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Give a drip a try

The inefficiency of any irrigation system is the largest cause of water waste in our landscapes, so the best way to save water is to match a well-maintained system to the plants in our yard, not the other way around. Sprinkler systems are ideal for lawns but are big water wasters when it comes to other parts of the landscape and garden. An irrigation system that matches site, soil, and watering requirements, along with good system maintenance, results in big savings and helps you stay “green” in the garden.

A typical plant uses the same amount of water no matter the delivery system. We run into trouble when we use the same system for different watering needs. For example, grass needs a good thorough soaking about twice a week to keep it green and growing and an above ground irrigation system is the best way to achieve success. However, sprinklers also water “hard surfaces” such as fences, concrete, decorative rock, and buildings. It’s watering all of the non-green spaces that overtax our water supplies.

When we try to use above ground sprinklers for garden plants, water is subject to excessive run-off and wind blow. Picture a landscape with berms, long, irregularly shaped strips of plants, bushes, and trees, and a nice veggie garden. Mulch and decorative rock surround these areas to help hold in moisture and keep down weeds. The plants, and only the plants, need water”everything else is a waste. This is where a drip system comes in.



Drip systems, also known as “micro-irrigation,” have come a long way since the days when our gardening forebears poked holes in an old hose and manually turned a spigot on and off. Unlike high-pressure sprinklers, drip systems use low pressure to release water at a slow rate to select plants and nothing else. Equipment is readily available, and do-it-your-selfers can easily install a new system, but as with any landscape project, planning is key.

Plants with similar water needs should be planted together so that the amount of water delivered can be maximized. A combination of tubing and a controller (timer) allows appropriate water on or slightly below the soil around the plant itself. Since water isn’t sprayed, water loss from run-off or wind is minimized. As you add to the landscape, it’s easy to add to your micro-irrigation system, unlike the big job involved with installation of above-ground sprinklers. Also, if a plant is moved or dies, its tube only needs to be plugged.



There are some draw-backs to micro-irrigation, but these are usually associated with maintenance. Clogs are the biggest worry, especially when well water is used. If your water quality is poor, you’ll have to invest in better filters and clean them more often. Keep in mind that sprinkler systems should be regularly checked and cleaned, too.

Another problem is possible leaks. It’s difficult to see them because the area is covered in mulch. Luckily, there is a device that raises and lowers a flag to indicate when watering starts and finishes.

Technology has improved micro-irrigation systems to make them more efficient and easy to maintain. You can now match the equipment to the plant. Bubblers, microsprayers, and misters have been added to the traditional drip system, and they allow you get the most out of watering. There’s even a nifty gadget called a “diaphragm emitter.” It has a membrane that stretches as it traps particles and then forces them out of the system. Your local landscape center will have experts to help you choose the right equipment for your plant watering needs.

Remember that any new plant will need frequent watering, even low-water use and drought tolerant ones. It isn’t until the plant is established that you’ll see water savings. Over time, however, a well-planned and well-maintained micro-irrigation system will save water, something that gardeners, especially in Colorado, are becoming more and more concerned about.

Water-wise landscaping is a combination of less lawn, proper irrigation systems, and low-water use plants appropriate to our mountain environment. Next week, I’ll showcase some of the many wonderful plants that are native or adaptable to our county. In the meantime, explore your landscape. See if you and your plants might not benefit from micro-irrigation, and give a drip a try.


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