A Great Way to Water Your Garden

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My friend Crystal took this photot

My friend Crystal took this photot

My friend Crystal once dubbed me the “Dahlia Whisperer” after spotting me in my front flower field. And while I basked in the glory of her kindly title and her stealthy skills as island paparazzo, I hated to tell her I was really more of a dahlia waterer.  Every evening and by hand, I would water, and water, and water long rows of plants—definitely a silly option for a one-man, two-dog operation. So I came up with a smarter, easier, more cost-effective way to water my flower fields. Because I’m on a shared water district, I wanted to use the least amount of water possible for optimal cut flower production. Using this method, I cut my water usage by more than half during the summer months.

Bulldog in the garden
While Gracie secured the porch, Boz supervised my farmwork.

Weeding and watering are the two biggest challenges I face in growing cut flowers. This year my solution was simple and relatively inexpensive; I unrolled a greenhouse weed barrier for the pathways and left an 18-inch row for planting crops north to south.

hoe
“Hoe, hoe, hoe your row, gently down the…!”

I then created a furrow, where I would place a drip or soaker hose running the length of the row.

hoses in place
Ruh-row, I think Boz is inspecting my work here.

Because the rows were 45 feet long, and the hoses, 50 feet, I would just loop them back at the row end, and create a loop. There is a stopper cap on each end of the soaker hose, but you can connect the hoses if you wish for longer rows.

soaker
A soaker hose at work…drip, drip, drip.

The real secret to this system (which I will cover in more detail shortly) is using quick connector brass couplers and a shut-off valve at the end of the main hose or water source. Adjusting the shut-off valve allows less water to pass through the drip hose, which reduces pressure, and results in a slow watering and a deep reach—all courtesy of the steady droplets.

slow water
The water drops find the roots not the soil’s surface area.

With quick couplers, I attach or remove the garden hose to the drip hose with a simple click of the coupler, no threading or unthreading necessary. After a half an hour, I detach the garden hose from the drip hose with one push of the thumb and reattach it to the next drip hose one row away.

kjkjk
I plant seedlings (here zinnias) in the furrow, following the soaker hose.
dad
A little mulch in the form of grass clippings hides the hose and locks in the moisture, while keeping the leaves and flowers dry.
hhh
With soaker hoses in place, rows of dahlias receive a top dressing of grass clippings to thwart weed growth.
flower field in bloom
The front field in mid-summer: dahlias, and zinnias, and sunflowers, oh my!
hjj
Dahlias dazzle: Give Mother Nature a little water, and she returns a lot o love.

A better way to water with a soaker hose

Why use a soaker hose?

  • Uses less water than hand-watering and sprinklers
  • Saves time.
  • Promotes deeper root growth and stronger plants
  • Can be used with a timer.
  • Keeps water off of leaves and flowers, lessening mold, mildew and fungus occurrences
  • Easy to manage and use
  • Inexpensive to set up
  • No special equipment, parts easily found at hardware store
  • Disappears into the landscape
  • Long-lasting materials

Important distinction: do not use a “sprinkler” hose. Its larger surface pores allow too much water to pass through in the first ten feet or so, and as a result the water rarely reaches the far end of the hose. And also, for durability and longevity, I prefer brass fittings and couplers to those made of plastic.

What you will need

soaker hose
Anatomy of my soaker hose setup.
  • Soaker or drip garden hose
  • Brass quick-connection couplers
  • Brass shut-off valve

How to use a soaker hose, valve, and couplers

  1. Unroll soaker hose and let it sit in the sun to soften and uncoil.
  2. Place the hose around or near the plants or on the area you wish to water.
  3. The open soaker hose end should be easy to find and reach, visible to the gardener when needed.
  4. Thread and tighten the shut-off valve to the water hose.
  5. Thread and tighten the female couple to the shut-off valve.
  6. Thread and tighten the male coupler to the soaker hose.
  7. Connect the two couplers by pushing back the spring ring on the female coupler.
  8. Turn on water and adjust shut-off valve so pressure is low.
  9. Pressure is low enough when droplets form on the hose and roll off the soaker hose drop by drop.
  10. Usually the valve makes a hissing sound when the low flow has been reached.
  11. It may take a few minutes for the water pressure to equalize and reach the capped end of the soaker hose.
  12. Normal water pressure is too high for soaker hoses and the water escapes too quickly and doesn’t soak in, creating runoff, pooling, and waste. So go slow and low—drip, drip, drip…

How long to water

  1. Length of watering depends on soil structure, size of plants, weather conditions and outside temperature.
  2. Take a small hand shovel or trowel and dig down to see how far the moisture has reached.
  3. As a rule of thumb, five to six inches of wet soil is a good minimal goal.
  4. I usually water each row between 30 minutes to an hour once a week.
  5. Should the days be especially hot I water any time I see wilting leaves in the midday sun.
  6. I water in the evening so the plants have a night of soaking it in and up the stems and leaves before the next day of sunshine.

