By By Carey Restino
Truth be known, I was a pretty sub-standard gardener until plasticulture came into my life. But I don’t actually attribute my success to the plastic coverings despite the precious Alaska solar gain near my plants. I attribute the shift entirely to the watering system I installed the first year I put up a hoop house.
Here’s the difference. In the old days, I would use a hose to fill up a watering can and walk around for about a half-hour watering every little plant by hand. When I did it, it was pretty fun — kind of meditative and it kept me connected with my plants. The big problem, however, was how often I actually did it — that is to say, not nearly often enough.
Right now, Alaska’s experiencing quite the heat wave, and our watering needs are near critical levels, but even on ordinary years (whatever that is anymore), June is hot and dry. That’s almost always the time when all your plants are itty bitty and most vulnerable to drying out. Tiny seedlings just don’t like being stressed out, and even if you get them to recover, it will compromise production of many plants to have a dry period early on. And if you have a million other projects going, like all of us do in June, that’s a bad combination.
However, there is a solution and it comes in the form of a watering system. Now, instead of investing all that time running up and down rows with a hose, I do the following: Go to the faucet and turn on a tap; set a timer for 30 minutes; turn off tap when timer goes off. Total time investment? Less than a minute.
And that, my friends, has revolutionized my gardening success. All of a sudden, things grow! And, amazingly, I’m using less water.
There are several different watering systems out there, but the one most growers are using these days is called T-tape. In larger farms, T-tape is rolled out in the spring behind tractors and pulled up and thrown away in the fall. But I’ve reused my T-tape system for four years now, adding a bit more each year, and it’s still going strong. You can buy it locally, your 12-year-old can put it together and it’s fantastically effective.
Here’s how it works. The T-tape itself is a strip of thin, plastic tubing with slits in the top every foot or so. You can get different flow rates depending on how much water your plants need if you want to get really meticulous about it. You can use higher flow T-tape for bigger plants like zucchini and squash and lower flow tape for plants like onions and herbs. For the average 30-inch-wide row, two strips of T-tape will work just fine. Once installed, it weeps water out into the soil creating a one-footround circle of moistened soil at each slit. Since nothing is spraying out into the air, it saves a lot of water.
To install your T-tape, you will need a hose going from your house to your garden, and some quasihard plastic tubing known as mainline. The mainline is the tube that attaches to your hose and goes along the top of your whole garden. The T-tape attaches to the mainline. The first time I did a water system, I used regular black commercial pipe, thinking it would work just fine. It did, sort of. The way the T-tape fits into the mainline is with little junctions that punch into the mainline. The mainline that you buy at the garden store is softer than the commercial black pipe you get at the hardware store. So if you get the hole just the right size, you might be able to get a leak-free fit, but I wouldn’t count on it. I wound up messing around with a lot of silicone and this year, I just bought the softer pipe. You can get junctions for your mainline that allow you to “L” it down the side of raised beds and across pathways so you aren’t tripping over pipes. I recommend taking the time to do it. These little pieces fit together with minimal effort and once you have the whole thing laid out, it’s pretty slick.
The T-tape strips punch into the mainline running along the top of your rows and are attached by simply slipping the sleeve over those attachments. Make sure when you cut your T-tape to size, you don’t put part of the tape that has a slit in it into the attachment connection. It will leak. At the end of each line, you bend the T-tape over on top of itself and then put a rectangular fitting over it to crimp the line.
You will also need a filter at the beginning of your system. The wonderful thing is that now you can buy all these fittings locally, which is perfect when you realize you forgot one “L” piece and you need it right now. Ground Control sells all the T-tape supplies you need, and prices are competitive with online sources.
I can’t recommend this system enough. At first you might think the plants aren’t getting enough water because the ground isn’t all saturated on top, but the plants are smart enough to figure out where the water is and reach for
it, in my experience. Watering consistently with T-tape is far better than an occasional deluge, and it keeps the water off your leaves, which keeps the mold factor down.
There are planners online at Dripworks.com to help you figure out the set-up, but really, you can do this. Go forth and water!
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