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Not only do drip watering systems target specific areas of the garden, with a timer installed plants will be nourished on a consistent basis.

Lee Reich/The Associated Press

The gardener who can do a thorough job of watering with hose in hand is rare indeed.

Assuming that the hose spews out about 11 litres a minute in a circle a bit bigger than a metre in diameter, I roughly calculate that the gardener would have to stand immobile for more than two minutes before moving on to the next metre-diameter circle of thirsty plants. Pretty boring, if you've got a whole vegetable or flower garden to water.

A sprinkler is one solution.

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Even better is "drip irrigation," a method of applying water to plants slowly and over an extended period of time. Drip irrigation has many benefits, not the least of which is cutting down water use by about 60 per cent. That water savings comes from less evaporation and less waste; through the drip method, water isn't wasted on paths or between widely spaced plants. So there's also less weed growth. Garden plants grow better because they're never thirsty, and dry leaves means less disease.

A primitive drip irrigation system could be cobbled together by running water through an old garden hose that's riddled with holes and has its end plugged. The problem is less water would drip from the holes at the end than from the ones at the beginning, and higher ground would get less water than lower ground.

True drip

A drip irrigation system that you purchase has water emitters engineered to offer a consistent, specified output over wide changes in elevation and pressure. They're also made to be resistant to clogging or root penetration. You can buy tubing with emitters installed, say, 15, 30 or 45 centimetres apart that is good for watering whole beds. Or you can buy solid plastic tubing and punch in emitters wher you want – ideal for widely spaced plants.

Emitters, those that you plug in or those already installed, typically put out water at a leisurely rate of two to 15 litres an hour.

For a flower bed or closely spaced plants, such as carrots, tubing with emitters already installed wets the whole bed. Capillary attraction into small pores in the soil draw water sideways even as gravity is pulling water downward, so wetted areas within the soil overlap.

Parting the water

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Water's lateral spread depends on soil type, from about 30 cm in sandy soils to about a metre in clays. So in a bed, these dripper lines could be laid out a half metre to two metres apart, depending on whether the soil is, respectively, a sand or a clay. Soils are rarely pure sand or pure clay, so actual spacing lies somewhere in between.

And organic matter (humus) in a soil helps sponge up water to increase lateral spread of the wetting front.

For individual plants, such as widely spaced shrubs and trees, figure on using tubing with one or more emitters next to each plant. Emitters that attach to the ends of thin flexible tubes are useful for watering plants in pots.

With emitters, tubes and a connecting hose in place, we are now back at the hose spigot. Before a connection is made to the spigot, a pressure reducer and filter are needed. The pressure reducer drops the pressure to about 10 psi, which is all a drip system needs, and dispenses with the need for any high pressure fittings. And a 200-micron filter further reduces the chances of any clogging.

All in the timing

Right at the hose spigot is the best part of a drip irrigation system: the battery-operated timer. This timer automatically turns the water on and off, and at about the rate that garden plants are using water.

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Of course, water use depends on the weather and the size and kind of plants, but a half hour of dripping per day is usually about right. That may seem like a lot of water, but remember, the water is just dripping. If a timer can turn the water on and off three times a day, set if for three 10-minute waterings; if six times a day, set it for six 5-minute waterings; etc.

The timer brings an important benefit of drip irrigation: It saves time. Rather than standing frozen in your garden with a hose, you become free to do other things. Like smelling the flowers.

Gardening guru Marjorie Harris shares her tips on how to prune plants to give them a beautiful form and add to the flow of your garden Globe and Mail Update
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