Cycle and soak gardens

Want to radically increase water effectiveness at no cost? Rather than run a zone for its total time, divide duration into 2 or 3 parts separated by a brief respite. This cycle and soak technique minimizes runoff and maximizes absorption. Since implementing it 2 years ago in my one-acre Southern California garden, it has proven a winner for lawn, plants, and water bills.

Consider a dry potted plant. Douse it and water just runs through, right? Soften soil with a bit of water, then add more, and water soaks in rather than exiting the pot’s bottom. An incremental practice works wonders in irrigation too. The first partial application moistens soil at emitters; the next one an hour or two later soaks in for roots to partake.

Spray sprinklers put out more than soil can take in, so many resources recommend cycling on lawns to boost absorption and reduce telltale signs of overflow. The few that mention drip advise against cycling, saying the goal is to saturate the entire plant area and the trickles penetrate easily. But saturation is unrealistic in a dry climate and parched surfaces inhibit intake, so I began to experiment.

My first focus was a zone that ran 90 minutes three times a week on drought-tolerant plants in clay soil on a slope. Even with 2 gallon/hour emitters’ slow drip, each run resulted in surface flow downhill. By trial and error I discovered a mere 39 minutes applied as 3 sets of 13 minutes just once a week yielded more water downward to roots than 270 minutes had. With a simple setting change, this zone consumed 85% less and plants became more robust. What’s not to like?

This sustainability breakthrough led to customized settings to cycle irrigation for our 22 plant and lawn zones. Savings ranged from 50+% on slopes to 10-20% on flat or sandy areas less inclined to runoff, and vitality improved. Easy and effective, cycle and soak belongs at the top of waterwise action lists.

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