaker hose down the length of a bed, make it turn at the end, and come back the other way. Hoses about two to three feet apart will reach the root zones of most plants.
Once you've laid your lines, turn on the faucet gingerly. Often, households supplied by East Bay MUD have high water pressure, and you don't want to blow out your hoses. The hoses should start seeping all along their lengths — you're going for water oozing from a sponge, not miniature Old Faithfuls. Once you've achieved the right pressure, let them run about fifteen minutes. Turn off the water and dig down a few inches into the dirt to check the coverage. You'll find that even if it looks dry in places on the surface, water has spread underneath to fill in the areas where the hose curves. If you need a bit more moisture, try another five minutes. When you plant your veggies, either by seed or transplant, center larger plants, like tomatoes, within the curves, not right up against the hoses. Lettuce, spinach, and smaller plants can be placed anywhere along the hoses.
Depending on your location and the weather, you might get away with just fifteen minutes a day of irrigation or even less. If you place mulch on top of the drip hoses and around your plants, you can irrigate only every few days. A timer at the faucet makes this a true no-brainer system. Set it to go on for fifteen minutes every other morning and you can vacation with the assurance that your plants are thriving. Your soaker hoses should last at least two years; be sure to change their washers every year along with the washer that's connected to the faucet.
After you've dealt with your vegetable beds, look around the rest of your yard for drip possibilities. You can snake several connected soaker hoses along the perimeter of your fence (place them about a foot or two away) to water berries and landscape plants. Or curl a line among your fruit trees. You can put these outlying soakers on a timer that you manually set, like an oven timer. Dial in thirty minutes once a week for trees and twenty minutes for berries, and you're good to go.
If you're up for a project, try tube irrigation. It's harder to install but it lasts for years and uses even less water than the soaker hoses. Either way, congratulate yourself for saving labor and water while still growing your own healthy vegetables and fruits.