I’m writing at the height of gardening and planting season. Thousands of home gardeners flock to nurseries and garden centers, spending hundreds of dollars on plants, soils, fertilizers and tools.

There’s one product – despite its importance in horticulture – that’s often overlooked.

Soaker hoses, also known as driplines, are ideal for gardeners, plants and the local water supply.  Admittedly, they aren’t the sexiest looking product on the shelf, but they are a sure-fire way to be a more successful gardener while reducing water use.

How They Work

Soaker hoses often come in lengths of 25, 50 or 100 feet. One end connects to a garden hose while the other is blocked off (or connected to another hose or dripline), forcing water to drip slowly through the soaker’s porous polyurethane skin. These malleable hoses are easily moved and can be configured in multiple ways — on the garden’s surface, buried slightly underground or filed up and down rows. The idea is to get water directly to the plants’ root-zones as efficiently as possible, and the ideal configuration depends on the layout of the garden and the plants being grown.

Once installed, simply turn on the hose and let it run. Go make dinner, walk the dog, tuck the kids into bed. After an hour or so, turn it off. Wait another hour after turning off the hose to allow water to penetrate the soil, and then check how deep the water penetrated by digging a hole where the hose ran (watch out for roots!). The goal for establishing large trees and shrubs is to regularly get water a foot into the soil. This encourages roots to establish deep underground and makes for a healthier, more drought-tolerant plant.

Sprinklers: More for brief fun in the sun than gardening…

Soakers vs. Sprinklers

Sprinklers, although fun to jump through, are simply a terribly wasteful way to water anything except freshly laid grass seed. As mentioned above, plants need regular deep watering to establish a healthy root system. An average of once per week with a soaker hose (more during dry spells and less when it’s rainy) is all vegetables, shrubs, and trees need to stay hydrated. Whereas soaker hoses deliver water directly to the plants’ root-zones, sprinklers broadcast across a wide area and don’t penetrate the soil any further than an inch or so. This method – if it doesn’t kill the plant from dehydration – leads to shallow roots that can buckle sidewalks or fry in the heat of late summer.

Further, sprinklers disperse water into the air and end up watering the plants’ foliage. Contrary to popular belief, this is NOT a good gardening practice. Plants only gather water through their roots. Watering a plant’s foliage leads to mildews, molds, insect infestations and scorched leaves. It also vastly reduces the amount of water that reaches the soil and roots, wasting water, money and time.

Why it Matters

According to Gardener’s Supply Company, gardeners can use up to 80% less water by using a soaker system compared to a sprinkler. In the Pacific Northwest, where rain seldom falls between June and September, this is an incredible amount of water per garden over the course of the growing season. Watering wisely also leads to better crop yields for local vegetable and fruit growers, and less reliance on produce grown, packaged and shipped via unsustainable methods. Plus, what’s more satisfying than eating a garden-fresh tomato!?

The Greenest Soaker Hoses

While soaker hoses are incredibly efficient watering tools, they can be made using toxic and non-organic materials like phthalates, lead, and BPA. Some hoses are made from recycled tires which included another series of toxic ingredients. Here’s a list of the best and worst garden hoses.  This one for example is toxin free. At the time of this writing, chemicals you don’t want in your garden are inside soaker hoses sold at Home Depot, Walmart, and Lowes.  These chemicals may be especially unwanted near edible plants and include, especially, phthalate plasticizers (endocrine disrupters associated with insulin resistance, breast cancer, obesity, and low sperm counts) and lead (a toxin for many organs including the brain and kidneys that is particularly threatening to children even in small doses).

Soaker hoses without toxins are sold much more expensively than those with toxins. But don’t forget that these may be resting on the ground near your potentially edible plants and any kids playing in the back yard. Also, if you don’t slice it with a lawnmower, it is likely to last for a few seasons and to be an incidental expense compared to other gardening costs (including water).

Ask an experienced nursery professional or certified horticulturist which products they use in their own gardens and which ones they avoid.  And have fun creating a more productive, more resistant, more healthy, and more ecological garden!

Author: Sam Wigness is an outdoors enthusiast, sports fan and writer. He can be found working in his vegetable garden, playing softball and wandering the Issaquah Alps with his wife Amy and dog Pippen. A Minnesota transplant, he enjoys the (relatively) temperate climate and extreme geography of the Pacific Northwest.

Photos:  Soaker hose and friend by Sam Wigness, sprinkler photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash