Successful watering is putting the right amount of water in the right place to plants' roots can soak up what they need without being drowned. I have strong opinions on this topic, which I will be discussing on Mike Nowak's radio show on WCPT Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m.
I also have a small arsenal of chosen weapons for putting water where it needs to go. I find they make the task much easier.
Here are some of my favorite watering tools. This is the straight dope; I really use all these tools. Nobody suggested these product endorsements to me and only one of these tools (see swag alert below) was given to me by a marketer.
Finger. Best moisture sensor made. Insert into soil of bed or container up to second knuckle. If fingertip does not feel moisture, water. Wash finger after use.
Black rubber hoses. These were one of my best-ever investments. It's not that they don't kink -- there is no such thing as a kink-proof hose. It's that when they do kink, they don't keep the kink and develop a kink-prone spot like vinyl hoses do. The black hoses are also much less conspicuous than green or tan hoses, which is important to me since I have no hidden place to store my hoses (and I have never found a hose reel that is not hideous). And they last. In the winter I disconnect these contractor-grade hoses from the faucet and let them drain but I leave them out in the weather.
Hose guides. These keep hoses from crushing plants when you drag them around. In my experience plastic hose guides and any guides that require you to thread the hose through something are annoying and ineffective. What you want is basically a post, ideally more or less decorative and not sharp so if someone barks their shin on it they won't need stitches. Hopefully you would place it where the risk of shin-barking is minimal.
Brass Y-connectors. These are on all my faucets. As with all hose and watering parts, I insist on metal; I've had too many pieces of plastic crack or leak or explode and soak me. The Y-connector allows me to leave the hose connected to one side and use the other side to fill watering cans or rinse pots, or to attach another hose. The levers allow me to switch the flow from one side to the other. My ideal Y-connector (which I haven't found yet) would have larger, easier-to-grasp levers.
Shutoff valves. I have these on the end of every hose, between the hose end and the quick connector (see below). The shutoff allows me to stop the water flow while I switch sprinklers or set a timer without have to trudge back to the faucet. It also allows me to fine-tune the flow to a sprinkler so it covers just the area I want to water. I'm allowing plastic here because the lever on this one is easier to turn than on metal ones I've seen.
Brass quick connectors. The greatest invention! They save me countless hours of hose wrestling. There's a female connector that fits into a male connector (yes, I know, this terminology was invented by guys). You pull back a collar on the male connector and the female connector slips in; let the collar go and it locks. It takes a fraction of a jiffy and makes it so much easier to connect and disconnect hoses, sprinklers, nozzles and timers, with no twisting. Because it's so easy to switch, I'm more likely to use just the right tool for each job. The male connector automatically shuts off the water supply when it's disconnected. There are plastic quick connectors, but I scorn them. I have developed a large collection of brass ones, which I use on every tool. (It's a good idea to stick with one brand, though, so there's no risk they won't fit. Most of mine are Nelson.) If quick connectors leak, it is nearly always because they aren't screwed in tight. Taking a minute to tighten any hose connections saves a lot of water.
Pattern nozzle with angle setting. (SWAG ALERT! I got this nozzle free at a trade show a couple of years ago, so you have a perfect right to be suspicious of my motives in praising it. However, lots of other marketers have given me tools I have not seen fit to praise on the internet.)
In general, I like simplicity in my tools. And there are simpler hose-end nozzles. But this nine-pattern metal nozzle from Dramm is very sturdy and replaces several single-purpose nozzles.
My favorite setting is called "angle." It shoots a fan-shaped spray downward at about 45 degrees, allowing me to hold the nozzle over my head and water high hanging baskets and wall pots. This setting isn't common in pattern sprayers. I find that by switching between spray patterns I can water a lot of pots around the patio and new plants without dragging the hose all over.
Fan sprayer. I have one bed that is 50 feet long by 18 inches wide. This sprayer is just perfect for putting down a gentle, even spray that is just wide enough. It is one tool for which I have not found metal sprayers to be superior to plastic. The distinguishing characteristic of a fan sprayer is the breadth of the spray, and unfortunately you can't tell about that until you get it home and try it. I accumulated several fan sprayers on the way to finding one that fits my bed just right.
Metal pattern sprinkler. Pattern sprinklers are versatile: They send out a steady spray in several different shapes, which can be fine-tuned by controlling the water pressure to fit into various nooks of gardens like mine. But I have a love-hate relationship with this particular sprinkler (from Orbit). On the one hand, it's all metal and has lasted four or five years. I bought it (and paid some staggering price, I think $30) after one too many cheap plastic pattern sprinklers broke on me halfway through the season. The problem with this well-engineered tool is that it's maldesigned. Unlike every other sprinkler I've ever owned, the spray comes out toward the hose, not away from the hose. This is counter-intuitive and awkward, and makes it absolutely impossible to set up the sprinkler without crushing plants with a bend of the hose and getting soaked. I expect to be moistened when I set up a sprinkler, but I don't think I should have to be downright soaked every time. Still, I have $30 sunk in this thing and I can't bring myself to replace it until it breaks. I almost wish it were plastic.
