Drip irrigation: a lesson learned

Old wives’ tales are typically based on an accurate piece of information. Putting butter on a burn is now known to actually trap the heat of a burn in, but butter was likely something that was kept relatively cool before ice cubes were commonplace. The superstitious wives’ tale of not walking under a ladder is mere common sense.

This leads me to the idea of, “Water your garden in the evening or early morning, or plants will have burnt leaves.” How much of this statement is true, and how much is hogwash? Well, there’s no single answer.

In places with hot sun and arid climates, like deserts, irrigating in the evening and early morning may be helpful. It’s not because water burns the leaves, however, or every plant that had dew drops on its leaves in the morning would be burnt with the morning sun. Instead, the heat of the day can evaporate a large portion of the water being supplied to the garden. Having grown up in the high desert, I was used to my family irrigating our flower and vegetable garden each evening: before the sun was down, but once the tree’s shadows were long across our yard. In the morning, our sprinkler was heard echoing throughout our neighborhood block long before most people were out of bed. By 8 or 9 oclock, the sprinkler was turned off for the remainder of the day’s hours.

My parents have since grown such a large, shaded garden, that it’s an ecosystem in itself. Watering is now very minimized and only done via drip irrigation. After all, if managed correctly drip irrigation is 80 to 90 percent effective, with runoff and evaporation at a minimum. In the high desert, evoporation has to minimized as much as possible. Still, the drip irrigation is never running during the hottest or sunniest parts of the days.Tomato blight

However true this is for the desert, watering in the evening and early morning hours aren’t always the most effective in terms of garden health. Where I live now is wet. Very wet. I’ve gone from about 11 inches of precipitation annually, much of which was snow, to 40 inches a rain a year. Last weekend we had more rain in a 48-hour period than the average of our wettest month where I grew up. The land here is different.  I learned a difficult lesson the first year I had my garden here; I watered as I had been taught. After all, my parents’ oasis was lush and healthy, and so I watered during the evening hours. Even though I told myself I’d save on the drip irrigation for now and use the sprinkler heads the previous owners had left behind, by the end of June I was left wondering what I had done wrong, so I researched. My tomatoes and potato plants were riddled with early blight, and my lettuce barely sprouted before being eaten alive. Slugs, it turned out, was something I was not accustomed to.  Each of my plants seemed to be suffering from various mildews and fungi.

So, perhaps the old wife that stated plants should be watered in the evening grew a garden like my parents, but did not grow a garden in as wet of an area as myself.  It turns out that our humidity is simply so high here already that the extra water I supplied the plants with in the evening was a set-up for slug-and-mildew haven. It likely didn’t help that I was clearly overwatering the poor plants; some plants got root rot and just gave up entirely. Now, instead of watering in the evening, I water in the day-once I notice the sun has drenched the leaves and the dew has dried from my tomato plants. Once I see warm little bees buzzing around my flowers, I know it’s warm enough to irrigate my garden.  With drip irrigation, I’m left watering about twice a week in the summer–on hot weeks like we had this summer, maybe three times.  Slugs will always put up a battle, but I fight the good fight as best as I can by watering smartly now.

Instead of splashing the leaves with a regular sprinkler, which simply exacerbated my blight and mildew problems, I soak the earth and mulch below my plants leaves. In the end, much of what I had learned earlier in life about gardens wasn’t applicable. The one idea that translated was drip irrigation. If you live in drought ridden areas, drip irrigation is clearly the winner to ensure your garden can thrive. And, if you’re like me and live in a humid, wet area, drip irrigation is a further way to caution against blight and fungus.

Drip irrigation: a lesson learned

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