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Although April showers haven’t finished with us yet, it won’t be long before the long, hot, dry days of summer are here. Water then becomes an all-important issue with gardeners. If you’ve been dragging a hose around in the sun trying to make sure everything gets watered, you might want to consider a new way to water—drip irrigation.
For the past five years, I’ve used drip irrigation for my 1,400 square-foot vegetable garden and extensive herb garden, and I’ve developed some tips and tricks to make a drip irrigation system easy to set-up, use and, most important, fix.
The first step in drip irrigation is planning, although no plan is really complete until you actually are doing the installation since you’re bound to find some surprises. Still you want to have a pretty good idea how much mainline tubing you will need as well as how many connectors, sprinklers and/or drippers will be sufficient to cover the area to be watered.
Mainline tubing that connects to the water faucet is ½-inch in diameter and comes in rolls up to 1,000 feet. Buy more than you think you’ll need. Also, a word of caution: buy tubing and connectors from the same manufacturer. Components from different manufacturers usually don’t work together. Sprinklers, drippers and feeder tubing are much the same and will work on any system. Generally speaking drip irrigation is designed for low-pressure water. If you are on regular city water, you will need a pressure regulator between the faucet and the mainline tubing.
In addition to the mainline, you will need ¼-inch feeder tubing, which comes in rolls of 50-feet. The feeder tubing connects to the mainline with small barbed connectors. You will need to purchase a hole punch to create a place for the barb. Buy the more expensive one; it’s worth it. After you’ve punched about 100 holes, your hands will thank you.
If you are irrigating odd-shaped beds or want to connect multiple mainlines, you will need a variety of ½-inch connectors, which come as Ts, elbows and straight connectors. I always buy a good supply, since I may have to change the configuration of the system during the growing season. Also, if a section of mainline is damaged, it is easier to cut out the damaged section and replace it. You will need some straight connectors to attach the new section.
Finally, you need to determine if you will use sprinklers or drippers. Sprinklers come in a 90-degree spray pattern, 180-degree or 360-degree. Personally, I have found the half-circle sprinklers (180-degree) the most useful.
Drippers are used for permanent plantings, like shrubs or trees. Dripper buttons are available in a range of sizes, from ¼-gallon per hour to a gallon an hour. Drippers tend to get clogged more readily than sprinklers, so you will need to keep an eye on them otherwise you might not know that your beloved lemon tree isn’t getting any water, until it’s too late.
Now for some tricks. You can cut both mainline tubing and feeder tubing with a pair of scissors; however sharp garden pruning shears do a better job of making clean, straight cuts.
Small amounts of dirt, plant material and bugs can clog even the best-designed system. When you lay out your system, be sure to let water run through the mainline for a minute before closing off the end. This will flush out most of the gunk.
Two simple, homemade tools are indispensable for keeping my system functional. The first is a 12-inch long piece of 1/8”-inch diameter metal rod, which I salvaged from a broken chicken feeder. It is just the right size for reaming out the risers that hold the sprinkler heads. Second, a 10- to 12-inch piece of straightened baling wire is used for cleaning out the sprinkler heads.
Finally, I keep a small garden tote stocked with a variety of connectors, barbs, sprinkler heads, drippers, hose washers, hole punch, and extra feeder tubing along with my “cleaning tools” readily available for quick and easy repairs.
With a minimum of planning and a bit of work laying things out, you too can sit back on the porch in the summer sun and let the irrigation system do all of your watering chores this year.