garden watering

Polyurethane soaker hose in perennial bed

Being Aquarius 2: The Soaker Hose Project

Watering is necessary in this garden. Most of my perennial beds are near or right under big maples that suck up a lot of water. I’ve whined about them many times on the blog. In 2011, I wrote an entire post about watering (“Being Aquarius”). From June to September, I have to supply water, because I can’t count on any significant rain in those months. Predictions are for even drier, warmer summers.

My usual way to water has been with sprinklers — either an oscillating fan of water or a stationary circular spray. Each one is deployed for a two hour session in each area at least every two weeks. In especially hot periods, I increase the frequency to weekly. This routine has to take into account the local watering restrictions in force from May through September. I actually keep track of watering sessions in writing.

oscillating garden sprinkler fan shaped spray watering
Spray from oscillating sprinkler. Refreshing but wasteful. (Image from Pixabay)

The water dispensed through my sprinklers is potable municipal water. It’s piped miles from a reservoir, treated, and metered. It’s quite expensive — and so it should be, since it’s intended for human consumption. Even worse, a significant amount of it is lost to evaporation, especially on windy days.

There has to be a better way.

If I had another option, such as watering with stored winter rainwater from a cistern or giant tank, I would use that, but installing such features on my patch of paradise isn’t practical (or legal, come to that). There’s also “grey water,” but utilizing that involves plumbing-type installations I’m not keen on. So my water source for much of the gardening season is the giant storage facility known as the Sooke Lake Reservoir.

Many gardeners here have installed some form of drip or spot irrigation, with a network of plastic water lines, flow regulators, emitters, and mini-sprinklers. Over the winter, I actually thought about setting up one of these, but the idea of assembling all those bits and pieces doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does the prospect of puncturing, crushing, or cracking a water line while digging a hole for a new plant or digging up an existing one to move or divide it. Digging is sort of unavoidable in gardens, so it seems dumb to install a bunch of stuff that could be damaged thereby.

Enter the soaker hose. Again.

Old black rubber soaker hose coiled up
One of my old soaker hoses, not yet tested since returning from exile in the shed. This one might leak more than it should; note the tape on the right side.

Soaker hoses are made to ooze water from tiny holes along their entire length. The water drips onto the soil and soaks into it, becoming available to the roots of the plants in the bed. Altogether, this seems to be my best option for responsible, efficient watering.

Water oozing through holes in polyurethane soaker hose close up
The soaker hose gently weeps…

Confession time: I used soaker hoses years ago, but grew disenchanted with them and stashed them in the shed. Why did I abandon them and resort to sprinklers? Trust, or rather, lack of trust. Maybe because I didn’t see water spouting into the air, I didn’t believe the soakers were delivering enough of it to the plants. Soakers are subtle. They don’t produce fountains. They don’t leave the puddles or dripping foliage that follow a sprinkler watering. I could see that the soil near the soakers became visibly wet, but I couldn’t be sure the water was penetrating far enough or spreading widely enough to meet the needs of all the plants. So I started supplementing the soakers with water from cans or even sprinklers, which eventually made me wonder why I was bothering with the soakers at all. To the shed with them!

pink watering can
A seriously cute supplementary watering tool.

After doing a bit of research on soakers, I’m ready to try them again. Last week, I hauled them out, flushed them out, and laid out two of them in a couple of perennial beds. I also bought two new soakers, fairly expensive ones made of polyurethane, said to be superior in many ways to the old ones, which are made from used tires, and thus not recommended for use near plants intended to be eaten.

Black rubber soaker hose
Old black soaker hose among newly sprouted hardy geraniums.

Ideally, I would have prepped the beds and laid out the soaker hoses back in February, before plants sprouted. Even light, manageable hoses can’t be squiggled among tender new shoots without inflicting some damage. (Not to mention the feet of the gardener tromping around.) But we got a blast of winter in February, including snow. Spring was postponed, along with the Soaker Hose Project.

March swept in with sun and warmth. While I was getting organized, making lists, and going shopping for soaker hoses and magic dust (organic fertilizer), plants leapt out of the ground. At least one iris was snapped off and some tulip shoots roughed up while I was wrestling the hoses into place. Advice says soakers should be no farther than 18 inches apart on sandy soil. Mine are about two feet apart. (Hey — perfection is elusive.)

