When it comes to gardening, water usage has always been on my mind. Colorado is famous for its snow-capped mountains. However, our growing environment is actually high desert, which means dry, cold, and very windy. The high clay content in our soil also makes snow and rain harder to penetrate. Therefore, from hardscape to plant selection, how to save irrigation usage has been driving my decision making.
In 2018, we built a dry creek in our front yard to prevent surface water run-off. We also converted large area of lawn space to mulched flower beds to reduce evaporation. Both hardscape and mulch are effective ways to hold the merely 15″ precipitation (annually!) in our land. In addition, the method of watering also matters.
We have been using drip irrigation in our flower beds for two years. More recently, we adopted drip irrigation for our front yard lawn space too! The most significant upgrade we made to our irrigation system is the recent automation. In today’s post, I’d like to show you the results of our hard work on drip automation, including how we adopted drip system for our front yard lawn space.
Backyard Watering Needs and Existing Drip Zones
I set my heart on drip irrigation very early, and have been setting it up in every flower bed I created. The very first flower bed we planted on this property was this pollinator/herb garden back in Spring, 2018. Due to the oval shape, I laid the 1/2″ solid tubing in circular fashion, and installed 2 gallon per hour emitters to point at the root ball of each plant.
In this garden I planted exclusively drought-tolerate plants. They may not give the biggest and most fragrant flowers, but they are much more appropriate for this sunny location, and definitely give the strongest support to native pollinators. Now being more established, these plants require minimal watering even in the hottest summer days. I usually water this bed once a week for an hour, which means that most of the plants here get 2 gallon of water per week.
The vegetable garden is located on the south side of the backyard and has its own drip system. Instead of emitters, soaker hoses were installed to accommodate the denser planting and shallower roots.
Since setting up the garden in 2018, we switched to the 1/4″ soaker hoses from DIG, from which our drip connectors, tubing, and emitters come. To connect the whole veggie garden on the same grid, I ran a 1/2″ solid tubing along one edge of the bed, to which the 1/4″ soaker hoses connect and then run off the whole length of each veggie bed. The whole veggie garden is watered everyday in summer, for an hour or so.
All of our fruit trees and climbing roses along the back fence share the third drip system. Solid 1/2″ tubing runs along the back fence and individual emitters sprout out from the solid tubing and point to the root balls of individual plants. Each fruit trees had a 4 gallon per hour emitter while the roses sported on 2 gallon per hour emitters. This zone got watered once a week last summer.
A more recent addition to our edible garden is a berry patch, shown in the picture above. In the Spring of 2019, we covered the north slope in our backyard with mulch and planted 15 raspberry plants, 5 blackberry plants, two hazelnut trees. I used 1/2″ solid tubing to create a grid, and punched individual 2 gallon per hour emitters to the root ball of each shrub/tree.
This zone gets watered every other day as fruit production requires more water.
Timer for Automation | Reconfiguring Drip Grids
As you can see, all of these drip zones were created as individual zones. To water each zone, a garden hose has to be connected to the inlet of that zone. With different watering schedule, in the hot part of the summer, watering often takes the entire evening during which every hour I had to connect and disconnect the hose among these beds. It quickly became a tiring and time-consuming task. On top of that, it felt absurd to ask our house sitter to do the same when we were on vacation. I had to admit, there were many times I forgot about watering, and left the drip running for hours. It was not only inefficacious but also ironic considering the whole purpose of using drip irrigation. By the end of 2019, it became clear that we needed to automate the irrigation system.
This Spring, I pulled the trigger on this handy Melnor digital timer after some research. It was actually sold in Lowe’s – but of course I ordered it online and had it shipped to my door, pandemic style.
I order this particular timer for its ability to water four zones on different schedules. It also acts as a splitter for outdoor faucet. I did not go for the solar-powered models, due to mixed reviews. I also did not go for anything super fancy like wifi-connected ones, which are much more expensive. This timer is only ~$50 per pop. If it works as intended, I consider it a good investment with a fair price tag.
Since the timer only offers four outlets, I decided to combine the pollinator/herb drip zone and the fruit tree/rose drip zone to spare one outlet for general use. To combine the two zones together and run it back to the outdoor faucet, I first installed a T-connector at the end of the main drip line circulating the pollinator/herb garden:
The solid tubing off to the left runs to the outdoor faucet, at the back of our house.
The last solid tubing coming off the T-connection to the bottom of the picture runs towards the fruit trees and climbing roses. Along the way, it curves through the newly created terrace garden. I recently planted some vine crops here, so I installed some emitters on the solid tubing to water them.
The 1/2″ solid tubing continues to run between the trees and roses, through the middle of the mulched bed:
To water the trees and roses I installed emitters and directed them to the root ball of each plants. The fruit trees used to be watered with one 4-gallon per hour emitter, pointing directly at the trunk of the trees.
As these trees grow fuller and started producing fruit, they need more water. In addition, their drip lines expands, so the emitters needed to be moved away from the root ball.
To better water these trees, I added two more 2-gallon per hour emitters to each tree, making it total of 8 gallon per hour watering capacity. The emitters were also moved to the new drip line of each tree.
Each climbing rose used to be watered by one 2-gallon per hour emitter. I bumped them up to 4 gallon ones and moved the emitters further away from the root balls as well.
Last, I buried all the drip tubing under the mulch to keep them out of direct sun. This action does not only extended the life of the tubing and emitters, but also keeps the water cool when coming out of these black tubing. Needless to say that it is also a cleaner look when they are completely hidden.
