Wednesday, October 6, 2010

IRRIGATION. The life blood of flora.

This is a subject that is completely irrelevant to my countrymen of old Caledonia and all those wet climate dwellers of Earth. But here in Southern California it matters a great deal. It is the single most important element in the success of a lush garden. The Southland receives a few inches of rain in the winter which is only adequate for the wild flowers in Spring, indigenous chaparral, and trees like the Live Oak.

As we all learnt in the story "China Town," L.A. gets it's water from far away via aqueducts. It is an expensive commodity and it is not something we take for granted the way the Scots do. I have sweet memories of the abundance of water in Scotland. There is relentless rain and streams everywhere. We would drink from these streams whenever we were thirsty and I recall the delightful extravagance of latrines flushing automatically every 20 minutes, morning, noon and night regardless of whether they were being used! In Southern California this is unheard of.

I have adapted to the environment and the ways of the "desert." I have embraced the world of irrigation. I enjoy all the fancy sprinkler equipment. I am fond of machines, devices and systems. I am a bit of a technician and I love making life easier through the use of modern technology.

Back in the late eighties I was mastering the art of installing sprinkler systems as an apprentice with a landscape company. I quickly learnt that it is a very unforgiving trade. If the water does not cover every square inch of  a lawn you'll be getting a call back within a few days. New fescue turf needs generous daily water when first laid, and a reliable system to deliver that water is essential. 

I was young and eager to impress my employer. I worked hard trying to glue everything together correctly and swiftly. I was trying to make money for my boss, Mike Baron. He was a smart man who had the sense not to name his company "Baron Landscape"! Instead, he chose the name Western Pacific Landscape, and specialized in new lawns and sprinkler systems. He had no qualms about turning the desert into lush verdant squares that were greener than Ireland.

 While I was hurriedly gluing PVC pipe together to accomplish wall to wall lavish water for thirsty sod, a fellow Scotsman, Alasdair Coyne, was carefully connecting polypropylene hose in an elaborate and exacting drip system. He immigrated around the same time and settled in the charming, but blisteringly hot, town of Ojai in Ventura County. Alasdair is an environmentalist and an organic gardener. I got a tour of his place and was very intrigued with the precious little drought tolerant seedlings that he was nurturing. They were receiving about a thimble of water a day! He was very proud of what he was accomplishing. I think the challenge appealed to his Scottish sense of frugality, and aligned with his Pictish self deprivation!

I actually can relate to Alasdair. I am also a canny Scot with a sensible British attitude and an impulse towards conservation. However, my main focus is on giving clients what they want which is usually lush calming gardens that deceive their owner into thinking that they have not chosen to live in a dry arid hell on earth.

I have personally come to terms with this environment, and assert that it is the opportunities, the people,  the groups and the freedom of self expression that are senior to raw aesthetics. I accept that there is a dry burnt lunar landscape beyond the extremities of the city. In fact, I pander to the homeowner who wants to create an oasis in the "desert." There is really no problem concerning this until there has been several years of minimal rain, and then murmurings of conservation start. It is times like these that I wonder if I should take a leaf out of Alasdair Coyne's book, and get into natives and xeriscapes, and exploit the crisis. Mind you, it's a hard sell to persuade people to pay me so that they can have less.

Although I have never tried it, I love the idea of creating an attractive garden using only Californian natives and plants from other dry arid parts of the world. There has never really been this opportunity for me to date. I spend most of my time trying to please my clients who mostly want a cool and colorful garden. Many of them have come from cooler wetter climates and miss the weather that they grew up with. They want to recreate the conditions of their youth for nostalgic reasons.

But of late it seems like it's time to get on the sustainable band wagon. It seems like everyone is hip to drought tolerance. The government is limiting the number of days we can water, and giving rebates for the removal of lawns. They want to see drought tolerant ground cover in its place or some non living substitute.

Some of the ideas are merely symbolic gestures with lack of practicality. I love the idea of having a handsome rain barrel to collect water from the roof, but is it a meaningful help to save 40 gallons of water after the 3 rain storms that we have a year?  I have recently been asked to install a grey water system, but there are regulations and restrictions and who really wants tanks and pipes and a bog in their garden and one more thing to maintain? And drip irrigation? It is also a bit high on the maintenance. They can be fragile and fall prey to rough gardeners, squirrels and dogs that like to chew.

There are some wonderful ways of doing your part to avoid wasting water and keep your bill down:

Rain sensors are one brilliant invention. There is nothing more comical and ridiculous than seeing somebody's sprinklers running during a rain shower. It is the epitome of negligence and ineptitude (at least it is to an irrigation technician.) But so easily solved. For a nominal fee I can install a device that will turn off the system shortly after rain falls and will keep it off for several days after the rain stops. You could be away on vacation and enjoy the comfort of knowing that back home the neighbors are not sneering at you for watering in the rain.

Modern controllers are also fabulous. They have all kinds of nifty features.  For example there is a + and a - key that allows you to increase and reduce the watering time for all stations. This is useful if there is unseasonal weather. For example, increase to 150% if there is a heat wave or reduce to 75% if there are clouds as in the case of "June Gloom." Or if this is too hands-on there is a sensor that will make automatic adjustment based on temperature and sun or cloud.

Simply having an efficient system with good even coverage is an immense help. This would include stations dedicated to the shade areas and stations dedicated to the sunny areas, lack of run-off, the absence of overshooting and blockage, and needless to say a leak free system. Also a program that encourages the water to penetrate deep and minimizes evaporation is smart, as it promotes less frequent watering.

In the defense of drip irrigation or a micro sprinkler system, they do create the deep watering that we want. The typical drip system will provide each plant with its own personal sprinkler and keep the soil between plants dry which discourages the germination of seeds and the growth of weeds. In these situations one would only have to deal with weeds after winter rains.

Besides controllers, another part of the sprinkler system that often needs to be upgraded is the sprinkler heads. Many houses still have the old style brass pop up made by Champion and other companies. Truth be known, they are not champion! they are problematic. They do not have filters which results in clogging and they only pop up 1 1/2 inches which does not work for today's popular fescue turf which grows to 3 inches. So I would encourage the use of a modern plastic 4 inch pop up.

The government is giving rebates for the use of rotors. I presume they mean a modern replacement for the beloved old impulse sprinklers often referred to as "Rainbirds". The ones that go "chick chick chick chick chick chick chick. . . . . . . . d r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r. . . . . . . . chick chick chick chick chick chick chick. . . . . . .  .d r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r. . . . . . . . . ." ( If you can't rroll your "r"s while reading that, then find a Scotsman or a Latino to read it for you!). I know that many of you will miss that iconic sound that is a symbol of Californian summer good times, and memories of running through the sprinklers as children. I am sure they have recordings of that sound that you can play if the absence of the sound is unbearable to you!

My favorite brand of rotor is Hunter. They are silent and highly adjustable, and certainly don't do that wasteful side spray that the old Rainbirds do.

I would be very pleased to come and assess your sprinkler system and make recommendation for upgrades. Water is very expensive and I know that many of you fear the water bill. If you are sensible and careful everything is fine and the bill is affordable, but if you are careless and unlucky and the complex system of  calculating the bill somehow puts you in the much feared "2nd Tier" billing range, then you are in trouble. It is brutally punitive, and will cost you a fortune.

The money would be better spent modernizing your system and enabling you to stay in range.