Irrigation for growers

Before investing in irrigation, research the availability, quality and cost of the water supply.

It’s good to hear of so many growers taking a fresh look at irrigation, whether it is part of a nursery audit, a business-health screen, an expansion feasibility study or simply because they have to.
Water is expensive and isn’t always as readily available as it used to be. Many growers are considering extra storage facilities to give themselves a buffer.
Efficient water use is arguably more crucial in certain areas of the country, notably south-east England, than others. But with the vagaries of the weather and uncertainty of climate change patterns, all nurseries need to take a responsible approach to irrigation.
Water supply for horticulture needs safeguarding for the future by efficient use today. Those receiving bills for a mains water supply have an added incentive to make every drop count.
When we think of irrigation, we tend to think of the water seeping out of drippers or spraying from sprinklers. But a review of irrigation should start at the source and includes not just where it is coming from, but always the volume that’s available, when it is available, the reliability of that source and the quality of the water. It’s worth keeping an eye on the options, their wider implications   and their costs.
Water quality is an important issue. It must be suitable for the crop and the stage of growth. Young plant growers have to take great care to get the quality correct for delicate seedlings and cuttings. Growers of more mature nursery stock are more likely to be using or planning schemes to use run-off and rainfall.
Whatever the crop, the water should be of high enough quality not to leave deposits on foliage or block irrigation tubes. Physical contaminants, including sand and clay particles, must be eliminated and biological contaminants, such as algae, plant material and pathogens, must be dealt with. Where necessary, water must be filtered and treated to ensure the right quality.
Getting water quality wrong can have devastating results. It is also important to consider demand. Designing a new system is interesting when it comes to looking at the hardware — the different drippers or sprinklers, pumps and pipes — but you need to do some sums first. And we are not just talking costs.
It’s essential to recognise how many beds or benches require watering at one time as this determines the required outputs of the equipment and the size of tanks and pumps needed to keep the system running smoothly. In some instances, savings can be made by re-organising the nursery.
Beds and irrigation systems to feed them should be planned and organised together. Drainage should be checked. Pot sizes and plants with similar requirements should be grouped together. It is also important to match similar types of growing media.
For many growers, the delivery of water to the plant will be carried out the way it has always been done — with a sprinkler system. In fact, the best method of delivering water will depend on factors such as the crop, bed system, substrate, type of fertiliser, the need to liquid feed and exposure of the site to wind and sun. Spraylines are ideal for applying nutrients in the water, while drippers and capillary systems are more appropriate where the primary objective is to control or save water.
Just as important is the choice of controller. It needs to be adjustable to suit the crop and conditions and should be easy to operate.

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