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Why I Hand Water: A Love Story


Why I Hand Water: A Love Story

October 13, 2021

With drought conditions here on the West Coast persisting, and persisting, I constantly have water on my mind. I keep a bucket in my shower to catch otherwise wasted water, a bowl in my kitchen sink to catch the fruit/veggie wash water, and a watchful eye on leaks, drips, and toilet flushes. At the same time, I’ve also nurtured a deeper relationship with my garden hose. This long, wily, and unwieldy piece of rubber is like a manufactured umbilical cord connecting me to my garden and my plants and together the hose and I provide critical sustenance. This love I have for watering by hand takes many shapes and is a highlight of my day.

The irony here is that I almost always recommend that my garden clients install irrigation systems so that the watering is consistent, efficient for them, and sufficient for their plants. Most people, sadly, would otherwise forget to water or wouldn’t water deeply or correctly, and ultimately end up killing their garden. But for those who love plants—like really, really love them—or want to learn more about nitty gritty of gardening, watering by hand can feel like a Zen retreat and a master class rolled into one satisfying session. Here’s why:

1. It allows you to check up on your plants.

Above: Contributor Meredith Swinehart watering her window box of plants. Photograph by Liesa Johannssen, from DIY Window Boxes: Build It Yourself for a Perfect Fit.

The question: who the heck has the time to hand water? The answer: I make the time. Why? If I only used an irrigation system that took care of everything, then I wouldn’t spend as much time with my plants as I do, especially since most are already low-maintenance. Hand watering forces me slow me down and allows me to notice the small things—like are slugs chowing on the butter lettuce again, is my aloe about to bloom, or is my Meyer lemon showing early signs of an iron deficiency. I can also see if a plant needs to be pruned to prolong blooming or a dahlia needs staking so it doesn’t flop over. When a plant issue is noticed early on, problems can be treated before they worsen. When I hand water, I also witness those tiny magical garden moments when hummingbirds zoom in to sip on a favorite nectar plant and butterflies dance around aimlessly.

2. It offers personalized service.

Above: Kids learn about plants by taking care of the edible rooftop garden at the First Presbyterian Church Nursery School in Greenwich Village. Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista, from A Manhattan Nursery School Where Gardening is in the Curriculum.

Another benefit of hand watering is that I can adjust how much water each plant needs on a daily or weekly basis, and on a very targeted way that no fancy, smart irrigation system can deliver. A heat wave hits and I can give just those two droopy plants a bit extra. A succulent seems to be holding out fine, so I withhold water until I see signs of needing a sip. Or maybe I just added a few new plants scattered about, and they need more drinks for a bit.

3. It’s meditative.

Above: Photograph by anoldent via Flickr.

Standing there, hose in hand, my mind drifts to other projects that need doing, or it drifts off to absolutely nothing, like a watery meditation. I feed my garden and my garden feeds my soul. The lessons learned, the observations witnessed, and the inspiration provided are countless. I also have many “aha” garden design moments while watering, like oh geez, that Lomandra would look better over there, or what if I added a group of Agave here.

4. It’s blessedly basic.

Above: An old-fashioned galvanized water howser at Walnuts Farm in England. Photograph via Light Locations, from Steal This Look: Walnuts Farm Kitchen Garden

I have overflowing buckets filled with irrigation tidbits and doodads leftover from client jobs. I have tangled masses of drip tubing. And then there’s my simple, handheld sprayer with adjustable nozzle. (I am especially fond of “shower'”or “center” for pots and established plants.) The only other tool I have for hand watering is a handheld wand that, with its long metal neck, allows me to get close to my plants without having to bend over or overreach. That said, I do routinely squat down to make sure just the plant roots and not the leaves get watered.

For more on watering plants, see:

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