Installing Timer for Backyard Irrigation
Next, I connected each drip zone back to the timer. In the picture below, the rightmost black tubing is the main line for the berry patch, and the second to the right solid tubing is the one connected to the herb garden and the fruit trees.
The veggie garden is located on the other side of the yard, so I connected a garden hose from the timer to the veggie garden drip zone. In this way we can detach the hose when mowing the lawn.
The timer is rather bulky for the small clearance under the faucet, so it was mounted on the back of the house using a piece of plywood, and connected to the outdoor faucet with a short hose.
Front Yard Drip Automation
Connecting the drip zones for mulched flower beds
In 2018 we completed the front yard landscape, by converting over 700 sqft of lawn into mulched flower beds.
In this large area, I set two separated drip zones – one for the arborvitae trees planted on the left side, the other one for the perennial shrubs to the right. The reason of creating two separated zones was mainly due to different water usage between the trees and shrubs.
The perennial zone was set up using drip tubing with built-in emitters. They are better suited for densely planted flower beds, and work especially well with ground covers:
The tree zone, on the other hand, consists of a long piece of 1/2″ solid tubing along the hedge. Individual emitters were directed to the root ball of each tree. Bigger shrubs planted at the corner of the yard also utilize this zone, as they need less water than the perennial flowers.
These two zones had their own inlets, which could be connected to a garden hose to water. Now with the automatic timer, I need to bring water from the outdoor faucet to these zones via a solid tubing. As the first step, I linked the two separated drip zones together so only one solid tubing is needed from the timer to the flower bed. To ensure that I could water the two zones separately, I installed on-off valves to each zone:
The 1/2″ solid tubing to the left (currently shut off) is connected to the tree zone:
The flower bed in front of the fence is also watered by this zone. Below is the picture taken on the day I set up the drip system for this flower bed:
The short end of the tree zone waters the three irises next to the dry creek:
The solid tubing on the right (currently open) continue to run along the plastic edging, until it is connected to the perennial drip zone:
You can see that it connects to the brown drip tubing with built-in emitters.
To connect the flower bed drip zones to the outdoor faucet, I ran another piece of solid 1/2″ tubing along the edge of the front lawn, next to the gravel, all the way back to the outdoor faucet/timer:
You can see two solid tubing in the pictures above. Only one of them is bringing the water to the flower beds. As of the second tubing, it is for watering the lawn space.
Installing Micro-sprinklers for Front Lawn
A big part of automating our irrigation system is to set up automatic sprinkles for the front lawn. We have been watering the front yard by hand during the last two summers. Since DIG, where we got our drip system offers micro-sprinklers, I decided to give it a try for lawn space.
The first step is always to run the solid tubing, which brings water to where needed. I laid down 1/2″ solid tubing along the boundary of the front yard lawn:
then installed micro-sprinkles a few feet apart:
I was able to surround the whole lawn with one solid piece of 1/2″ tubing. I terminated the tubing under the pine tree, near where it starts:
We also have a piece of lawn on the other side of the driveway. It is almost a square. I ran the 1/2″ tubing with a few T connectors and 90-degree elbows, then installed micro-sprinkles as well:
The inlet was set to connect to a garden hose, as opposed to the timer directly as the other side. It is because that the water has to be brought from across the driveway, and the black solid tubing cannot stand the weight of the car.
The solid tubing runs along the sidewalk:
and the driveway:
And curves around the mailbox flower bed:
On this side, the tubing lines along the property boundary:
After I installed the micro-sprinkles, Slav buried all the solid 1/2″ tubing around the front lawn underground:
It created a much neater look. Now you cannot see the solid tubing anymore, and to mow the lawn, we just need to simply move the stakes.
Timer Installation for the Front Yard Irrigation
Similar to the backyard, I mounted the timer above the faucet with a piece of plywood.
Then I connected the timer to the outdoor faucet with a short hose.
The four automatic outlets are, from left to right: front yard garden hose wheel (for general use, I did not set time on this outlet), flower bed drip zones (can be watered separately with the two on-off valves), front lawn in front of the house, and front lawn in front of the fence gate (via a garden hose over the driveway).
For a cleaner look, I tucked the two 1/2″ black solid tubing under the gravel. You can see them disappearing under the ground.
The Cost of Our Automatic Irrigation Setup
We have been using the new automatic system for two weeks and both timer have worked very well. With the two times installed, we are completely free from watering duty. Considering the price of the timer (~$50 per timer), I think it is completely worth it.
In addition to the two timers, we also paid $30 for 5′ hoses connecting the timers to the outdoor faucets, and $95 for two drip/micro-sprinkler kits used for the front lawn (under $50 each here). The kits come with many connectors we did not use, as well as hundreds feet of solid 1/2″ and 1/4″ tubing. We did not purchase any additional emitters or tubing for the whole project, and we still have leftovers.
In summary, the total cost of the whole project was about $230. It isn’t nothing, but considering the time we saved dragging hoses around, and the stress we are freed from, I think it is a good investment. The tubing should last years, and the timer feels solid. I will make sure to report back on the reliability and the quality of these timers. Hopefully they last for a few years!
This project should reduce our irrigation water usage, just by switching to micro-sprinklers on the front lawn alone. Another big advantage of automating the irrigation is that now our plants get consistent watering. We often do not think about this, but plants are like us, having a consistent schedule for nutrition, water, and sleep really benefits. I hope you are still following a healthy daily schedule and life style while staying at home. I know we are!