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We Got a Gota Gota – The Ups & Downs Of Installing An Irrigation System

By Mim Elkan

If you aren’t into gardening, an irrigation system can sound pretty boring.  On the other hand, if you’re into sustainable living, including growing as much of your veg as possible, and you’re in a hot climate, it can be a pretty exciting infrastructural improvement.

When Adam and I arrived at Quinta da Mizarela (October 2009), the system for irrigation was taps and hoses.  Not many taps and very long hoses.  This was understandable: Pete and Cynthia had only been here for a year and a half, and there had been many other priorities.  Nonetheless, in this climate, watering the vegetables with hoses is hard work, and Pete and Cynthia said that the previous summer they had spent two hours per day each doing the watering.  The plan was for many more vegetable beds, so continuing to water by hand would be very time consuming.

What we do have here is plenty of water.  There is a stream running through the bottom of the Quinta, and Pete and Cynthia have installed a ram pump, which takes the water to a tank above the Quinta, for use in the kitchen, bathroom and garden.

Ram pumps are amazing, and if you’re interested in learning about a type of simple technology that really works and that can transform our lives, I really recommend that you read more about them. They take water from downhill and pump it uphill without using an additional power source, using the magic of 18th century engineering.  It is because of this that the whole irrigation system was possible…

As we discussed plans and priorities for the Quinta, and what sort of infrastructure improvements could be introduced, I was definitely keen on some kind of easy-to-use irrigation system.  The others all agreed, in theory, but with lots of equally-important priorities, trying to decide how to allocate limited finances was an issue.  The initial decision was: since you’re so interested in it, Mim, you come up with a plan, see how much it will cost and then we’ll decide; if you can do it for less than €300, great!

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An advantage of having volunteered at a few different organic farms is that I’d seen some very different irrigation systems in place, and got some idea of what worked well; this included volunteering for a couple called Dirk and Christine who live quite nearby and who actually sell irrigation systems.  I’d seen and used their system, and was very impressed by its simplicity and effectiveness.

Dirk’s system for watering vegetable beds is called “Gota gota”, which is the Portuguese for “drip drip”.  Specially-made tubes, with pressure-regulated holes spaced regularly along them, dispense water a drip at a time.  The advantage of this system is that the water drips straight onto the soil so there is much less evaporation than from some kind of spray system.  The slow dripping of the water over an hour or two means that a given quantity of water penetrates much deeper than if it were delivered faster, over a shorter time.  The main disadvantage of this system is that it lends itself to long, straight beds, which I personally find slightly boring to look at.  But then you can’t have everything! Laura created a beautiful spiral bed and Pete made some concentric semicircle beds around a pond-to-be, so we are watering those by hand.

I thought I’d check out possibilities with a few friends who live locally and have been here for longer, and see what they thought.  After all, experience counts for a lot, and my experience of farming in Portugal is extremely limited!  I asked around and encouragingly got a general consensus that the gota gota system works well here, and that Dirk’s prices are very competitive.  (I then got lots of helpful tips from a whole load of people about how best to set up the system.  Thanks guys!  One of the things I really love around here is how willing everyone is to share their knowledge.)

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By now we were in January 2010.  Normally it rains for about 6-8 weeks in the winter, but this year it had been raining more than any year anyone could remember (almost solidly since November) and it’s hard to think about irrigation systems when everything seems too damp, wet or totally sodden!  Nonetheless I kept telling myself to keep going, and drew up a plan of existing and proposed vegetable beds, with all the measurements in place, worked out the height of the water tank above the vegetable garden (which gives the water pressure) and Adam and I went to visit Dirk.

The day we visited Dirk was the weather was exceptionally bad.  Not only was it pouring, but the wind was so strong that it blew a tree down across his track, which had to be cleared before we could leave! It also blew down enough power lines that all the villages on our way home were in complete darkness.  Dirk’s comment was, “You’re the only people around to be buying an irrigation system in the middle of winter.  But come summer everyone will be queuing up for it, wishing that they’d installed it earlier.”  I found this very heartening!

We came back from Dirk’s with a quote that was far less than I’d feared, and even a bit under the €300 budget.  Not that the budget lasted long: at Dirk’s I’d also spotted the tree waterers he sold, and added to the original plan a watering system for 40 of the smaller and more vulnerable trees.  In addition, Pete’s enthusiasm for digging ponds meant that a whole load more soil was available for more raised beds, so the gota gota system was expanded.  We already had some lengths of pipe going spare, and the odd plumbing connection, so all in all we spent about €350.  The finance department (Cynthia) coughed and spluttered a bit, but agreed that it was all a really good idea, and gave it the go-ahead.

Gotas below and funky trellis above!

Gotas below and funky trellis above!

There were a few unknowns in the equation: there’s water pressure, and then there’s flow – the quantity of water available at any moment.  We didn’t know whether we would have enough flow for all the beds and trees to be watered at once, and even asking around didn’t give us a definite answer – it seems that with various unknowns, this was not the easiest thing to calculate.

