I'm very particular in the way I water the beds at the garden. There is a drip system in-place at the BGG that I could hook up if I were so inclined, however, it's a pain in the butt to get it running and obtaining the hoses and pipes from where they spend the winter was another pain. So in an effort to get the garden going this year and not wanting to waste another day, we decided to forego hooking up the drip system and do the watering by hand.
This in no way bothers me. In fact, I very much prefer it.
I've read a considerable amount watering crops on big commercial farms, and as well as advice on dealing with smaller-scale operations like the Giving Garden. I've watched countless Youtube videos of people discussing water, and I've discussed it many times with other area gardeners who know both more and less than I do. I even watched my own father water his own garden (a task for which he too had a whole system of belief). Yes, I see the benefit of drip systems and how they are likely better for agriculture in the long run from a water conservation aspect since the water goes straight to the ground not all over the plants. If I had a large organic farm I may consider such a system, but in my case and with the size plots I'm watering, I prefer to water by hand using either a hose (with a highly controlled flow) or watering can.
The way I see it is that gardens need attention. To give them attention, you need to spend time in the garden walking around, weeding, inspecting the leaves, getting a general feel for the conditions. While spending time there, you may as well be watering. For a garden as small as the BGG, or most home gardens, it's not much of a hassle.
Just Like Rain
Part of of the reason why I'm writing this is because in the past week, I've shown six people how I would like the garden to be watered — Manu, Meredith, her son Nate, my sons Thomas and Arthur, and Mary Liz. I try to be specific and stress the idea that we want to mimic rain but not in entirely. The general rule I follow is put best by Farmer Dave when he once told me, "Water the soil not the plant," because as always, it's really about the soil.
Rain is the best way to hydrate a crop, which is what a good watering can can do, but watering cans have their own drawbacks chief one being that you've got to fill it up and lug it around. In the BGG we use a hose that we drag around, which is a bit easier although we have to be careful not to drag it over the plants.
The nozzle I chose for watering is one that lets you set the type of flow. For the garden I set it to "shower" which gives a nice even flow with good-size drops, as opposed to "mist" which is too little, or "jet" which you use if you hate whatever or whomever you're spraying.
The on/off mechanism is a little fire-hose-like lever that easily lets me control how hard I want the water to flow. This differs from those hoses where you have to squeeze a handle and keep it squeezed for the water to come out. Because there's no easy way on those things to control the intensity of the, you need to squeeze the handle and keep it squeezed with just enough force for water to come out but not so much that you're blasting the ground. The fire-hose type if nozzle is also good because more people can use them comfortably. Kids learning to water don't get tired having to squeeze a handle, and adults with hand-problems or arthritis don't have to beat the hell out of their finger joints to keep the proper pressure. This type nozzle makes things easy for everyone.
When we do water, we try not to hit the plants' leaves since a hose flow no matter how well-regulated can still harm the plant. It's impossible to not hit them entirely, and on the tomato and pepper plants it can help to run the water over them to wash off aphids to so some degree, but it's the ground that needs to be moist not the plants.
I never point the nozzle down on the plants or ground (well, if I do it's only to the ground), but instead I turn the nozzle up so that it arcs a bit through the air before falling over the bed, or hold the nozzle parallel to the ground. This makes the water fall gently and in a more natural way. If you were to point the nozzle right down on the bed, you could end up not only accidentally hitting the leaves too hard, but you could also wash down too much of the soil nutrients through runoff. We have too much time, effort, and personal sacrifice to just let our horse crap/seaweed/rock dust compost mix go leeching off all its plant goodiness into the surrounding ground.
Most garden people will tell you to poke your finger into the soil a few inches to feel if the soil is properly hydrated. That's all fine and good, and yes I too do that, but I cannot trust the sensitivity of my fingers. After years of abusing my hands and dulling the nerve endings, I don't always trust my touch when it comes to soil moisture. Even taking clothes out of the dryer, I hold them against my cheek to see if they're still wet instead of relying on my hands. Using my finger to tell soil moisture helps me more to detect extremes of condition, that is, I can easily tell if the soil is very moist or if it's as dry as a Nevada highway. For the more in-between, I use a meter.
I really like the meter I use. It's one of those 3-tool devices that measures pH, sun exposure, and moisture. It has two long prongs that you gently push into the ground to get an almost instant reading. I'll take readings in different sections of the individual plant beds because even in those small spaces, moisture can vary greatly.
Besides using a finger or meter, just looking at the ground and plants can tell you a lot. If you spend as much time with the plants as I try to, you start to just notice when things seem too dry and the plants look a little less happy. But since I like to rely on the science a little more than feel in settings such as the BGG, I'm a fan of metering.
To keep track of how much water we use when watering, I went out and got me a cheapo flow meter that attaches to the hose. I'm going to tell you right now that a flow meter is not necessary at all. Really none of these tools except for the hose itself are necessary for successfully watering a bed. In many ways I'm just scratching an OCD itch in using these things, but also, the BGG is not my own garden. It's a public space that was built by very dedicated people, so I tend to fuss over it more so than my own yard as my somewhat perturbed neighbors would attest. It's kind of how one drives more carefully when driving someone else's car since you don't want to break their expensive toy. In my case with the BGG, that car is a rosso scuderia Ferrari F88 — a fender you definitely don't want to bend.
Another reason for the flow meter is to give other people an indication of what they're doing. Since this is a volunteer public project, I'm not the only one who does all the watering so there needs to be a way for others to tell if they're watering too much or not enough. There's a certain security in having an indicator with numbers that one can refer to.
The particular flow meter I got would normally attach to the spigot on the wall, since most normal people don't need up-to-the-second data on how much water has been vomited through the hose. In our case, I attach the flow meter to the end of the hose just below the nozzle, so I can keep track of how much has come out as I do it.
How Much Water?
In general, we water each bed with 4 to 6 gallons 3 times per week. Beans are annoyingly thirsty so they get closer to the 6. The herbs I largely ignore, and the pollinator boxes I give a sporadic 4 or 5 gallons over the week, depending on how hot it gets. That's another thing we consider. If it rains, we can forgo a watering for the most part, but when it gets really hot we will give an extra gallon or 3. (These are situations where it helps to have the water meter.)
Once we start getting actual vegetables showing up on the plants, then we will need to adjust. We don't want to overwater the tomatoes and we certainly don't want to encourage disease or rot, which can happen if too much water is applied to the leaves or fruit directly. It'll be later in the summer when the plants are fully grown and producing that I may have wished we hooked up the convenient drip system to regulate the soil moisture better, but then again what fun would that be?
In my own yard, the only tool I use is the nozzle. I don't really worry about moisture as much because I know the ground intimately, and I don't need to know exactly how much water I'm using. For the few vegetables I grow, I spend enough time examining them from stem to leaf to know what's going on. Like most things, it's the time spent with the plants that's more important for their overall health than in reading numbers off meters. If you pay close enough attention, the plant will tell you what it needs.