Deliver the droplets to thirsty gardens and plants


By LINDA BRANDT, Correspondent

Nothing brings a gardener more pleasure than the sight of healthy thriving plants. But no matter how maintenance-free those plants are, they all need water, making gardeners particularly aware of its value. According to a June 2013 EPA bulletin, 30 percent of an average family's water usage is outdoors and nearly half of that is wasted.

Water is a precious commodity that should not be wasted through standard irrigation methods, says Donna Cass, whose North Port property is a model of water conservation.

AHIRRIGATION12_10Not only does she use micro irrigation, but she also mulches and adds compost to the soil to help it retain moisture.

Cass and her husband, Richard, started North Port Community Gardens, whose participants use various water-saving methods and which recently received a grant to install micro irrigation.

In the process of writing a monthly home gardening article, I have read about the many water-conserving advantages of micro irrigation, also known as drip or trickle irrigation. But the thought of hose bibs, timers, backflow preventers, pressure regulators, filters, tubing adapters, emitters and nubs sends me running for my trusty garden hose with its handheld variable spray nozzle.

I do follow the watering guidelines from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program, but I could be saving more water and helping my plants by following Cass' example of starting with a small micro irrigation system and expanding to meet my garden's needs.

After 10 years in Florida, Cass, who acknowledges that she is "mechanically inclined," has adapted an automatic sprinkler system and expanded her micro irrigation system to provide water to four raised flower and/or vegetable beds, a number of trees and all of her landscape plants. She recommends that beginners do some research on Google and in home centers. And even if you find an "Irrigation for Dummies" kit, which I have actually seen, you will still need to do some research and then make a plan for your own yard.

So what are tubing, backflow preventers, emitters, pressure regulators, bubblers, drippers and timers anyway? They are components of a micro irrigation system that allows precisely controlled application of water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly near the plant roots.

Briefly, here are the parts:

Most of micro irrigation consists of black polyethylene tubing available in several diameters that delivers water to emitters that are attached to it.

Emitters, or nubs, are placed at soil level or on elevated stakes. They are marked with flow rates to adapt to individual plants' needs. Several types are available: Bubblers deliver more water in less time and are used for trees and shrubs. Drippers deliver low quantities of water to plants' roots and misters provide humidity. If you are using a spigot from your home water supply, you will need a backflow preventer to keep water from the micro irrigation system from re-entering your water supply. You will also need a pressure regulator because the typical home water supply has too much pressure for a micro irrigation system.

A timer that turns water on and off automatically will increase the efficiency of your system, especially if it runs off your home water supply. Even though Cass has a well, she still uses a timer.

Additional adapters, connectors and other components allow you to customize your system. There are even "goof plugs" in case you punch a hole by mistake.

I am feeling better about this already and am ready to consider a baby step from hand watering into micro irrigation.


What I like best about watering by hand is time spent in the garden reflecting and inspecting the plants that I might otherwise not have taken. (If this is your chosen method, a watering wand will make it easier to water at soil level without straining your back or getting splashed.

Unfortunately, you cannot be sure exactly how much water plants are getting. I've tried with relative success to monitor this by counting the number of seconds I water each plant. Hand watering can be time consuming, and you are easy prey for mosquitoes and other six-legged predators. If your hose runs off your home water supply, you are wasting water that has been treated for drinking, cooking and washing.

This makes rain barrels an economical, environment-friendly and sometimes even aesthetically pleasing option. The rainwater collected in these barrels, usually from roof runoff, can be used for all landscape watering needs.


Rain-ready barrels and kits can be purchased at garden and home centers as well as County Extension services, where they are included in courses on water conservation.

Easy, well-illustrated instructions for constructing a single rain barrel or a system of several, can be found in the guide from Southwest Florida Water Management District. Download it at

Inexpensive rain barrels can be made from 55-gallon food grade barrels. Look in the Yellow Pages under drums, barrels or containers. Or search Google for "used food grade plastic barrels for sale."

According to the Swiftmud booklet, a typical half-inch rainfall will fill a 50- to 55-gallon barrel. So you may want to connect several rain barrels or use an overflow outlet/pipe near the top of the barrel to divert excess water to another part of your landscape and away from the foundation of your house.


Mosquitoes can be prevented from breeding in your rain barrel by making sure the hole in the lid fits tightly around the downspout. If yours is an open barrel, cover the top with window screening. There are also tablets available to drop into the water to kill mosquitoes.

Rainwater collected from the roof may contain leaf debris, some chemical agents, bird droppings and some algae, none of which will harm plants.

In fact, according to the brochure's author, Gerard Watson, the collected water will likely be even more beneficial to plants because it will have a lower pH level than utility-provided water and contain no chlorine. It should never be used for drinking, bathing, pet needs or recreation. Nor should a rain barrel ever be connected to your in-house plumbing supply.

Cass has a rain barrel, but because it doesn't have enough pressure to operate a micro-irrigation system and she finds hand watering too time consuming (and inefficient), she uses the collected water to establish new plants in her landscape. Rain barrel water pressure is also fine for filling watering cans and for running soaker hoses, an efficient irrigation method that delivers water only to plants' root area with little evaporation and no runoff. You can make your own from a leaky garden hose.


Using a drill or large nail, make holes an inch or two apart from one end of the leaky garden hose to the other. Making all the holes on the same side will allow you to turn the holes toward the ground, ensuring efficient water delivery.

You can purchase a hose cap to put on the male end of the hose to stop the water and force it through the holes. Or, if your soaker hose will be covered with mulch, which it should be, just fold the male end over and secure it with duct tape.

Lay the soaker hose around plants and secure with sod staples or landscape pins available at home improvement centers, nurseries and hardware stores. You could probably also weigh it down with rocks. Attach your regular garden hose to the female end of the soaker hose and turn the water on enough to trickle out the holes all the way to the end of the soaker hose. Run for about 30 minutes or use a timer to avoid overwatering.


Many established and most new residential properties in Florida have automatic in-ground sprinkler systems.

These are especially efficient when they draw from a lake or well and are monitored to avoid watering streets and sidewalks. Even though they require a minimum of maintenance, they should be checked routinely for leaks and breaks, faulty valves, obstructions, missing nozzles and overspray.

Photos of what these problems look like and information on how to correct them can be found at 1.


Lawns need about 3/4 inch of water each time they are watered.

For an individual hose-end sprinkler: Place three to five empty tuna cans or measuring cups in a straight line from the sprinkler to the far edge of the watering pattern. For in-ground sprinkler systems: Place five to 10 straight-sided, same-size cans in various places in one sprinkler zone.

Turn the water on for 15 minutes. Measure the amount of water in each can with a ruler. The more precise the measurement, the more accurate the calibration will be.

Look for large differences in water amounts between cans. For example, if one has half an inch or more and other cans are nearly empty, you know that your coverage is not uniform and your system or sprinkler needs to be adjusted.

Find the average depth of water collected in the containers (add up the depths and then divide by the number of containers) and multiply that by four to determine the hourly rate. For example, if you collect an average of a quarter inch in 15 minutes, and your target application rate is half an inch, you will need to run your irrigation system for 30 minutes.


Last modified: July 18, 2013
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