You would think something as simple as watering the garden would be easy for home gardeners. But garden irrigation can actually prove tricky to master.
How much water does your garden need?
Should you hand-water, use soaker hoses, or lay drip lines?
How do you know if your vegetables are getting too much or not enough water?
In this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, garden expert Joe Lamp’l of the Joe Gardener Show shares his best practices for garden irrigation. Click below to listen to the conversation or continue reading.
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Garden Irrigation Options
Hand watering is an excellent option especially for smaller gardens. This practice forces you to stop at every plant and examine it. When you pay attention, you can catch disease or pests more quickly. Joe uses a watering wand so he can reach the base of the plant.
When you hand-water your garden, aim at the base of the plant. Keep the foliage as dry as possible because overhead watering can cause more problems with disease like early blight on tomatoes. Watering at the base of the plant also saves water and keeps the irrigation where the plant needs it most.
Many gardeners, especially those with larger gardens and raised beds, opt to use soaker hoses to irrigate their garden.
A soaker hose is a porous tube that leaks through its entire length. This weeping action gives plants a consistent soaking of water.
Soaker hoses can be used for almost all gardens, but they are an excellent choice along a row of closely-planted crops like bush beans or carrots.
Drip Irrigation Systems
In a drip irrigation system, you place emitter tubing at the base of your plants or along rows.
Drip irrigation systems provide flexibility for larger spaces but can also be adapted easily for smaller spaces and containers. Drip irrigation is ideal when plants are spaced further apart and a soaker hose would end up watering the weeds in between them.
I have used a drip irrigation system in my garden for years and have appreciated the flexibility and durability of these lines to cover my 3500 square foot area.
Below Joe gives a demonstration of a drip irrigation system he uses and all of its parts:
Soaker Hose vs. Drip Irrigation
If you know you don’t want to rely on hand-watering all season, how do you decide between soaker hoses and a drip irrigation system?
A soaker hose will water your entire bed the length of the hose. In a drip irrigation system, you can better target individual plants. If your plants are close together a soaker hose might be a better fit for that bed. If your plants are spaced farther apart, a drip irrigation system might meet your needs better.
In my experience of using both, soaker hoses are ideal for smaller spaces and raised beds, whereas you may find drip lines to be a better options for larger garden areas.
Soaker Hose or Drip Lines Above or Below Mulch?
If you use mulch (and you should use mulch in your garden, always), should you place your irrigation lines above or below it?
Joe recommends placing your irrigation lines below the mulch. In doing this, more of the moisture stays in the soil near the root zone instead of being lost to evaporation.
Some hoses will also shoot the water farther than others. When the hose is under the mulch, the spray will stay off the lower foliage and keep the plant healthier. You just need to be careful when working the soil by weeding and harvesting with garden tools, because you can’t see the tubes and you don’t want to damage them.
I’ve sliced many emitter tubes by hoeing. Thankfully, drip irrigation systems come with accessories for a quick repair if of when that happens.
Best Time of Day to Water Plants
Is there a best time of day to water your garden?
Generally, plants prefer watering in the early morning around sunrise. But if you’re watering at ground level, watering in the evening is acceptable. The benefit of watering in the early morning is that the plants will receive a good dose of moisture before the stress of the heat of the day.
Overhead watering in the evening is never recommended. Because the water cannot evaporate as quickly, this can set the stage for disease to set in. Also, watering at mid-day should only be done if necessary to save the plant.
I have found setting my drip system on a timer to water my garden every few days in the early morning has worked the best in my garden. Joe does the same thing, and when he decides to hand-water, he turns off the automatic watering for that day.
How Much Water Does Your Garden Need?
Your garden needs about one inch of water each week. This can come from rain or from your irrigation system. This will change through the year, you will probably need to water more in the heat of the summer. It is important to watch your garden and pay attention to the health and possible stress of your plants.
How do you know if your garden is receiving an inch of water per week in the absence of rain?
To measure the water coming from soaker hoses or drip lines, you can place an empty tuna or cat food can that is about an inch deep under the hose and time how long it takes to fill. Then you can set your automatic timer and know your plants will get the water they need.
Overwatering vs Underwatering: How to tell the difference?
The symptoms of overwatering and underwatering are very similar. But keep in mind, more plants die from overwatering than underwatering.
For a quick way to determine if your soil has enough moisture, poke your finger into the soil. If when you remove it, if you see dirt and moisture, you know the soil is wet enough. If your finger is dry and clean, it needs water. (Think about how you use a toothpick to check the doneness of brownies or a cake.)
Another way to determine whether your plants need water is to observe them. If the leaves are turning brown, that usually means not enough water. But if they turn yellow and look anemic, often they have bene given too much water.
Rain Barrels and Drip Irrigation Systems: Considerations
If you want to use rain barrels in your garden irrigation plan, the key is to place the rain barrel high enough so that there is enough pressure from gravity to pull the water through the irrigation tubes. The height will depend on how far you need the water to travel.
Garden Irrigation: Conclusion
As simple as watering your garden seems, it does come with its challenges! But hopefully this conversation with Joe Lamp’l helped answer some of the most common questions on garden irrigation.
In the absence of Mother Nature providing a healthy one inch of water per week all year, these irrigation tips will help you keep your garden healthy all season.
Do you have any garden irrigation tips you would add?
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