Tips to use water smartly in gardens

Tips to use water smartly in gardens

by Nan Sterman

For years, I've been experimenting with ways to grow a lush, beautiful and productive garden with as little water as possible. Here in Southern California, we simply don't have enough water to support our population, let alone swimming pools, water fountains and verdant green lawns. And we aren't the only area with this challenge. There are water shortages from California to South Carolina, Arizona to New York City, even rainy Pennsylvania. So, what's a garden lover to do? Adapt.

We can choose plants that survive on little rainfall, but most gardens need some irrigation. When it comes to the most efficient watering, two irrigation technologies are leading the way: matched precipitation sprinklers and drip irrigation.

MP Rotators by Hunter Industries are rotating, matched precipitation sprinkler heads. By replacing any traditional sprayhead with a MP Rotator you'll see around a 30 percent water savings. Why? Because MP Rotators shoot out streams of large drops that fall to the ground rather than fans of fine spray that evaporate into the air.

MP Rotators distribute water evenly over the space thanks to their multiple streams per head. Each stream shoots a slightly different distance so there are no patches of dry, brown grass surrounding the risers. And, rotators adjust the gallons of water sprayed proportional to the distance of the stream. Traditional heads, in contrast, spray a set number of gallons regardless of distance. MP Rotators may cost more than traditional sprayheads, but you'll soon recoup your investment from water savings. These new sprinkler heads work perfectly in my new meadow.

In garden beds, however, I prefer drip irrigation. Drip delivers water directly to the soil and roots. No more water wasted on bare soil and almost none lost to evaporation. Water simply absorbs down into the root zone. In other words, drip is the most efficient irrigation technology around.

"Drip irrigation" is a catch-all term for irrigation that delivers water to plants on the scale of gallons per hour. All drip systems feature drip emitters, but there are several styles. One style includes individual emitters — often button or tube-shaped — in sizes that drip from one-half to 2 gallons of water per hour. Emitters are typically attached to the end of narrow tubing that leads to each plant. Sometimes, there are several emitters per plant, depending on its size.

This style of drip irrigation works well for many gardeners. Ellen Zachos, owner of Acme Plant Stuff in New York City, designs elaborate potted roof and decktop gardens which endure bright sun, hot summer temperatures, and drying winds high above the city streets. "It's the only way to efficiently, thoroughly and reliably water a container garden," she says. "Watering by hand would take hours."

Don't confuse drip line with laser drilled tubing — essentially tubing with holes in it. Laser lines clog easily, but drip line emitters are designed to prevent mineral and dirt buildup, even with hard water. Ultimately, how long and how often you run these systems determine how much water you'll use and how much you save.

Nan Sterman is an award-winning garden communicator, horticulturist and gardening designer who lives in Encinitas, Calif. She has a bachelor's degree in botany from Duke University, a master's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Better Homes and Gardens.

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