soaker hoses

Familiar scene of rustic bench near the pond in autumn (fall) with hardy cyclamen and hostas

New and Different: Garden Changes

I think it’s time to get away from book reviewing and rule quibbling. Whatever else might be happening, there’s always the garden.

It’s fall in the garden. Rain and imminent plant dormancy eliminates the need to water (except for a few pots). The gardener is energized. Plans are made and a few are carried out.

Hosta "Stained Glass"
Hosta “Stained Glass”

Nurseries put plants on deep discount at this time of year, rather than carry them through the winter. So I bought a rather nice hosta (called “Stained Glass”) for half price. Its leaves are a translucent yellow with blue-green margins. It complements the other hostas (dark green with white margins and medium green with yellow margins; you can see them in the featured image above). I also got a late summer/early fall blooming gentian (Gentiana septemfida). If it settles in and blooms well, I’ll have glowing blue trumpet-shaped flowers at both ends of the season, since I already have spring-blooming Gentiana acaulis.

Gentians, Gentiana acaulis
Flowers like these, only in fall.

A few days ago, I weeded the pond. Yes, ponds need weeding at times. I’ve had an oxygenating water plant (Elodea canadensis) in the pond for years, but for some reason there was way too much of it at summer’s end. There’s also duckweed (Lemna minor), a small, lime green surface floater, which can be sort of pretty, but not if it’s wall-to-wall. So I hoicked out masses of both and added them to the compost pile.

I have two compost piles. By mid-October I have to make room for the leaves that are about to descend. Usually I stack the old pile of not quite finished stuff on top of the current one containing fresh material. By the following spring it’s all pretty much rotted down enough to be distributed among the planted areas. But this year’s old compost (mostly last fall’s leaves) looked so finished that I decided to spread it around immediately, at least in spots where that could be done without damaging plants still in good shape.

Compost area half empty with removed blue fescues
Compost area awaiting the annual deluge of leaves. Those blue fescues on the left are awaiting composting. I removed them from the main path, where there were too many of them.

The Boulevard Project progressed well this summer. The chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace looked great together and several clumps of California poppies bloomed and produced seeds, and therefore more plants. A couple of them are an unusual creamy pink colour; the rest are the usual bright orange. I happened to obtain seeds of two native plants — consumption plant (Lomatium nudicaule) and seaside rein orchid (Habenaria greenei) — and scattered them around before a week of rainy weather. If they take hold, I think I’ll dig out some of the chicory and QAL. My original idea was to emulate a country roadside, but I think it’s better to encourage plants that belong here, rather than hearty imports.

Chicory flower
Chicory flower

The other day, I pulled out the last of the soaker hoses, rolled it up, and stashed it in the shed. (Wrestling hoses can be an exceedingly trying process; don’t do it if you’re feeling crabby or are in a rush.) Were the soakers effective as watering devices? For perennials, I would say yes. But not so much for shrubs.

The Chinese Witch Hazel (to the right of the bench in the featured image at the top of the post) showed drought stress from early summer. Its leaf edges began to turn orange-brown as early as June and it once again has no plans to bloom. It really isn’t a suitable choice for this climate, unless planted in a naturally damp area or given deluxe irrigation. I haven’t been able to bring myself to remove (i.e. kill) and replace it, though.

A much better choice of shrub is Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), which I recently planted in one of the mixed beds. It’s a native plant of the region, a graceful, early summer blooming shrub that’s definitely at home here. It should outperform the witch hazel without any extra help once established (but unlike the witch hazel, it doesn’t bloom in January with an enchanting perfume — but then, neither does my witch hazel).

Speaking of failures, I’m declaring 2020 the Last Chance Year for Meconopsis (blue poppies) in this garden. The two plants I purchased in March bloomed well in May, but dwindled and died in August. I thought crown rot in winter was the main hazard, but it turns out that powdery mildew is another. It strikes in hot, dry weather, despite diligent watering. Although these prima donnas didn’t even last the summer, they did produce seeds before they turned up their toes.

Meconopsis sheldonii "Lingholm" (grandis) Himalayan blue poppy
Gone but not forgotten. Not yet.

That gives me a chance for one last shot. In January, I will deposit those seeds on damp, sterile, seed-starting mix and keep them at indoor temperature for a week or so. Then I’ll cover the pot and set it in a safe spot outside for exposure to frost and cold temperatures. Seeds should begin sprouting by March. I’ve had fairly good luck with this process in the past, even to the point of a dozen or so plants in bloom (a glorious sight!). After that, the trick is getting them through the following winter. Or even, it seems now, the following summer. One last try.

Sunflower and chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee going for sunflower seeds.

This year I finally got around to growing sunflowers. I had seven or eight plants. They were okay, I guess, but not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. In rich soil and full sun, with adequate water, a sunflower grows branches that develop buds, resulting in something like a tree. In soil that’s poor, sandy, and often dry, they stick to one skinny (although tall) stem with a single flower. (Guess which kind I had.) They did produce enough seeds to attract chickadees, who diligently pecked them out and ate them.

Hardy cyclamen blooms with ferns and fallen leaves
Hardy cyclamen flowers, a spring-like sight in fall.

Some plants are totally reliable without any extra effort at all, like these hardy cyclamen. They’ve increased well over the years and now form nice carpets of pink flowers that mingle with other plants and the falling leaves. Their own beautifully patterned leaves are starting to emerge and will last into next spring.

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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.