Sue Langley

Watering lessons in a foothill garden

A drip line runs along the top of this slope. Closely planted the soil here is shaded.
A drip line runs along the top of this slope. Closely planted the soil here is shaded. Submitted Photo

I like to hand water. It’s relaxing, cool on a hot day, and I can watch over the newly-establishing plants while I weed a bit in the wet, softening soil. I like to hand water ... up to a point. By August, I’m over it. Besides, our family usually goes on a trip or two during the hot summer, times through which I know my patio pots won’t live.

Much of Southern California is desert and, unless you’re growing ‘native-to-your-area’ plants, they need summer water. The rest of California can be called Mediterranean and the plants suited to this climate, cool rainy winters and hot dry summers, don’t need much summer water once established. To me, the technical term ‘once established’ means the plant has to, not only stay green, but start to grow. The trick is finding out how much water it needs from year to year until and after that.

After 17 years gardening in the foothills of Central California, I’ve learned a few things about watering Mediterranean and California native plants here. Many of these lessons were learned at the expense of budding young nursery plants and tragically, like every gardener, I’ve managed to kill a few.

I’ve learned that rosemary, thyme, iris and lavender can live on monthly water from the start. These are the ones I planted before we even lived here full time. We’d come up from So Cal once a month and I’d water these, planted from 4-inch pots along the new retaining wall. They are still doing well now, after 12 years.

I learned from a neighbor how to put a drip system together. I use just two types of emitters. I place one gallon per hour sprayers, attached by thin tubing to standard drip hoses, around the edges of planting areas, aimed inward sprayers for low growers.

I use single drip emitters for larger, spaced out shrubs and containers. I screw on flow regulators at the faucets to even out the water pressure.

The two best tips my friend gave me was to take all your supplies with you when construct, change or repair the lines, because what you need will always be there. And don’t cut the thin tubing until you ‘measure’ over to the plant to be watered, because when you estimate, you’ll likely be off.

I learned how long and how often to set my drip system. I have found that every three days for an hour gives new plants a gallon of water. After a year or two, I can plug many emitter holes because plants like ceanothus and other natives only need one or two waterings during the hottest part of the summer.

I learned to count how many seconds it takes to hand water a gallons worth of water on a plant. For me, two counts of eight. Just fill up a gallon container and count. Good to know.

Using the trowel ever in my back pocket, I learned to check the depth to which water gets to the roots after watering. With a lot of plants you want the water to reach below the root zone so they will grow deeper. Short surface waterings can keep roots near the soil surface so I water so each plant deeply while it’s establishing.

I learned to keep plants in zones according to how much water they need. The closer to the house the more water plants get, especially since the patio is hosed off now and then. Roses, iris, patio pots and Japanese Maples are here. The drip system is in the middle zone watering the Salvia bed, the rain garden and the perennial beds and in the hinter lands, there are natives only planted that will never get drip.

I learned to mulch around plants 2-3 inches with native wood chips and pine needles. With the first Fall rains, I will sometimes turn this into the soil to enrich it. Over the years, the soil in the planting beds are getting marvelously loose and crumbly.

Most important for me, since I live on a 15-degree slope, I learned to plant on a slope, building a level watering basin around a plant. I create a basin above the plant and set a rock below. The basin is large enough to hold a half gallon to a gallon of water at a time and the rock holds moisture longer near the roots, as well as anchoring the plant into the slope.