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The Magic of Drip Watering (Or, Delegation Skills for Bad Plant Parents)

By: Wendy Irwin, IBG Youth Education Manager | 07/11/2022

Being a Plant Parent

If plant care falls on a scale between “helicopter” and “free range parent,” my personal style would be in the vicinity of, “Oh wait, I’m supposed to water that plant on the balcony, aren’t I?” Said after a week of not stepping out onto the balcony when the temperatures have been in the 90s. (The ghosts of my neglected container plants may indicate otherwise, but I’m quite responsible with my human child and my four-legged fur child.)

In actuality, I have gained a fair amount of maturity as I’ve aged, and after a number of years marked by extremely variable plant parenting, I have become the kind of responsible adult who will reliably rotate a sprinkler and make arrangements for a neighbor to water my container plants if I am away for the weekend. But it is only in recent years that I have fully realized the wonder of being a somewhat lazy gardener while also having lovely, thriving green things all around my living space. The solution is to simply have somebody else manage your watering for you. Or something else – As nice as one’s neighbors may be, it’s probably going to be a stretch to convince them that they want to take over watering your plants for you full-time.

Drip Irrigation

I started using drip irrigation when I moved into a new rental, several years ago now. It was the second place I had lived that came with its own yard, and I was missing my old veggie garden and wanting to re-create it. The thing I did not miss was hauling a sprinkler around all the time in the summer. My new yard did not have automatic sprinklers in back, so I knew I would need to work smarter if I didn’t want to work harder. One of my coworkers at the Idaho Botanical Garden, Graham Knight, Horticulture Manager, reassured me that drip irrigation was simple, like putting legos together.

Choosing to believe in his encouraging words rather than my own insecurities about my handy-person skills, I drove to a local irrigation supply store and showed the employee at the front desk a basic sketch of my yard and what I was hoping to do with the space. I came home with several rolls of plastic tubing, some bags of connectors, and a simple irrigation timer. A short while later I had a working irrigation system set up in my back yard. It was a revelation, that summer, to be able to visit the back yard and pull weeds or putter around when I felt like it, and not be worried that my plants were going to die if I ignored them for a day or three. I had a great harvest that season, and I didn’t put nearly as much effort into my veggie garden as I had in past years. (Which was good, because the front yard at my new rental had a lawn that needed mowing regularly as well as a tree that dumped loads of seeds and leaves.)

Why Drip Irrigation Just Makes Sense

I stopped to chat about irrigation again recently with Graham and Hannah Hegdahl, IBG’s Greenhouse and Nursery Coordinator. Both were quick to praise the benefits of drip. “It’s better to put a hose on a trickle for 5 hours by a new tree than it is to spray that same hose at full force for 5 minutes,” says Graham. “It takes time for water to soak in to the soil, so when you apply a lot of water at once it can’t all be absorbed, and you lose water to runoff.” The plant that receives a short, heavy watering is going to develop shallow roots, whereas the plant that receives a longer, slower watering will be able to develop deep roots that support the plant structure and are less susceptible to drought. “Also, with overhead sprinklers you lose water to evaporation,” Graham adds. “All of that is why drip is better.”

Hannah agrees that even with container plants, “Dripline is your friend. It lets you go away for a weekend without worrying about your plants dying.”

“There are two kinds of drip irrigation,” say Graham, “in-line emitters and point-source emitters.” That sounds complicated, but it’s not. In-line emitters are lines with emitters, or holes, built in at regular intervals, like the tubes I bought for my garden. When you are planting vegetables or other plants with regular spacing, in-line emitters make sense. Point-source emitters, on the other hand, are lines you put holes in yourself, exactly where you need them. Last year I helped my mom punch holes into an irrigation tube in her backyard garden beds. My mom’s plantings, unlike my own, included a variety of flowers and small shrubs spaced at random intervals. Point-source, or “You Poke” dripline is a lot more efficient for garden beds with irregular plantings.

If you don’t plan to set up driplines to your container plants this summer, Hannah says, “Remember that the rule of thumb with container watering is to water 3 times thoroughly, filling your container to the top each time and letting it drain. And don’t forget that later in the season when things get rootbound, you also need to water more.”

Thanks, Hannah – I’ll remember. And if I can’t get one of my neighbors to water my containers when I’m out of town, maybe it’s about time I set up some drip watering for them, too.

PHOTO: (2018) James Irwin, Wendy’s human child, shows off his own growth spurt as well as the growth of two monster zucchinis. A lazy plant parent can still have a productive garden with the help of some drip irrigation!

First published in the Idaho Press on July 10th, 2022. 

Idaho Press Article