Trickle irrigation is often best

Obviously, plants will not survive without water. But, there’s a lot more to it than that. Without the proper amount of water, they will not thrive. Too little or too much will result in unhealthy plant development. If they don’t drown or die as a result of dehydration, they will become weak and more prone to damage from pests and diseases.

Without a doubt, one of the most common causes of plant mortality is lack of water. Every year, first-time gardeners and enthusiastic homeowners spend considerable amounts of money on garden and landscape plants that soon die, either from not enough water or from inconsistent watering. Plants often require less water in the spring, when they are small and days are cool. But their need for water increases quickly as temperatures rise and those plants come into bloom.

When plants receive the amount of water they specifically require, fruit and vegetable quality can be greatly improved and yield can be increased considerably.

Unfortunately, a critical time for most vegetable plants is during the months of July and August, the time of year when we often see extended periods of hot, dry weather; even drought. Cultural practices, such as mulching and hand weeding will help, but additional water will often be required. One method used to provide that water to garden, field, and landscape plants is irrigation.

The basic concepts of proper irrigation are the same ones that apply to any good watering program. One needs to know how often to water, how much water to use, and how to apply that water. Good watering practices will provide suitable distribution of water, promote good soil permeation, assure sufficient water retention, and allow for the removal of excess water.

Overhead or sprinkler irrigation systems are commonly used to water gardens and landscapes. This method wets the entire soil surface, soaking plants and leaving them dripping wet. Water is often applied rapidly and in excess. For vegetables that are particularly prone to foliar diseases; tomatoes – for example, which are frequently at risk for septoria and/or early blight -?splashing water may spread those disease organisms. And water on the leaves may further encourage disease development.

That is not the case with trickle irrigation, which is a far less wasteful and significantly more economical method. By using a network of tubing and drip emitters, precise amounts of water can be slowly made available to very limited areas close to the roots of the plants at either regular intervals or at the most advantageous times. Plant spacing or the desired wetting pattern determines where emitters are placed along the drip tape or trickle tubing. Except for incidental rainfall, plants remain dry. This reduces the risk of fungal and bacterial problems, even while the plants are being provided continuous, near-optimal soil moisture. What’s more, when correctly applied, very little water passes below the root zone. As a result, leaching, which can remove valuable nutrients, is minimized.

Areas between rows remain dry too, receiving moisture only when it rains. As a result, fewer weeds are able to germinate. Weeding between rows and other gardening chores can be carried out even while the garden is being watered. And you won’t find yourself working in mud.

Money can be saved too. Because fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides are not washed away from foliage, fewer applications are required. Consequently, the negative environmental impacts of chemical use are also reduced. And because drip irrigation systems can be turned on and off recurrently by simply integrating a timer into your system, one huge advantage, at least in my opinion, is the fact that gardens can be watered at regular intervals, even when the gardener needs to (or wants to) be away from the garden for extended periods of time.

Simply stated, drip irrigation systems allow gardeners to maintain and even improve overall plant and soil health while potentially producing increased yields of better quality food. What’s more, less labor is needed and water consumption is reduced; in some cases by as much as 70 percent.

If there is a disadvantage to drip irrigation systems, it is that they may become plugged, especially when used with non-potable water sources. Occasionally, dirt, algae or hard water minerals may create problems. Filtering systems may correct the problem, but they can be expensive and require regular maintenance.

If you would like to receive more information on trickle irrigation and trickle irrigation systems, please feel free to contact me at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County by phone at 518-483-7403. Or you can reach me by email.