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Automatic watering systems for your garden: their benefits and how to build them

If your garden is your pride and joy, ensuring that your plants get enough water is essential.

Whether you have a small patio garden or a large vegetable plot, regular irrigation is necessary, especially during the drier months. An automatic system will make the whole process much easier. This guide will enable you to understand the different types of automatic irrigation systems available to you and to select the system that best suits your needs. These systems can be set up both outdoors and indoors as required.

Why use an automated system for irrigating your garden?

These systems are extremely useful for those times when you are not available to water your plants and vegetables manually. Holidays, long working hours and periods of illness or inactivity can all make it difficult to irrigate your garden. At times likes these, having an automated system already in place keeps your green spaces flourishing and gives you great peace of mind. There is nothing more dismal than returning from holiday and finding your garden all dried up and dishevelled. Fortunately, there is a simple solution in the form of a dripper or any other kind of automatic watering system. Moreover, automatic systems help you to save water, using up to 80% less water than a traditional hosepipe. They are thus better for the environment, and for your water bill. It is very easy to connect an automatic irrigation system to a rainwater butt, too, so that it can be used to recycle water, making it an even more eco-friendly solution.

Key types of automatic irrigation system

Not all watering systems are the same and knowing your spike from your dripper will help you to select the system that best suits you. Below are some key types of system, all of which are easy to install in your garden. 

Timed systems

The best times to water your garden are when the sun is somewhat weaker, as this enables your plants to absorb the water at their leisure. Turn that hose on during fierce midday heat in the summertime and your plants' roots will barely be able to imbibe much of that precious water - it will all be evaporated away by the scorching sun. What if you cannot get home in time to water your plants in the mid-morning and early evening, however? A timed irrigation system can be set up to give your plants a drink at the hours of the day that best suit them. Installing a timer on your garden hose or sprinkler system is very simple: it can be attached to the spigot and programmed according to your needs. Several modern timers can also be set up to cut out after a certain amount of time (e.g. 2 hours); this helps you to save water if you forget to turn the timer off for any reason.

Soaker and weeper hoses

These are perhaps the simplest forms of automatic watering system to set up. They consist of a network of hosepipes laid along your flowerbeds and vegetable patches, leaking water at varying rates from holes made in the piping. You can build these systems yourself by making holes in a hosepipe, or you can purchase them ready-made. The best way to install them in your garden is to straighten out any kinks that could impede the flow of water and then bury the pipes beneath a layer of mulch. This will make them invisible to the naked eye. Be aware that once you turn on the hose it can take around 10 minutes for enough water pressure to build up and give you that desired 'weeping' or 'soaking' effect through the holes in the piping, so make sure to integrate this consideration into your schedule. This type of system, because it ideally needs to be buried in mulch, is best suited for flower beds and other outdoor settings, though it is possible to set up such a system for a row of patio plants.

Dripper systems

A dripper is a fantastic way of providing targeted water supplies to your plants. This involves a specialised drip emitter which drops water directly on to your plant's roots. The drip emitter might be part of a long horizontal pipe buried in the flowerbed (and thus it will emit drips low down) or it might be designed to hang above indoor plants and drip water down onto the plant so that it stays fresh and healthy. These systems can be built from scratch using a hole punched into a hosepipe, however, it is often a good idea to purchase a specialised drip emitter as shop bought emitters have the perfect shape for forming and releasing drips.

Globe and spike systems for indoor plants

Globes and spikes look very attractive and they are such a handy way of keeping your indoor herbs and decorative houseplants nourished when you go out for a weekend away. These systems consist of a globe (this is usually made of transparent plastic or glass) filled with water. On one end of the globe is a porous 'spike', which can be made from a variety of materials including ceramics and plastic. Stick the spike into the soil of your houseplant's pot and, in a controlled manner, water will run from the globe through the spike and into the soil, irrigating the plant's roots in the process. Adapt the system by including a small amount of the appropriate liquid fertiliser in the water mix that you put in the globe. You will come back from holiday to a healthy and happy houseplant.

