Sunday, March 22, 2015

Confessions of a Hand Waterer

Watering your yard in suburban California is a given.  But hand watering is so retro.  So it is with some embarrassment I confess: I hand water my native garden (when I water it at all.)
Sophisticated irrigation equipment.
In the front yard, I have no choice.  The sprinkler system is programmed by the association gardeners, as part of a larger system with non-native plants and a bog that passes for a lawn.  All I could do was cap the sprinklers and make my own way.  By the time I redid the back yard, I decided it was just easier to water by hand.  Really.
This nifty gadget from Lowe's will cap off a sprinkler.
Screwing sprinkler heads shut didn't work for me; some still leaked.
Las Pilitas Nursery suggests watering gallons on first planting, then letting natives survive on ambient water.  Two years of drought following my garden renovation made that approach unworkable.  Besides, my tiny garden is always at close view.  I want a little more green in summer than ambient conditions would provide.

My controller will water once a week minimum, too often for established natives.  I never found automatic sprinklers very satisfactory anyway, even for the roses.  Auto-sprinklers are better than total neglect, but they never seem to distribute water the right way, without waste, especially around dense shrubs.  But that's what Coastal Sage Scrub, and pleasing flower borders, are: dense shrubs!
Dense shrubs (13 different native plants.)
I could have set up a drip system.  Drip is not recommended by either Las Pilitas Nursery or Tree of Life Nursery, though Juan Garcia at the Irvine Ranch Water District swears by it for all non-lawn applications.  But he's a gadget geek.  Drip systems eventually clog, which you only discover when the plant dies.  Unless you are one of those people who does preventative maintenance on your drip sprinkler system twice annually, and files your taxes on February 1, in which case I have nothing to say to you.

Further, drip systems (unless densely networked) produce narrow vertical columns of soil and leave the rest bone dry.  That works for some plants sometimes, but in no way resembles how plants get water on our coastal hills.  They get wet leaves, from rain, fog and dew.  They like wet leaves (in cool weather, i.e. at night.)   Desert natives may mind wet leaves, in which case our dew would rot them long before semiweekly sprinkling.
California native brews to aid garden watering. Lilac verbena and towering white sage in the background.
So here's what I do.  I water new natives, gallon-sized and smaller, once a week for the first two months.  After that, it's once every 2-3 weeks.  In the summer, that's briefly with a hand held sprinkler set on "shower."  I'm just washing off the dust.  Las Pilitas advises "Dave's Beer Watering: "
After a bad day in the office, or every Monday, (no more than once per week folks), grab a beer, coffee, tea, water, whatever and a hose.  Spray the foliage and splash the ground until the beer is gone. Your yard work is done. Hard work but someone has to do it.
Take note, folks.  One thorough soaking in summer and your natives can DIE. DEAD. DECEASED.  Have I made my point?  Now you are thinking to yourself, how can a plant survive being just barely wetted every other week for five months?  It's called summer dormancy, and almost all California natives do it.  Many natives have no protection whatsoever from the molds that flourish in warm damp soil.  Why? Because in thousands of years they never experienced any warm damp soil; their roots were completely dry six or more months a year.
Awkward micro sprinklers giving the garden a slow soaking.
Rube Goldberg system features velcro and plant stakes.
In the winter, when rain does not oblige, I pull out the micro sprinkler array (from Tree of Life Nursery) to give the yard a good soaking– so far twice this year.  This involves running a very low volume of water for hours.  I could leave a system in place like Tomaz does.  But Tomaz's system looks inconspicuous.  Mine looks goofy.  So I set it up and take it down.  It's a pain, I confess.   If my garden were not such an absurd shape and I wasn't so finicky about conserving water, I could just run an old fashioned sprinkler like we did in the Dark Ages.
Remember these?
A few shade-loving and riparian (stream-side) natives tolerate, or even appreciate, the 5-7 day watering I give my roses.  These include coral bells, native mints and nettles, hummingbird sage, and strawberries. Potted natives need frequent watering, but good drainage.
The strawberries and the coral bells get a little extra water.

I have decided to stop being embarrassed about hand watering.  It avoids geysers, watering in the rain, watering the sidewalk, dead zones and runoff.  And who would water three times a week if they had to do it by hand?  The final benefit of hand watering is not the beer.   Put simply, I pay attention to my plants.  I give them what they need when they need it.  They do better that way.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.
To use text or photos from this blog, click here.
To share this post (do share!) click on the appropriate tiny icon below (email, facebook, etc.)


  1. Do you have a sprayer you swear by?

    1. Mine are nothing special. Just with a nice shower setting.

  2. Thanks for your wonderful point of view . I live out in Rancho Cucamonga, with a front and backyard devoted entirely to native and drought tolerant plants and I have found that hand watering is the best method for maintaining a small yard. It allows me to control the amount of water each individual plant receives. My neighbors must think I'm crazy sometimes for spending time with a watering can going from plant to plant. I'm glad I'm not the only one not relying on a sprinkler system to keep my yard alive. Unfortunately, ten years after converting my front yard to a native landscape, I am still surrounded by a sea of green lawns.

    1. Glad to hear you are making it work! It's a lot hotter in RC than here in Irvine.