Metal-stake pulsating sprinkler. For covering large areas, such as lawns, it's good to use a sprinkler that has a pause in its action, so that one burst of water has a chance to soak in before the next burst arrives. Otherwise a lot of water will just run off. An intermittent sprinkler (the kind with a wide fan that gently waves back and forth) works if you have a large rectangle to cover. But I find that a pulsating sprinkler (which has a mechanism that swings it in a circle or part of a circle and then snaps it back) is more adjustable to the irregular spaces of my garden. It took me a while to learn to tinker with the distance, force and the extent of arc, but with those skills I find this a very useful tool. For large lawns you can connect several pulsating sprinklers in series between lengths of hose, though the pressure will decline toward the end. As with so many tools, I broke several plastic versions of this before I invested in one with a metal stake. If you push that wide blade part down into the soil (I wanted to show it in the picture) it anchors the sprinkler, which will otherwise tend to work itself out of position as it pulses.
Soaker hoses. Made of porous material so water can slowly seep out along the whole length, these are a great way to deliver water right where plants need it -- at the root zone -- without flinging it through the air to evaporate on the way or get leaves wet and encourage fungus disease. I use soaker hoses especially for trees and shrubs in their first two years; I twine the hose on the ground among the shrubs and cover it with mulch. Many people use them in vegetable gardens. Soaker hoses are invaluable for get water right to the root zone of evergreens, whose branches can shed rain right away and leave their roots dry. Of course, I always use a quick connector so I can easily plug in the water supply. Since they can easily be moved around and don't require emitters to precisely aim the water, soaker hoses work much better in a constantly-evolving home garden than drip irrigation (been there, done with that). But they are not perfect. For one thing, they lose pressure along their length, so with normal household water pressure, a long connected series of soaker hoses usually isn't worth it. Most soaker hoses are made of recycled rubber and, though durable, are stiff and hard to manage. They are best laid out early in the season when the perennials are just sprouting or before you plant the vegetables because it's almost impossible to wriggle a stiff hose down between grown plants. And they usually need to be staked down with wire garden staples. The effectiveness of soaker hoses is limited by the soil: In absorbent soil, capillary action will spread the moisture a foot or so on each side of the hose, but in sandy, well-drained soil the water will only go straight down.
My favorite soaker hose right now is a "flat weeper" hose from Gilmour. It's stitched from nylon fabric, so it is extremely flexible when it's not engorged. It can be laid -- not neatly laid, but laid -- between established plants if you forgot earlier, and at the end of the season the dry hose is easy to roll up and put away.
Two watering cans. I like to leave one can filling at the tap while I use the other for pots or specially thirsty plants. Then I bring it back and swap. A can should have a wide fill hole at the top to capture a stream from the faucet.
Hose timers. Time is how you control the amount of water you send through a sprinkler or soaker hose. You figure out how long it takes your sprinkler to deliver 1 inch of water (or what you have decided is necessary) and at the end of that time you are supposed to turn it off -- if you remember, and if you don't get distracted, and if it's convenient. A timer disposes of all those "ifs." You set to go as long as you choose and at the appointed time it shuts off the water. You can set up a sprinkler in the morning on your way to work. Or you can set a soaker hose to ooze through the small hours of the morning. (Since soaker hoses don't get the foliage wet and invite disease, there's no reason not to use them at night. And that's when there's least demand on the water supply.) Or you can set up a timer to allow a sprinkler to barely dribble into the root zone of a tree for an hour or so. I prefer simple mechanical timers. Fancy programmable digital timers can turn the water on as well as off at multiple intervals, but they require batteries and a Ph.D. They also can lead to the same destructive sprinklers-in-the-rain syndrome as in-ground irrigation systems: the tendency to set it and forget it, regardless of changing weather conditions. That syndrome is responsible for vast amounts of wasted water.
Mulch. Among its many virtues, mulch reduces the amount of water that evaporates from garden soil. I use wood-chip mulch for trees and shrubs and finer mulch (usually shredded leaves) in perennial beds. (Note that this mulch is spread properly: in a wide, even circle, not piled against the tree trunk. The mulch is kept a couple of inches clear of the bark so it does not invite rot and insects to eat at the tree. And yes, I should have weeded before I took the picture.) Mulch is also effective in containers, which tend to dry out even faster than garden soil. I find that cotton burr compost, available at some garden centers, is a nice, fine mulch for pots.
Rain gauges (plural). Like that finger test, rain gauges provide real data to guide watering. Just because the weather guy predicted rain doesn't mean it did rain. Just because a crack of thunder disturbed your sleep doesn't mean it rained in your yard. Just because the sidewalk was wet in the morning doesn't mean it rained enough to help your plants. Just because it rained an inch out on the open lawn doesn't mean a useful amount of water reached the ground through the dense foliage of your maple tree. I have several rain gauges around the yard and I am often amazed at how much their readings vary in different places. For example, our building is four stories tall, and a gusty storm out of the north that soaks the lawn may leave the beds in the lee of the building bone-dry. You can use a rain gauge to figure out how long it takes your sprinkler to deliver the 1 inch of water that is needed to keep a lawn actively growing. (Or you can quit watering and let the lawn go dormant in the hot summer and save some mowing.)
Flip-flops. Entertaining when worn with shorts while watering, especially with a hose-end nozzle on a hot day. The sober adult's approach to playing in the sprinkler.
Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe .
All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.