BY ROGER SWAIN
“GARDENERS ARE NOTHING IF NOT BETTER WATERERS,” says my friend Dennis Higbie. And visitors to Walt Disney World in Florida, where he works, cannot help but admire the automated irrigation, from the hotel lawns that are soaked while guests are sleeping to the hydroponically fed vegetables in Epcot’s Land Pavilion.
But automation inevitably runs up against another gardening maxim: “The finest fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” To wit, gardens do best when the gardener is present. We have all seen automated systems fail to perform: sprinklers spewing water in the midst of a downpour, or pop-ups that, having been run over by the UPS truck, now irrigate the roadway.
The truth is that the job of watering is still best done by hand. Just ask a bonsai master. The water is applied when it’s needed, in the amount that’s necessary, and precisely where it belongs. If only a few plants need attention, then a watering can is the simplest tool for giving them a drink. But most of us have gardens that are too large to water that way—which is why we use hoses.
KNOW YOUR HOSE
“A hose is nothing but a long thin bucket,” someone once quipped. But they serve to transport water over a considerable distance without someone’s walking endlessly back and forth to the tap. Or, to borrow from fire-fighting history, enlisting all one’s neighbors in a “bucket brigade” to pass full cans of water down the line.
Hoses, however, are not created equal. Every discount store offers bins filled with new hoses, tight rolls of redolent PVC. The label may say it’s “vinyl,” but the material is actually polyvinyl chloride. These cheap hoses will always be sold in quantity, because quantity is necessary to replace those of the same kind that have already worn out. It’s not simply that their PVC breaks down in sunlight (all PVC does, eventually). The chief problem is that cheap hoses kink readily, and once kinked, the hose will not easily round out again and so the flow of water is restricted. And where a hose kinks, it kinks again and again, until eventually it cracks, leaks, and is discarded.
The very best, top-of-the-line hoses are rubber. These stay flexible in subfreezing temperatures, can be used for hot water, and tolerate the highest pressure. But not only are they the most expensive, they are also the heaviest. I have a 75-foot-long rubber hose. It is a beauty—black with a yellow stripe—but it is rather heavy. I keep it coiled in the shade of a fir tree and use it as the first length from the tap when I need to set up a particularly long run.
Much lighter, and nearly as durable, are the better grades of vinyl hoses. These are multi-ply hoses that combine PVC and a nylon mesh for strength. Some have an outer rubber coating. How to pick the best? Look for “Professional Duty” or “Landscaper Series” hoses. As with any garden tool, you get what you pay for, and a tool that lasts many seasons is in the end cheaper than one that does not. The hose I am using is guaranteed never to kink, and indeed I haven’t been able to kink it. The couplings are heavy brass, and, instead of being round, are polygonal, making it easy to tighten them with a wrench if necessary. There’s also a coiled spring collar at the female end to reduce any chance of its bending at the faucet connection. As for diameter, I prefer five-eighths of an inch. This is a compromise between rate of flow and weight. In 10 seconds at 50 psi, a half-inch hose delivers one and one-third gallons, a five-eighths-inch hose twice as much. A three-quarter-inch hose will deliver three and one-third gallons, but it’s a much heavier hose.
Whether you intend to connect your hose to a sprinkler, or stand and spread the water with a nozzle, a watering wand, or simply a finger held over the end, you will still need to pull the hose around the garden. You should always pull a hose gently. Not only does hard pulling threaten to bend the hose at the spigot, but it can strain the couplings and may damage the inner plies. Pulled hoses also tend to function like crude scythes, mowing down plants as they are pulled around the corners of flower beds. There are many ways to prevent this. A strategically placed heavy pot at the bed’s corner can be used as a bumper. There are also a number of decorative hose guides; I have a cast iron one with a pineapple finial. Or you can just drive in wooden stakes to protect your plants.
When you are done watering, you will need to put the hose away. Not only are hoses likely to be damaged by lawnmowers or other vehicles rolling over them, but an unused hose will kill grass lying beneath. Furthermore, sunlight will ultimately damage any hose, even those treated with UV inhibitors. When you gather up your hose, you will discover that it coils easier one way than another. This is the way it was manufactured, and you should try to respect its origins. I find it easiest to loop hose in a loose coil on the ground, letting it fall the way it wants to. Hose reels are fine, but these should be located out of full sun.
Also, never leave a hose under pressure if you aren’t using it. If you have shut off the water at the nozzle, be sure you have also shut off the water at the tap and opened the nozzle again before you put the hose away. And finally, at the end of the season remember to drain all your hoses and put them away.
There are those who argue that all this is too much work. These are the clients of automated sprinkler companies. But before you opt for one, even a so-called “smart” system that doesn’t switch on when it’s already raining, remember that plants aren’t the only beneficiaries of hand watering. It’s when you are out moving the sprinkler that you strike up a conversation with a neighbor or a stranger on the sidewalk. Hoses aren’t only good for the landscape; they are good for the community. Pulling hoses pulls people together. H