Self-watering planters, tubs and hanging baskets

Somewhat larger than your usual tubs, pots, planters and baskets, these handy items contain concealed mechanisms inside them. Usually made of plastic, their mechanisms store water and then distribute it slowly to the plants inside. This automatic irrigation option will save you time and effort, though if the tub is not attached to a water source you will need to remember to refill it as required. These solutions cannot be put on a timer, and the irrigation that they provide usually lasts for a set time only (i.e. however long it takes for the water reserved in the containment mechanism to be used up).

Mini-sprinklers

Sprinkler systems have already been mentioned above, as a great solution for integrating with a timer. Nevertheless, they deserve their own section because, whether or not they are timed, they help you to water a large area of lawn, vegetable patch or flower bed from a single source. If you have a smaller garden, it is worth exploring the possibilities of mini sprinkler systems which can be installed easily in the centre of a vegetable plot or a small section of lawn to keep everything lush and green.

What is the best system for me?

Choosing the optimum system for your garden will depend on a variety of factors. Take the six points below into consideration when selecting your system and you are sure to find one that is just right for you.

1. Eco-friendliness

If this is highly important to you, choose a system that can easily be attached to a source of recycled water, such as a rainwater butt or to a nearby stream or well. However, do bear in mind that water sources such as water butts can run out if they are not regularly replenished, jeopardising your system. All of the key types of automated plant irrigating systems described above can be hooked up to a water butt (this is possible for both sprinklers and hosepipe based systems) or filled up using recycled water (as is the case with self-watering planters and globe and spike systems).

2. Ability to switch on and off automatically

Soaker and weeper hoses, sprinklers and drippers can all be placed on a timer so that they switch on and off at the optimum times of the day. This is very useful if you are going to be away from the garden (for instance, away at work or on holiday) during the best times of the day for irrigating your garden. Globes and spikes and self-watering planters cannot be placed on timers.

3. The size of the area that you need to irrigate

A large sprinkler is better than a dripper or small sprinkling system for providing optimum coverage for a big stretch of lawn. A large flowerbed or vegetable patch can be dealt with using either a large network of pipes or a heavy duty sprinkler. To avoid flooding or wasting water on smaller areas, using a smaller sprinkler, just a couple of soaker hoses or a single dripper system will usually be sufficient.

4. Will the system need to be placed indoors or outdoors?

For indoor plants, a controlled system such as a small dripper, a self-watering container or a globe and spike arrangement will help to prevent flooding and avoid the danger that you will overwater your plants. The last thing that you want is for your delicate herbs to die due to being waterlogged by an overenthusiastic soaker hose.

5. Will the system need to be placed above ground, or can it be buried below ground?

The beauty of a soaker or weeper hose is the fact that it can be buried beneath the earth of a flowerbed so that it is totally invisible. Whilst it is relatively easy to bury a hosepipe network beneath freshly turned earth, however, it can just make your lawn look unsightly. If you are seeking an irrigation system for a collection of patio plants, moreover, this system will need to be above ground. Ensuring that your system is not obtrusive or unsightly when it is placed above ground is an important aspect of the planning involved in installing an automatic irrigation system. Are you really worried about visible systems? Try a self-watering planter, hanging basket or plant pot. These systems are usually larger than traditional containers for plants (as they need to accommodate a store of water and a water release mechanism) but to all intents and purposes, they look exactly the same as any other planter, tub or basket.

6. Will the system be permanent, or is it just a 'holiday solution'?

Is this a system that you envisage staying in place throughout the year (in which case it is worthwhile investing in a deluxe sprinkler or soaker system) or is it just going to be a temporary solution for looking after your garden whilst you are on holiday (here, something like a simple globe and spike might be all that you need).

Get planning to keep your garden flourishing all year round

Taking some time to draw a map of your garden and then marking out the spots where you can install your automatic systems for irrigating your plants and flowers is a very good idea. Consider your needs using the six-point guide above and then pinpoint the products that you need for your garden. All of the products listed above are so easy to install, so you can start using them to make your life in the garden easier in no time.

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