The Steady Drip, Drip, Drip!

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Sometimes we are truly thankful for each day we manage to stay on top of the ground. If we lived a few thousand years ago, in or near the desert, we might prefer to get out of the hot sun by working underground. Digging tunnels that carried water from place to place would be like working in air conditioned comfort. Now the ancient me is thinking: “The longer I make the tunnel, the longer this cushy job will last!

Conserving water is one thing we’re forced to think about during a drought. And, sometimes it helps to consider the extremes when we’re searching for sustainable solutions. For example, there are golf courses on the Arabian Peninsula where the sprinkler system uses several times the usual amount of water, so that at least some of it will hit the ground before it evaporates. Yet, in ancient Ninevah and Babylon, there were pockets of innovation that produced aqueducts, various water elevators, and the earliest examples of that water culture we’ve come to know as hydroponics.

When I first moved to Western North Carolina, an auto mechanic told me about an area farmer that had two pastures for his cows. There was a small stream that divided the farm. The farmer had built a bridge for the cows to cross the stream between the two grazing areas. The bridge had a slight wobble. Not enough to spook the cows mind you, but just enough of a see-saw motion to drive a small pump so the cows would have fresh water in the appropriate trough.

With a global p[opulation of almost eight billion, getting water to where it’s needed, without wasting any along the way, is now more important than ever. That’s also how we save money. In the garden and across the farm, water and nutrients can be precisely directed just as they are in a greenhouse. We may not derive all the benefits of a controlled environment, such as having most of the water drain back into a reservoir with minimal loss due to evaporation. We can, however, use micro-irrigation techniques to save on most of the inputs.

By delivering plain water or nutrient solutions to the desirable vegetation with minimal overspray, we’re feeding our crops or ornamentals and not the weeds. The next time you think “Oh my aching back,” let this be a reminder that you will be saving far more than just money. Even so, the money is important and you will love the fact that micro-irrigation is dirt cheap. Little tiny drips and sprays delivered through little tiny tubes and driven by little tiny pumps make for a system that’s cheap to implement, cheap to maintain, and cheap to use. That is, when you compare it to the cost of the big stuff.

Usually, when you bury water pipes, you have to get them below the frost line. Micro irrigation systems can be configured to drain completely when the pressure is off. This means you can simply leave them on top of the ground or cover them with a layer of mulch. Of course there’s always the occasional oops factor to be considered. So when you do need to replace a line, you’ll be thankful that it’s not buried two feet deep.

Cutting in a new irrigation line can be achieved with little barbs that are simply pushed into the end of, or a hole in the side of, an existing line. A complete system can have any combination of sprayers, drippers, and soakers. These can simply be sized, so that the correct amount of solution is delivered without the need for expensive, high maintenance regulators.

While closed circuit irrigation systems are largely confined to the greenhouse, micro-irrigation can be adapted to field farming, the backyard garden, and the container systems in and around our homes and offices. And, if we design these systems correctly, we could recover much of the runoff.

In the decades to come, we will face an even greater variety of sustainability challenges. For example, unless something changes, in order to feed the people expected to occupy the planet by 2050, we would need to add an area the size of Brazil to that already used for food production. It simply begs the question: “After clear-cutting Africa, what would we then do for breathable oxygen?”

In all practicality, the changes we need to make can be painful, or we can view them as stimulating challenges. The more we understand the advantages of these new irrigation techniques, the more exciting the future of plant cultivation becomes. Not changing can be more costly than re-tooling, especially in light of the savings that can be realized on all fronts, in perpetuity. After all, who’s opposed to saving on labor, pesticides, fertilizer, and water in a way that yields healthier gardens and crops together with greater peace of mind.

If we borrow the best from the techniques commonly used within growing domes, greenhouses, and vertical farms, we can augment the knowledge gained through square foot gardening and apply it to square inch gardening. We will, for the first time in a long time, know what we’re eating. We will be positioned to better withstand drought conditions. We will mitigate soil depletion, excessive warming, and undesirable changes to our air envelope. And, for the control freaks among us, we will have even greater control.

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