Sow There!: When drip irrigation dries up, 9-17-17

General neglect, and not faulty drip irrigation, is to blame for the death of this hanging plant.
General neglect, and not faulty drip irrigation, is to blame for the death of this hanging plant.Photo by Heather Hacking

Self-driving cars. Robot vacuums. Home air conditioning that switches gears with a zip of a phone app.

In so many ways, our lives are more hands-free and brain-free than prior generations could have ever imagined.

Yet, gardening is still hands-on.

Jerry Mendon, among the most esteemed nurserymen I’ve had the pleasure to meet, said he’s been fielding more than a few phone calls from folks wondering why their plants are doing poorly. Many times, and maybe even most times, the problem is that auto-pilot failed.

In particular, we’re talking about drip irrigation.

Folks with automated drip systems might go away on vacation and expect their yards to be just fine when they return.

Not so simple.

Even in the cooler seasons, these systems need to be checked, rechecked and calibrated again, the owner of Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise explained.


During the drought years, many people decided that keeping a lush lawn was a losing battle. Bark replaced greenery, and select showy flowers were hooked up to thin black pipes.

The change can be jarring, especially at first. When the plants are small, surrounded by bark or stones, the look is rather bleak. Yet, time passes and those specially-selected plants grow into their own.

I personally love the silvery leaves of lavender and the billowy leaves of native grasses. There’s also beauty in cactus.

However, “little maintenance,” does not mean zero maintenance.

Jerry said the people who call him are perplexed about why their plants are on their death beds.

His first question is usually “have you checked your drip irrigation system.”

How long is the water running? What is the rate of the water delivery?

Most people don’t know, he said.


If a plant was purchased in a one-gallon container three years ago, the magic of the life cycle predicts it will now be larger. That means it needs more water.

Emitters are the holes where water slowly drips from the black plastic pipes. Jerry calls them “spitters.”

As the plant grows, it probably needs a “spitter” on each side of the plant, he said, with a hint of exasperation. The water rate probably also needs some new math. The water rates were programmed by a contractor ­- a long time ago.

Jerry said some homeowners hire a “blow-and-go,” yard maintenance company. They’re working hard and are efficient at making the yard look tidy. Yet, the contract may or may not include a tune-up of the water delivery system. In most cases, this is the homeowner’s responsibility to reconfigure, or the responsibility of the homeowner to ask for extra service, Jerry noted.

“Unless the customer says something,” weekly yard guys will continue doing what they have previously been expected to do, the nurseryman continued.


This summer was a harsh season. One day I mowed my lawn late in the morning and started to get dizzy. My first thought was that I was eating too much ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds. (I was, indeed, eating too much ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds). Then I realized the heat had gone to my brain.

It’s a bummer that the exact time we want to avoid going outdoors, we need to monitor drip irrigation systems at least once a month, as Jerry advised.

It’s probably not the contractor’s fault, Jerry said. Most likely explanations were given at the time the irrigation system was installed. However, there was probably a lot going on right then, like the writing of a check.

Expect to upgrade

Cars need regular tune-ups, and we should expect to upgrade a drip irrigation system at least once a year, my garden buddy said. In addition to seasonal changes, those little pipes wear out. Rodents aren’t shy to chomp into a source of water to find a better slurping spot. Tree roots can move piping out of place. Plastic can deteriorate in the hot sun.


Other times, plants just die after a few years. That’s what’s known as the life cycle. Jerry and his knowledgeable staff have more plants ready to go into the ground. When you swap out a dead plant for some fresh foliage, be prepared to give it another “spitter” when the time comes.

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