How to winterize (update)

  1. You can leave the soaker hoses in place, as they have permeable walls and the moisture can escape.
  2. Garden hoses (bringing the water to the soaker hose) are best removed, drained, and stored for the winter, as trapped water can freeze, expand and split the hose structure and outer membrane.
  3. I remove my soaker hoses in the places that will require spring cultivation or tilling.
    1. Simply remove soaker hose and place somewhere out of the way like under the eaves of the house, or by a garage or along a fenceline.
    2. The key is to keep the hose straight and uncoiled if left outside to be stored. I’ve found overwintering the hose as a coil can cause permanent crimps and cracks in the hose.
    3. If the hose goes into a heated area,  coiling should be okay.
zinnias
Zinnias: bold beauties in the garden and vase, and most appreciative of slow drinks of water.

19 COMMENTS

  1. Great post. I’ve been considering doing a set-up like that for my blueberries.

    Would you consider doing a post on your FAVORITE dahlias? Your photos are so stunning, and I’m planning on adding quite a few to my meager selection and would love to know some of those varieties. Pretty please? A good project for a rainy day??

    • Sue, what a great idea. I would be happy to do a post about my favorite dahlias. May take a week or two, but I’ll get to it before the ground freezes. cheers!

      • Tom, thanks for this great info. Is the 30-45 minutes per row daily or every other day or ?? What is the frequency of watering if we have a dry summer such as the one we just had in 2015?

        • Oh good point Teri, I watered each row once a week during the summer when we had no rain to speak of, but more if the plants were wilting under the heat.

  2. I was getting ready to ask you if you could identify the dahlias in your photo and then saw that Sue had a much better suggestion (always nice to read the gardener’s thoughts & observations along with the names of things). My husband always used drip irrigation on his tomatoes, as he felt that uneven watering was their biggest enemy. For my money, it was the tomato hornworms, but having suddenly lost more than one crop of cherry tomatoes to a New England nor’easter-style downpour, I could see his point.

  3. What a great “How To” article. We established two new gardens last spring and the automatic watering system was imperative! When I am ready to install a cut garden…I will be back to you!!!

  4. Thank you Tom. This will give me the winter to figure out my soaker system. I am using a lot of mulch which really helped during the drought we had in our area, not too far from you. I want to kick it up to the next level. Thank you for the how-to.
    Erin

    • Glad to help Erin, and you’re off to a good start with mulching. I’d really like to have a rain catchment system in place, so perhaps that will be my kicking it up to the next level in a couple years or so.

  5. Hi Tom, Super informative! Thanks. One question…I live near the southern part of Vancouver Island, so climate is likely quite similar to that of Vashon island. After a very hot summer with early water restrictions, I am going to be using soaker hoses in a big way next summer. Do you lift you soaker hoses for the winter, or leave them buried?
    barb

    • Hi Barb, good question. I leave the soaker hoses in place in the areas I don’t cultivate with a tiller or disturb the soil around the plants, such as the dahlia rows. I’ve started leaving my dahlia tubers in the ground, and crossing my fingers for a mild winter. So far so good, most all have survived the last two winters. Where I plant annuals, or new seedlings each year, I remove the hoses, but only because a cultivated blade and soaker hose should never meet. I just pull them from the rows, and position them along a fence line for their winter’s nap. If you coil them, they tend to crimp and crack in the colder weather. If kept in a heated space, no problem; coil away!

  6. Tom — great How To article. I too have used soaker hoses with great success for my long-row veggies (tomatoes, melons, eggplants, peppers). I also had them spread out throughout my perennial beds, with a similar timer system. In the end, even that became too much for me, and along with other reasons, the need for a smaller ‘acreage’ to garden in led to a move to a smaller garden (and house). My new yard (not yet a garden, nothing much planted yet, just gravel walkways, berms and pavers so far) is going to be a much more manageable size for me. I am curious to see how the automatic irrigation systems works my vegs and (planned) small cutting garden. Currently sprayers on tall risers. But soaker hoses might feature in my future.

    I second (third) the request for a list of Tom’s Favorite Dahlias. I have never really gotten into growing dahlias (they definitely need to be lifted for winter in my Zone 5 climate) but admire them from afar in ‘westside’ (of the mountains) gardens like yours. Come on — tempt me.

    • KathyG, I hear you; smaller is looking better and better each year. I find I have to edit my landscape each year and lessen the maintenance as a favor to my knees, back, schedule and attitude. Thank goodness for the off-season. 😉 Here’s to your new home and garden!

  7. Brilliant use of soaker hoses. Think of all the time freed up for scratching ears and other important stuff! I have set up multiple soaker hoses throughout my entire garden (including a greenhouse) all attached to a 4 outlet timer I purchased through Lee Valley. http://www.leevalley.com/en/Garden/page.aspx?p=69727&cat=2,2280,33160&ap=1
    An economical way to keep the garden happy when I get away in the summer. Usually once I have everything in place I don’t go back to hand watering at all the rest of the summer. More time for gin and tonics!

    • Ah Mike, I like how you think; you are man with some well-set priorities: gardening, travel and refined refreshments. I’ll check out the link, as you are one step ahead of me on a better way to water. Thanks Mike!

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