I hate to say it, but frost is almost here, and freezing temperatures are next. Winter, so they say, is coming. Don’t worry, though. Spring is only five months away. Five…months…
Here’s the thing about weather. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t care that it’s raining on Halloween, or that it’s so warm the ski slopes have no snow, if you live in downtown Toronto, or rural Ontario. Nor does it care if you left your hoses out, full of water, all winter long. It just doesn’t care.
So for us gardeners, we have to stay one step ahead, and that can be especially true with some of our most weather-vulnerable systems, like our irrigation.
Whether you use the most sophisticated and expensive in-ground irrigation with the latest tech, or your basic hose and nozzle system, you will need to shut things down for the winter. Not doing so can lead to broken hoses, burst pipes, a lot of waste and potentially great expense.
Let’s spend a bit of time avoiding the avoidable, and learn what you need to do to shut your irrigation system down for the season.
Irrigation System: The mechanisms and devices used to distribute water to your garden.
Faucet, Bib, Tap, or Spigot: The on/off mechanism found on the outside of your home that you open or close to allow or stop water from flowing into your irrigation system. Homes can have single or multiple faucets located at various places around the house, and are usually found just above ground level. Most taps use some variation of a wheel handle that needs to be turned a few times to fully open or close the tap.
Shut-off valve: Generally an indoor, open/close device that allows or stops water from flowing through plumbing pipes. Similar to a tap/faucet, but refers more specifically to a device that is in the middle of a plumbing line as opposed the end of a plumbing line, like a tap. You will likely find one of two different types of shut-off valves – either a “gate” style with a round handle that must be turned repeatedly until it’s fully opened or closed; or a “ball” valve that has a narrow handle that opens and closes with a quarter-turn.
Purge: To get rid of something. In this case, you’ll be purging your irrigation system of water so it won’t freeze. Purging refers to the part of the plumbing system from the outside faucet to the end of your irrigation system in the garden.
Bleed: To empty, as in to bleed the pipes. This refers to the watering system from the outside faucet back into the house; the inside plumbing.
Bleeder Cap: A clever little device that, when removed, exposes a tiny hole that lets air into the plumbing system and releases trapped water between the shut-off valve and the outside faucet.
Anyone who has any sort of irrigation system and who lives in a climate where water freezes outside.
We are purging the irrigation system from the bib out, and bleeding, or emptying, the pipes from the exterior faucet back into the house.
Are you finished with watering your (hopefully organic) gardens? Is it shortly before temperatures will be consistently cold enough to freeze standing water? If yes and yes, then now is the time. And cold temperatures will supersede your desire to keep your garden going. Unless of course you are extending your growing season with hoop tunnels or cold frames. In that case there is minimal need for watering beyond a watering can once a week or so..
So that basically means within the next month or so, depending on where you live. Remember to consider your microclimate. For instance, if your faucet is located on the north side of the house, and never gets direct sunlight during the cooling season, then it’s likely things will freeze more efficiently there as compared to a system that’s in full sun even in December. Still, don’t let that full-sun exposure fool you. Trapped water will freeze regardless.
Your place. Your community garden. Your condo’s rooftop garden. Front yard, back yard, deck…wherever outside watering systems exist in cold climates.
Water is the only liquid that expands when it freezes. If it’s trapped water, the expansion from freezing will put enormous pressure on the thing it’s trapped in, and can potentially create a lot of damage.
Here: A picture is worth a thousand words, so here, a few thousand words
A frozen hose can cost anywhere from $50 to $200 to replace, depending on quality. A cracked bib can cost you a visit from a plumber, and, depending on how easily replaced the bib is, can lead to other expenses like fixing holes in drywall that the plumber needs to make in order to get to the cracked fixture. A flooded basement…well, you get the picture. And all of these minor to major repairs can be consequences of an un-purged irrigation system.
Those who are fortunate enough to have that high-end, in-ground, zone- and timer-controlled system are likely have an irrigation company that comes a few times a year to open up the system in spring, and shut it down before the deep freeze of winter. Usually, your irrigation company will call you to book the service, so you don’t even need to think about it. However, not all irrigation companies are created equally, so you may want to put it in your calendar to book your pre-winter service before it’s too late.
For do-it-yourselfers with vegetable gardens, surface watering systems are becoming increasingly popular. Not only are they inexpensive when compared to an in-ground system, but they are highly efficient and easy to maintain.
Generally speaking, they utilize a programmable timer that screws on to the outside faucet, with one or more zones that can be programmed to water different areas in different amounts at different times. Multiple zones are useful if you have one hose coming off the timer to water your grass once a week for two hours at 5am, and another hose watering your edible garden every other day for one hour, and even a third hose/zone that waters your sun-baked tomato bed every day for 30 minutes.
Connected to the timer will be one or more hoses (one per zone) that lead to a drip irrigation line that sits on the surface of the soil, or just under a layer of garden mulch. At regular increments along the line are drip emitters – small, volume controlled devices that allow an exact amount of water to drip out and directly onto the soil, with equal amounts of water coming out of each hole all the way down the length of the hose.
Purging these lines is easy.
Once this is done, move on to the section below on Bleeding the Pipes.
The most common irrigation system is the hand-watering gig – your basic hose and nozzle set-up. Not only is this the least expensive way to go, but it is often the preference of many a gardener. This is a great opportunity to observe and interact with your plants and to catch any issues that may be cropping up before they really take hold. We’ve discovered the beginnings of an infestation or disease early enough to avoid serious consequences simple because we were out in the garden hand watering, and inspecting things along the way. It’s also a way to customize the irrigation process, providing thirsty plants with more water and drought tolerant plants less.
To purge the hoses of a simple set-up:
So that’s that for things in your yard, but you’re not quite done yet. Now it’s time to bleed the pipes – to empty any trapped water in the outside faucet and back into the house. Frozen and cracked pipes can actually be far more disastrous than a burst hose. In a deep freeze, pipes can freeze right into the wall of your house, and if they crack, they’ll leak at an alarming rate. Leaking can start when the thaw comes, or right away from the unfrozen water finding its way to the crack. It doesn’t take long for a room to flood, damaging floors, carpets, drywall, furniture… So do this:
I know it seems like a lot of work, but it really isn’t that difficult. Between purging over 200’ of hose and bleeding two different faucets at the BUFCO Lab and HQ, I spend maybe an hour and a half from beginning to end. That, or the time and expense of re-finishing a flooded basement. I’ll take the 90 minutes every time.
Stay tuned for the March or April BUFCO Bulletin and Blog Post, where you’ll learn how to open your system for the growing season, and how to make simple repairs to damaged hoses.