Sunday, April 10, 2011

Leaks and Opportunities

Yesterday we had a welcome preview of summer weather: sunny and mildly warm, with light wind. Coastal summers are typically dry from mid-June to mid-October, just the opposite of our sodden winters.

This year, after four years on our property, my plan is to finally design and build at least the start of a gravity-fed, rainwater-collected drip system for my vegetable garden. I have been planning it (in my mind) since we bought the place, and now it's time to get my hands wet.
The house in background, provides opportunity for gravity feed to garden

The contour of our property is ideally suited for this project. Our house sits above the garden, which is literally "sunken" about 6 feet below the grade of our foundation. Closer to the garden grade, but slightly higher and directly adjacent, is the garage and attached lean-to greenhouse. And our chicken coop wraps neatly around a small building used for storage and processing produce in season, we call the "fruit room."

The soil in the most of my front and side-yard landscape retains moisture (in our relatively cool summers) so that a weekly watering is enough. And because these areas are largely planted with shrubs and well mulched, I prefer to hand-water the shrub beds so I can have a look at everything.

Another good reason on the coast for overhead watering, at least occasionally: salt fog. A local nurseryman reminded me of this fact, in late summer we get little rain and regular morning fog which is laden with salt from the ocean. This salty mist deposits a crust on everything (check your windshield in August) including plants.  So occasional overhead watering is a good thing on the coast, to give the plants a rinse.

The needs in my vegetable garden are different; anyone growing food knows the water requirements are generally greater than landscaped shrub beds. In the past couple years I have experimented with scheduling and found watering every third day to be just right. I plant closely in raised beds and add lots of organic matter to the soil, and the "sunken" location of the garden helps to reduce moisture loss. I want to avoid wasting water on pathways, and reduce the constant threat of fungal disease from too much moisture.  So the obvious answer is drip irrigation, and lucky me, I came across a deal on emitter tubing last fall.

Coop wraps around 'fruit room'
My irrigation plan as of this writing:

Chicken coop: supply water to the birds by installing a filtered diverter from the fruit room gutters into their 5-gallon bucket waterer, already installed, which includes "nipples" to reduce water waste and keeps it clean.

Greenhouse: install a 2-barrel collector just outside the door, collecting water from the greenhouse roof. This will allow me to shut off the outside water supply to the greenhouse sink that causes freeze-anxiety in winter, due to the fact the building is not heated. The barrel storage will provide plenty for filling watering cans to maintain plants in the greenhouse and outside cold frame nearby.

House to garden:  install a large water storage for gathering water off the house, and gravity-feed to garden drip system. Garden beds will be arranged with in-line drip emitter tubing, supplied by a poly main line that can be connected to the filtered tank. When water supplies are low, the drip system can be alternately connected to the city water supply from our existing garden hose-bib.

The first task is to repair our outside water line that I had to cut last fall. As usual, we had a spike in water use around late summer/early fall, due to little rainfall and high garden production. We got the usual notice from the city, to point out our higher-than-normal usage. We didn't actually worry until November, when we noticed the previous bill had not declined... but actually increased. Uh-oh.

Searching for the leak was no easy task, and after checking everything in the house and digging up every outside connection (including the water meter), we guessed the leak was underground and cut the line between house and garden.  Wouldn't you know, that wasn't it...grrr.  Finally we located a mystery valve under the house (!) leading to another outside line, shut it off and voila!  The meter stopped turning.

So now that drier weather has returned... we get to do some repair work.

Other resources: 
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply's short video on drip irrigation (beginners).
Supplier of drip irrigation, including several starter kits and parts.

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