Automatic Watering Systems

Marc Montefusco
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Uncertain weather conditions will make many gardening decisions more difficult this year. Before we talk about your specific question, let' s talk about some basic ways you can help your plants survive without you.

  1. Hold off trying to establish any new plants or beds until fall. Plants are very vulnerable after their root systems have been disturbed, which often happens during planting. New transplants require the highest degree of care, and are most likely to be damaged if they don't get it.
     
  2. Make sure all your existing plantings are in good shape. Weed thoroughly, since weeds compete for moisture. Make sure beds and plantings are mulched, which conserves water and prevents run-off.
     
  3. Give all your beds and specimen plants a thorough watering before you leave. Be sure and follow the water conservation guidelines for your state and locality. In most of Maryland, hand watering of gardens and shrubs is permitted, with a hose, watering can, or bucket. If you can use recycled or captured water, so much the better. In any case, less frequent but very thorough waterings are always preferable to frequent light waterings. Just time that last soaking session for the day before you leave. 4. Move containers into the shade, where they will stay cooler and lose less water through their leaves.
     
  4. But before you begin, make sure you have a suitable water pump to supply the water you'll need.

To learn more about how to effectively garden in a drought, read these articles:

Now lets get into the topic of this article.

 Automatic water systems can be a great help, but there a few things to note. You don't want to use a sprinkler-based system, automatic or not, because they are wasteful of water and are now banned in many localities. Drip or soaker systems are much more efficient, and also help prevent water-borne fungal disease. A good system is not cheap, and there is always the possibility that it may malfunction.

If it fails to turn on, your plants could suffer. The worse alternative, though, is that it leaks or fails to turn off. This is an irresponsible use of water, and may even make you liable for penalties. A carefully-planned, high-quality automatic irrigation system may be a good investment, since it will not just help during vacations, but during your everyday gardening as well. It's not, however, a project you want to rush into.

You can jury-rig a soaking system on a small scale by using gallon milk jugs with a pinhole in their base. Some garden supply stores and websites sell attachments for plastic soda bottles that accomplish the same thing. These are not long-term solutions, but they are cheap, and they might help you sleep a little better in your luxury resort room (or tent, if that's your style.)

If you can find a reliable friend, relative, or neighbor to watch your garden, they can use their judgment in providing water when it's needed, and give you feedback if you want it. Be sure to give them a tour beforehand, and make life as easy as possible for them by putting container plants together in an accessible (but protected) area.

Remember: it's not their garden, and they won't do things the way you do, so if there any minor annoyances or disappointments, get over it. Some of the more obsessive among us will want to monitor weather reports while we're away, but there are better ways of spending a vacation than watching The Weather Channel 24/7. If you find a reliable garden-tender, you'll want to recruit them in the future, so don't scare them off with nightly phone calls or endless instructions. You don't want to inflict the kind of pain on your garden-sitter that Karel Capek describes in his wonderful book The Gardener' s Year:

".he sweats, and is muddied all over; he notices with horror that here some damned plant is fading, and there some stalks are broken, and that the lawn has become rusty, and that the whole garden is somehow looking blasted, and he curses the moment when he took upon himself this burden, and he prays to Heaven for autumn to come."

Relax, enjoy your time away, and trust in the recuperative powers of the plant kingdom.

Read other articles on gardening in drought conditions

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