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Marin IJ Articles

Late summer irrigation tune-up

  • Barbara Robertson
  • You could probably count on one hand the number of people you know who hand-water their entire gardens. Today, most gardeners rely on some kind of automated system to keep plants in their landscape alive and thriving, whether a timer and a soaker hose, pop-up sprinklers, or a drip system with stations and controllers. Once an automated system is installed, you don’t have to think about watering. But, it might be time to give it some thought.

    Chances are the system turns on while you’re sleeping or away and you don’t really know whether it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Your lawn might be green, but you could be watering the sidewalk as well. There might be a clogged emitter and a favorite plant is not really getting enough water.

    “Periodically, you need to go through and look at the watering systems you have,” says Raoul Stepakoff. “Are they watering where and when they’re supposed to be watering?” Raoul is a project lead with Joan Kozlowski for the UC Marin Master Gardeners edible demonstration garden at the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden. Plants in the 2100 square feet of raised beds, straw bales, and in-ground rows drink water via three drip irrigation systems. One controller manages six stations in the main part of the garden, and two other one-station controllers send water to in-ground plants. At home, Stepakoff has installed a drip system for the pollinator plants in his backyard, a sprinkler system for the lawn in front, and another drip system for the vegetable garden.

    “I call these irrigation systems my ‘irritation’ systems,” he says. “There’s always something going wrong. I had to replace the batteries in one controller last month. And, the pop-up head of a sprinkler came out yesterday. Most of the time, it’s something easy to repair, but you’ve got to make sure everything is working right.”

    Raoul suggests checking the irrigation system by turning it to manual, setting it for five minutes, and looking at everything – even if it means getting down on your hands and knees.  You can also test the moisture in the soil in various parts of the garden with moisture meters. These gadgets are inexpensive and readily available at garden stores.

    On drip systems, look for emitters that push out too much water. If so, switch to a more restricted emitter. See if there is any standing water around a plant. You need fewer emitters in that area. Check to see if the soil is too dry. Emitters have such tiny holes that they can easily become clogged.

    Has a soaker or in-line hose become brittle or broken? Time to replace it. 

    If you have a sprinkler system, you can quickly tell if all the sprinkler heads are popping up and working by manually turning it on. Sprinkler heads easily become broken and bent, so make sure you aren’t wasting water.  An inexpensive quick water-wise fix would be to replace pop-up heads with MP Rotator nozzles that stream water at a steady rate.

    If you would like some advice, you could schedule a Marin Friendly Garden Walk. This partnership between UC Marin Master Gardeners and the Marin Municipal Water District provides homeowners with information on improving irrigation practices to help conserve Marin’s precious water resources. Two Master Gardeners will look at the health of your garden and soil and at your irrigation system’s efficiency. 

    “We’ll help you identify leaks, review irrigation practices, gardening practices, and plant selection with the goal of using less water in your garden while improving its overall health.” says Program Coordinator Pam Polite Fisco.

    Also, the Marin Water Department currently has a number of incentive programs to help gardeners reduce their irrigation water use including a new turf replacement program and rebates for smart irrigation controllers.

    To schedule a Marin-Friendly Garden Walk, go to https://tinyurl.com/MarinGardenWalk. To learn more about Marin Water incentives, go to www.marinwater.org/rebates.