Water, don't waste!
It's been a few years since my family and I have been on vacation, and one reason is the very extensive population of plants that resides on our property. Aside from all the plantings, I have numerous plants of all sizes in containers ranging from seedling trays to 25 gallon pots. Hand watering this tropical menagerie used to take me over 2 hours, and in summer, several times a day! Dragging those hoses and trying not to knock things over, hoping I didn't miss a rare plant (as invariably I would, evidenced by the wilted results next day), all gradually got old. The time finally came for what turned out to be a truly major infrastructure upgrade. In this group of articles I will share with you what I discovered about converting a home nursery of hundreds of plants, including two greenhouses, two shadehouses, nursery trees and much more, to a complete and fully automated drip irrigation system. Even if your plant collection is much smaller, the same principles can be applied to provide your plants with ample water daily and free up your time for a vacation or . . . planting more plants!
What I learned can be applied to either a city water-based source or a home well-based system. The first consideration is whether your water source is on-demand or whether you or a timer have to turn the pump or water on deliberately whenever you want to irrigate. You need your system to be "always on", which is another way of describing an on-demand system. In other words, if you open a valve, water comes out under pressure, just like city water. A pump and well arrangement that does this is generally a pressure tank system, where the pump turns on automatically if the pressure in the tank drops below a set amount, as will happen when a valve is opened. Some home irrigation systems have a timer or controller that turns the pump on at certain times of the day, and there is no pressure tank. The drip system I set up relies on remote wireless valves to open and pressurize the drip lines with existing water pressure, so you see that behind the valve, the water must be under pressure, otherwise it won't work. A city water source will do this, or a well and pump with pressure tank system will do it.
An example of a battery-operated group of valves (a valve manifold) is shown in the photo below, left. Each valve is connected to a separate watering zone.
The Sorting Pot, or the Potting Sort?
Once you've verified that you have an on-demand water source, or if you don't, have set one up, you are ready to look over your plants and decide how to arrange them into what will be your "zones". Your largest plants should be in a group, if possible, and if not, close enough so you can snake your drip line to reach them all. Then your mid-size plants, and finally your seedling trays or other little pots. I grouped mine by 1 gallon and smaller, 2 gallon to 10 gallon, and everything larger than 10 gallon. My arrangement was not totally sorted, as I found that some big plants needed sun and others shade, and the same went for the other sized plants. By the way, this is also a great time to get on with repotting, as you can eliminate some problems by up-potting those plants you've been meaning to attend to, but haven't gotten around to yet. Besides, a larger pot of soil doesn't dry out as fast, so it is extra insurance if for some reason your dripper doesn't deliver enough water to the pot. I found that, while doing this big project, I was also able to get caught up on potting that I've been needing to do for years. Of course, my estimated time to complete kept changing because as I worked along, I'd find some hapless plants that were just hanging on, waiting patiently for me to come along and attend to them. How could I just leave them? So I'd jump from one need to another, a sort of gardener's multitasking project.
One bonus is that you begin to feel the anticipation of seeing how your plants have grown when you return from your vacation. Just thinking of all those newly potted plants, growing fresh roots, leaves, sprouts and blooms and happily watered while you are away on hiatus gets you anxious to return! And, it goes without saying that you do need some funds to work with when starting a project of this magnitude, but nobody has as many plants as I do, right?
Next: Filters, valves and drippers
Image Credit: LariAnn Garner