Choose the Best Garden Watering Systems

Save water, grow food crops through drought and heat, and spend less on your summer water bills by using soaker hoses, drip irrigation, rainwater storage and other efficient garden watering systems in your plots.

| April/May 2015

Drip Irrigation Systems

Crops grown in long rows are prime candidates for drip irrigation systems, which can save a lot of water over the course of a gardening season. Just be sure to keep areas between plants and rows free of weeds, or the weeds will steal water away from your crops.

Photo by Jerry Pavia

This gardening season, with climate change causing higher temperatures and desperate droughts in multiple regions, many of us will experience weeks or even months in which sparse rainfall won’t keep pace with the sun’s hot rays. To keep your crops’ thirst quenched, try some options outlined in this roundup of water-wise gardening strategies, from familiar garden watering systems — such as soaker and drip hoses — to a lesser-known system called “partial root-zone drying.”

The best watering methods will depend at least partly on planting arrangement and crop type. Planting leafy greens, onions and other shallow-rooted plants in blocks rather than rows will simplify watering, especially if you water by hand. With crops that occupy more time and space in the garden, such as beans, peppers, sweet corn and tomatoes, better options include using soaker hoses, drip irrigation or carefully managed ditches. Even with regular rainfall, crops that require a relatively large amount of water to thrive, such as beans and sweet corn, will almost always need supplemental irrigation.

Weeding and Mulching Boost Watering Efficiency

A water-wise garden is no place for weeds. According to research from Michigan State University, a combo of good weed control and adequate mulch can conserve up to 1 inch of water per week during toasty summer months. Left uncontrolled, however, some weeds, such as crab grass and lamb’s-quarters, will slurp up more than 80 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of plant tissue.

Fundamental organic gardening practices that improve soil and limit weeds will set the stage for efficient garden-watering systems. If you add compost or rotted manure to the soil each time you plant, as well as use biodegradable mulches that break down into organic matter, your soil will retain moisture better. In general, the more grass clippings, leaves, coffee grounds and other organic materials you add to your soil, the less likely your crops will be to suffer from moisture stress. Another reason to be mad for mulch: Even before it breaks down into organic matter, a thick layer of mulch applied around plants will help by cooling and shading the soil, thus keeping your garden from drying out quickly after a watering or rain shower.

Soaker Hoses and Drip Irrigation Systems

I have long been an advocate of the 25-foot soaker hose, which weeps water evenly along its length, as if it were sweating. Soaker hoses work especially well for closely spaced crops and intensively planted beds. You can make your own soaker hoses by collecting old or leaky garden hoses from your friends and drilling small holes into them every few inches. Just cap or clamp off the male end of the hose.

Drip irrigation systems distribute water at regular intervals through a network of hoses or tapes with slits, pores, emitters or drippers. They work well for rows of crops spaced at varying intervals (you can set the emitters at wider spacing if you’re watering a crop planted farther apart), and perform best on relatively level ground, because pressure changes caused by sloping ground would result in uneven watering. If you have a large garden, look for systems that use inexpensive drip tape (brands include Aqua-Traxx, Chapin and T-Tape). The tiny holes in some emitters and drippers can become clogged with soil particles rather easily, so at least one filter needs to be screwed into the water line between the faucet (or reservoir) and the distribution lines of most drip irrigation systems.

4/18/2016 11:24:19 AM

Very Interesting article. We sell a self-watering garden system that eliminates all hand watering, digging and weeding. Check us out on! We truly feel it is the easiest way to grow a garden!

4/18/2016 11:23:58 AM

Very Interesting article. We sell a self-watering garden system that eliminates all hand watering, digging and weeding. Check us out on! We truly feel it is the easiest way to grow a garden!

4/22/2015 5:23:16 PM

You know why long row gardens were invented? To mimic fields--where tractors had to have paths to drive down. Every time I see long rows, I almost won't read the article--it is so antiquated! Permaculture methods, square foot gardening, wide rows, etc. have so many more advantages! Water conservation, soil erosion prevention, conservation of human time and energy, on and on. I wonder how long before M.E.N. will introduce an article on watering which considers these concerns as well as the typical struggling homeowner trying to financially improve their situation by growing produce, not spend money on increased water bills, water lines, equipment--timers, tanks, etc. Come on, M.E.N.-- you could present your articles in a much more up to date way!! (As with dining, presentation is SO important!!)

4/3/2015 8:11:52 AM

Drip is a really great way to conserve water no doubt. I am cheap and the hoses were outrageous to buy that many for good ones. I used pvc water lines 1 inch or 3/4 is ok. 1 inch is far better tho for pressure. For the cost of one 50 foot hose I was able to get enough for four rows in pvc. And with pvc you also have all kinds of options for fittings to water. I used water sprinkler heads used for watering lawns that you bury. Those worked so well, but there are other types of fittings as well for a more conservative approach. Personally I preferred the shower of the sprinkler heads a fine mist to clean the plants as well, they are adjustable for how much you want to water. And you don't even have to glue them together if you really don't want to you can just get fittings that screw them together for easy take down in the fall. In my opinion they hold up better too over a rubber hose.

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