Once the soakers were in position I connected each one to the supply hose and turned the tap a modest one-sixth turn. A satisfying dribble of water appeared along the length of each hose. Right now, supplementary water isn’t needed. The real test will come in late May or early June. At that point, I’ll turn on the tap for a couple of hours and observe what happens. With luck, the hoses will weep and the gardener will rejoice.

primula white with yellow centres
By the time the soaker hoses are in use, these primulas will be finished blooming, but they look great right now.
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Rain Envy

When I hear about devastating floods, as in Louisiana just now, I wish rain could be better distributed around the continent. Especially now, when I have just spent an hour raking leaves. Not yellow and orange autumn leaves, but dead, dry green leaves jettisoned by the Norway maples, along with zillions of maple seeds, as the trees respond to what has become a hot, dry summer.

Norway maple seeds and withered leaf.

Norway maple seeds and withered leaf.

In April and May we had at least three hot spells, with temperatures freakishly above normal for several days. June and July were relatively cool, with just enough rain to stave off a drought, but the last six weeks have been totally dry. I delayed starting my usual summer watering program well into July, hoping to encourage plants to toughen up and send their roots well into the ground. That’s the advice of seasoned gardeners such Beth Chatto, author of The Dry Garden. She claimed never to water once plants were established, but I can’t make myself do that. At first, I limit watering sessions with sprinklers to two hours every two weeks for each area of the garden (noting dates so I can keep the schedule straight). Eventually, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t enough. Either I have to start watering at least weekly or give up and let the plants struggle on as best they can. By late August, most have made as much growth as they’re likely to, and most have finished blooming, so they really don’t need as much water as they do earlier in the season. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway). But parts of the garden look really bad right now. I’m not going to post pictures — too depressing.

One of the joys of gardening is to see the plants one has chosen doing well, growing to their maximum sizes and blooming when they’re supposed to. Participating in the cycle of sprouting, growth, budding, blooming, withering and dormancy is what it’s all about. But a drought short-circuits the process and leads to oddball scenarios like raking up bushels of dry green leaves under a hot summer sun. And instead of a graceful transition into fall colours, I’m seeing an abrupt case of the browns.

The weather forecast for the next week includes three days with high temperatures between 27 and 30 degrees C (81 to 86 F). After that it will cool down to 21 (about 70 F) but there is no rain in sight.

On the plus side, tomatoes are ripening on the vine, and in the front garden (less beleaguered by Norway maple roots), asters are showing a million buds, some of which are starting to open. That’s where I go to reassure myself that some things are working out as they should.

Aster "Pink Cloud" starting to bloom, with lots of buds waiting to open.

Aster “Pink Cloud” starting to bloom, with lots of buds waiting to open.

 

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass "Little Bunny"

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass “Little Bunny”

The Garden Goes On… And On

Gardens are collections of plants. No matter what the gardener does, plants grow, bloom, go to seed, and/or die, depending on the type of plant and whether it is getting the conditions it prefers. The gardener is a mere adjunct, trying with varying degrees of success to impose her idea of what the garden should be on a population of diverse plants. That’s the essence of gardening. It’s a constant struggle an intersection of plants, their needs, climate and weather, and the gardener’s desires and exertions.

Olympic Mullein -- gardener, look out!

Olympic Mullein — gardener, look out! Aaargh — too late!

Shortly after I retired at the end of March, I realized that as far as the garden was concerned, I was late to the party. Spring was early and warm, and growth was well under way before I had a chance to take a good look around. Too late for most pruning operations and moving plants around — two critical activities in this garden. Some plants — mainly shrubs — need frequent pruning, trimming and sucker removal. Others threaten to fade away unless moved to better spots, i.e., not overhung by trees or shrubs, in soil that isn’t full of maple roots.

I’ve spent the summer deadheading, watering, poking around and making plans for a grand game of musical chairs to be executed (what a word that is!) this fall and next spring. And a list of Things to Prune next winter. I’m keen to get going, but August isn’t the time for such exertions.

In the meantime, plants are going through their annual cycles, and so is the garden, which has entered what I think of as the brown season — late summer in a summer-dry climate. I’m getting tired of dragging the hose and hoisting the watering can. I know this happens every year. I know it will rain some day (and rain and rain some more). Hardy cyclamen will bloom. Mushrooms will sprout. Moss will green up. A few spring-blooming shrubs will send out a few flowers. The air will smell of coming autumn. But right now that seems far away.

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore — in September, after rain.