Saturday, November 21, 2015

Garden Lessons Learned

The garden gives us many things--delicious vegetables, emotions ranging from frustration to sheer giddyness, and perpetual education on the ways the world works (including some forced reflection on our own habits and tendencies). We've celebrated the vegetables in our last two posts, so before we forget, we wanted to write down some of our garden-themed teachable moments from this last growing season.  It will be strongly irrigation-themed.  The pictures have some detailed notes to help us remember, so if you don't want all that, scroll to the bottom for the executive summary.

Gardening in Colorado without some kind of irrigation is like discussing politics with your in-laws: not likely to go well.  Raising chickens without water has even lower odds of success.  So, over the last couple years, we've built up a sort of infrastructure of hoses that waters the chickens and the garden mostly automatically.  This year, we added a barrel reservoir and some motion detector sprinklers.

A hose splitter coupled to a shutoff valve was the key to the barrel reservoir system.  (In the picture, hose water from the house comes in from the left, the barrel is off to the right, and the branch going toward the chicken butt leads to the drip irrigation tubing.)  Close the shutoff valve and open both branches of the splitter to fill the barrel.  Close the hose inlet and open the shutoff valve to drain the barrel out into the garden.   It worked great! ...except for a couple things.  First, the barrel drained out at an appropriate rate for the plants, but was empty after 24 hours.  So, we had to fill it every day to keep the transplants healthy and get the direct-seeded plants to germinate. (except we didn't, because we're apparently too lazy busy to even walk out to the garden to flip a valve and wait 15 minutes for the barrel to fill once a day...) Second, if we wanted to run on ditch water, which was the original intent of the barrel reservoir, the 55-gallon barrel was woefully undersized, and so was our pump.  We'd probably be better off with a 500 gallon pond and a siphon into the drip system.  We like the pond idea, so that'll be our first-choice modification next spring.  But if we don't get to it, we'll probably break down and buy a pressure regulator and automatic timer for the hose. 

Next, despite being admonished to never buy cheap hoses, we did just that our first year here.  And sure enough, mom was right--after only a year, it had leaky fittings on both ends and several hopeless kinks in the middle.  But coupled with some hose repair fittings and a knife, we were able to convert the non-kinked parts of this otherwise useless hose into several shorter hoses that delivered water to the custom-built drip irrigation system.  The best way to keep the cheap hoses from kinking is to not move them.  So a stationary drip irrigation system is a perfect application, and if we had to start from scratch, we'd probably buy a new cheap hose just to cut it apart! 

Also, for what it's worth, the mineral deposits made some of the fittings on the fancy hoses useless, too.  Our water is apparently pretty hard.

We tried growing some potatoes and sweet potatoes in feed bags as an approximation of those fancy ones that are supposed to make harvesting a lot easier.  But not having the feed bag taters on an automated irrigation system meant they were doomed from the start since these guys dry out even faster than the in-ground garden.

The motion detector sprinklers were a great addition to the garden.  We were losing several tomatoes a day (and our entire corn crop) to renegade squirrels, raccoons, and misbehaving chickens, but the sprinklers helped quite a bit.  We weren't sure if the sprinklers would be sensitive enough to pick up a squirrel, but witnessed one of the little devils making his way toward our acorn squash, only to hightail it back the other direction when the sprinkler went off.  That made our week right there!  The sprinklers did have some drawbacks, though.  It's hard to keep them from leaking, and tightening too much causes the bases to crack.  We tried just making the leaks part of the drip irrigation, which sort of worked.  Except eventually, the ground became saturated and the force of the sprinkler going off was enough to tip the whole setup partway over, such that the motion detector was pointing at a useless 45° angle above the ground.  Also, the batteries ran out completely after about 6 weeks, but the motion detection started to weaken even before that.  The lack of sprinkle triggering was not lost on the renegade varmints.  Ultimately, it might have been better to pony up for the more expensive solar powered version.  We'll see what we can do to fix the leaks for next year.  Maybe we can customize these guys, too.

Lastly, a non-irrigation-related picture.  Some of the volunteer potatoes made a valiant effort to quell the encroachment of quack grass into the garden, and paid the price for it.  There were several with quack grass roots going right through the tubers!  A very visual reminder that if we don't keep fighting against the weeds, they'll take back over in short order.

So, to summarize, the main lessons are:
  1. Fully automated irrigation is necessary for our undisciplined lifestyle.
  2. Cheap hoses are ok for some applications.
  3. Motion detector sprinklers are good, even better with live batteries and no leaks.
  4. Squirrels, raccoons, and quack grass form a relentless axis of evil, but can be battled to some extent with sprinkles and potatoes.

What did your garden teach you this year?


  1. This is a great post. I love the analyzing part with a view to improvement. I think the motion detected sprinklers are brilliant! I wonder if they would work on deer! I've tried every trick in the book to keep the deer from wiping out my beets every year. I haven't eaten a garden fresh beet in four years!

    1. They're supposed to work even better on deer! I know folks who don't even bother with fences to keep the deer out; they just use the sprinklers.

      But if you have young fruit trees to protect through the winter and it gets too cold to leave hoses out, you might still need another solution for part of the year.