Hand watering is an art. These days, people tend to go for drip systems and soaker hoses, or use sprinklers. I’m of the opinion that drip systems are good for orchards and vineyards, but in a home vegetable garden, they aren’t really practical. Soaker hoses work well if you plant in rows, but not as well if you use intensive planting techniques, as I do. I admit, that this year I am experimenting with soaker hoses, simply because of time constraints. The jury is still out. My biggest objection to sprinklers is that they are very wasteful of water. In my dry climate on a windy day, I might lose half my water to evaporation. The other issue for me, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the spring that supplies our well does not refill very quickly. I could run something like a lawn sprinkler for about 30 minutes, after which I would have to shut it off to let the well recharge for an hour or more.
Thus, hand watering. There are several keys to hand watering. First, choose the right nozzle. I like a fan nozzle. First, they’re simple. Most have only one moving part – the lever that controls the water flow. Second, they are metal, and therefore more durable. The fancy ones with a variety of adjustable settings don’t seem to last as long – probably because they’re made out of plastic and rubber. Third, the shape works better for garden beds, which usually have square corners and straight lines. With a round-headed nozzle, the water falls unevenly (more in the center, less on the sides) and you get more water on the paths – again, it’s wasteful. And if you’re watering a narrow bed or don’t want to get a lot of water on a house wall, you can turn the fan so you have a narrow band of water. Finally, it’s easy to clean out the mineral deposits that build up around the holes. Once or twice a year I take a safety pin and poke it in each hole, working it around to dislodge any crud.
After the nozzle, the next most important thing about hand watering is the water flow. If the flow is too high, it dislodges soil around the roots. It can even knock plants over or wash out seedlings. A fan nozzle can be adjusted to produce a very fine spray. Or you can stand at one end of a bed and turn it full on. The force is dissipated, so it’s possible to put quite a bit of water on the other end of the bed without flattening plants or causing runoff. This technique saves you walking the length of the bed and dragging a hose.
Timing is the last of the important aspects of hand watering. You have to get enough water on the bed to keep the soil evenly moist at least a foot down. If the top foot is moist, the water will percolate down to the lower levels. If only the top six inches is moist, the water tends to move up and evaporate. By the way, hand watering only works well if your soil is light and fluffy, with lots of organic matter. Your soil must also be thoroughly moist to begin with. I check my beds before I plant – if the soil is not evenly moist to well below the 12-inch mark, I water repeatedly over a short time period until it is. When you water by hand, you’re shooting for what John Jeavons calls “the shiny.” As you water, the water will begin to puddle on top of the soil. With my clay soil, I want it wet enough that it takes about 15 seconds for the puddle (“the shiny”) to disappear. In a sandy, soil, you might only need a shiny of five or six seconds. Time yourself at first, until you get a good feel for it. Do not increase the water flow to get done faster – the water won’t penetrate properly but will run off instead.
Hand Watering – Last Words
Your soil type will affect water retention. Sandy soils drain faster. My soil is primarily clay, which means it holds water well (and turns into gumbo when wet). And you can only see the surface. If you practice daily watering, your plants may look lush and grow well even if the soil is moist only in the top four inches. Miss a watering session, and plants will wilt or even die. Don’t make assumptions about whether you are getting enough water on your garden. At least once a week, shove a trowel of some sort deep enough into the soil to check the level of soil moisture. I know from experience that when the weather is very hot and windy, I have to water twice a day. If my soil were sandy, I might need to increase the interval to three times a day or water longer during the twice-daily sessions.