Friday, August 10, 2012


            Our newspaper recently ran an article about a prominent former climate-change skeptic who has changed his mind about man-made global warming, and published a study of lots of other studies supporting his converted views. (Your tax dollars at work.) Mankind must be the reason the world’s heating up, he says: look at the temperature changes since 1950!!!

            To instill just a soupçon of sanity to the rather inane discussion of Who Caused Global Warming, I would like to point out that:

1.      By definition, climate is always changing;

2.      137 years of even the most scrupulous record-keeping doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, as Bogey might say, because…

3.       137 years do not a geologic age make; and

4.      It doesn’t matter who or what is at fault—the task now is to assess and adjust. That’s what humans do best. Theoretically. Although we’re also excellent at the blame-laying thing, too.

I’m just sayin’.

And now government hydrologists warn us a hefty proportion of the nation’s farmland is suffering from severe to extreme drought. Who caused that debacle?

            Here in southeastern North Carolina, we’re not so dry. In fact, since the 17th of July, Oak Island has totted up 12.75-plus inches of rain (it’s raining as I write this), which leaves us only ten or so inches below Wilmington’s “normal” (average!) for the year so far. Based on my own ten-years-worth of weather observations, I posit that Oak Island generally racks up less rainfall than the Big City to our north anyway, due to sea breezes that push moisture-laden clouds inland before they dump their loads.

            Be that as it may, the availability of fresh water for the seven-billion-and-counting people on this planet is becoming increasingly problematic. Ergo, at the micro level, it behooves all of us who have automatic irrigation systems to tune them up so what we waste is whittled to the barest minimum.

            Bite the bullet and pay an irrigation guy to pop over at least once a season to check your spray heads for coverage (no point sprinkling the street or the house) and proper operation (sand eventually clogs nozzles and wears down rotational gears); and to ascertain the good working order of the electrics and pipes (solenoids, valves, pumps and clocks go bad, wires get cut, pipes shatter, crack and clog).

Tim and I shut down our overhead sprayers for good last year, when the price of water sinking into the ground became onerous on Oak Island. Of our five-zone system, only the two drip zones see any action these days. The most efficient, targeted and cost-effective aspect of automatic irrigation, driplines put water directly where it’s needed, as opposed to flinging it into the air to be evaporated and wind-blown. (Surprisingly, dragging hoses around is the least wasteful of all landscape water-delivery methods, if you don’t factor in your labor and aggravation. Which I do as summer temperatures ramp up.)

Trouble-shooting your own drip system is easy. Checking for malfunctioning emitters and breached, pinched and/or clogged lines doesn’t require a degree in hydrology. Besides, with sufficient pressure, careful zone-run timing and a few readily available supplies, a single drip zone can be extended indefinitely, a definite boon to plantaholics.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I shall show rather than tell you how to become your own irrigation guy, in 22,000 words or less.

Here are your basic materials: half-inch-diameter dripline; straight and tee connectors; emitters (these control how much water comes out per hour, usually one or two gallons); and the descriptively named oops plugs, for the odd emitter-placement boo-boo.


First you place the dripline where you want it to go…


…and secure it to the ground, using less-expensive-but-more-work insulation hangers (sold in boxes of 100 or 600 in the, er, insulation aisle of your home-improvement emporium). Tim demonstrates how in three easy steps: click on the pictures because the darn things are hard to see...
Step1: Hold
Step 2: Fold

Step 3: Push down


…or opt for the more-expensive-but-less-work sod staples.


You will also need to pinch off the end of the line, for obvious reasons. Tim and I use electrical cable ties, also known as Israeli handcuffs, as shown here. Because ultraviolet light breaks down all plastics, check these closures every year or so and replace as necessary. If you have a shallow well, the inevitable dirt the pump sucks up will eventually clog the line. We suggest uncrimping the ends once a year or so when the zone is on, blowing out any gooey obstructions. 

            This is how the connectors work, connecting  pieces of pipe in straight lines or branching off a new line from another.

On to the nitty-gritty. You can’t just poke holes in the dripline—you need to maintain pressure in the line all the way to the end, which is why the irrigation gods invented emitters. You also can’t use any old sharp thing to make the holes emitters go into: size matters here. This is why we have emitter tools, available wherever fine emitters are found. (Emitters come in various shapes and colors; the ones pictured here are just two I had laying around.)

Insert the emitter tool into the dripline thus. Listen for the snapping sound that means you’ve fully penetrated the line. If you don’t hear it, you may not have broken all the way through, meaning the emitter won’t go in.


Remove the tool and push in the emitter.

Emitter on left, oops plug on right

 If you put a hole in the wrong place, or if a plant dies or gets moved, you can stop watering a spot that no longer needs it by exchanging the emitter for an oops plug, using brute force.

With your new skills, you can run water to your potted plants as well (no more imposing on neighbors when you go away). A length of aptly named spaghetti line (three to four millimeters in diameter) and some tiny straight and tee connectors are all the additional materials you’ll need.

Here’s how the line looks with the connectors in place…


…and how it attaches to the regular dripline.


Put an emitter (or two, if your plants needs more than one, by using a tee) onto the business end of the spaghetti…



…run it into the pot, and secure it to the medium. Voilà!


If the pot no longer needs watering, you simply remove the entire spaghetti assembly and insert an oops plug into the hole in the big dripline. If it’s a pot you plant only seasonally, just pinch off the spaghetti line with a cable tie, leaving it ready to flow again next year.

Now let’s look at some common dripline problems. First is the pinched line, where a plant’s stem or trunk grows so large as to close off the flow of water. (This picture was staged. Due to correct placement at the outset, we don’t have any pinched lines in our yard.)  

Driplines need to be visible for inspections, additions and repairs. If your contractor buried the dripline on purpose, throw a major hissy-fit and get him to reposition it on the surface posthaste. Over time though, driplines tend to disappear from view on their own, covered by blown-in sand or dirt, soil amendments and broken-down leaf-litter and mulch. Roots grow over them, sometimes compromising function (see “pinched line” above). When this happens, you must raise them back to the surface. Here’s a line, originally laid a decade ago and neglected since, that I’m in the process of unearthing.


If you don’t like the look of hoses running free through the shrubbery, mulch over ’em. Just don’t forget to check every other year or so that they haven’t started to vanish.

Look carefully, and you'll see the teeth marks
A third problem, especially prevalent during dry spells, is pet- or wildlife-caused breaches. The animals hear the water, and paw and gnaw away until they reach it. Squirrels routinely chew holes in our dripline, including the spaghetti line that fills the birdbath. (Go figure.) If your drip zone runs at a civilized hour, stroll through your garden when it’s on once in a while, looking and listening for spewing where there shouldn’t be any. If your system comes on unconscionably early, turn it on at a more convenient hour to scout for anomalies. A related issue is the occasional emitter that pops off. Don’t bother searching for the old one: they can travel astonishing distances. Just go get a new one to replace the one that’s gone.

If I can add and repair driplines—and I can—so can you. Like most of successful gardening, irrigation boils down to paying attention, learning a few techniques, and having the right tools. And that’s really all there is to it.

Thanks for dropping by.