By now we were in March and it was still raining, and Dirk didn’t have all the bits that we needed in stock.  However Adam and I started installing the bits we had.  It was a low priority at this stage, with the weather so cold and wet, and many other tasks that had to get done, but in between other jobs we gradually got much of the pipework in place, and I kept chasing Dirk for the parts he’d ordered.  Even though it was progressing really slowly, I was still feeling really excited about this project.

Towards the end of April the weather finally decided to smile on us.  From wet to hot, and the new plants in the garden needed water each evening.  But still no parts, so still no irrigation system.  On my birthday (early May), Glen, Laura and Pete performed a song that Glen had written specially for the occasion; it was called The Irrigation Blues! (It was really great Glen, and you proved that it is possible to play blues on a ukulele!!)

Finally Dirk called to say he had the parts but now, guess what, our car was at the mechanic, so we couldn’t get to Dirk’s to pick them up.  So now we were hassling the mechanic, and finally we borrowed Pete and Cynthia’s car and went to Dirk’s and got all the bits and came back to finish the installation… and it was raining again.

Picture trying to install the tree-watering system on a steep mountainside in the rain.  The water pipe has been curled up and is determined to stay that way.  We make wooden pegs to hold the pipe in place, and in between sliding down the hill we manage to get it where we want it.  From the pipe come connectors that need to be installed with a special tool made for the purpose by Adam, plus a great deal of oomph!  And some of the trees are on the same level as the tank and we’re not sure if there’s enough water pressure to get the water to them, and Dirk’s answer is, “You’ll just have to try it,” so we try it and find that we can water all but the three trees higher than the tank.

Finally there we are in mid May, in pouring rain, and the system is ready.  Great excitement: in a gap between downpours we turn on the tap for each part of the system and yes, the water drips out just like it’s supposed to.  We turn on all the taps and the flow seems to be enough.  Yippee!

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And two days later the sun comes out. Yippee again!

Installing this system, I learned lots about plumbing.  Well let’s be honest, before this I knew nothing about plumbing.  I now know about Ts and elbows and end stops; about non-return valves and manifolds.  I’ve become practiced at sealing screwed joints with what we refer to as “green goo and yaks’ hair”.  I even have a new identity: my alter ego (based apparently on some American TV programme that I’ve never seen) is Josephine the Plumber.

Josephine at Mission Control

Josephine at Mission Control

I also learned some more about how to work together and, in this case, spearhead a project, without the ego getting in the way. I was definitely the driving force behind this irrigation system, because it interested me the most.  But while it might not have happened this year without me, there is no way I could have done it on my own.  Pete was the main man in the garden, with the big picture of what he wanted it to look like, and he decided where to put the new beds.  (Oh yes, and Pete did the whole Ram Pump thing in the first place.)  Dan (a volunteer) put in amazing work digging ponds; this liberated soil for the raised beds, which were mostly created and edged by Glen.  Cynthia managed the finances behind all this, and put in some hard graft earning the money to pay for it.  And back to the irrigation system, I knew I lacked the technical experience to install it, while Adam has that knowledge.  So right from the start I did the leg-work – plans, measurements etc – but Adam came with me to Dirk’s, and translated all the technical-speak into something I could understand, then came with me to the shop that sells plumbing bits, and showed me how to connect all the bits in the right order.

Centre of Gota Gota Operations

Centre of Gota Gota Operations

The phrase natural hierarchy describes this well.  It’s totally different from an authoritarian hierarchy, where one person stays in control.  It only works if people are willing to drop the ego thing of being in charge, to trust each other and to let each person’s excellence come to the fore.  Natural hierarchy is not possible  if we’re either bent on holding onto a fixed authority, or stuck in a dislike/rejection of all authority.  I can’t say I was always comfortable with it – on an ego level I would have loved to say, “I did all this irrigation system myself.”  But actually what mattered was to get the irrigation system installed, and to do it well.  Who did what was not important, and I had a lot of fun and learned a lot in the process.

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Now here we are in June – lots of hot sunshine.  Not only are we very glad to have the system in place, but we’ve expanded it yet again to water yet more trees. And when I come back to the house, having scrabbled on some hillside to get the pipe over to those trees, I bump into Pete or Laura, and they’re as full of enthusiasm about this wonderful system as I am!  And I love that fact that it’s a really flexible system, so next year we may add in some more beds as well.  I get so excited every time I read a gardening book that says, “Only plant X if you have plenty of water,” and I know that water is no problem, and we can grow all those Xs.  This may seem dull, if you aren’t into gardening, but when we picked our first courgette and our first cucumber of the year, and they were big and fat delicious, it was a fantastic moment!

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If you’re interested in finding out more about Dirk’s irrigation systems, you can contact him on:
davalltech.pt@gmail.com
phone  238 648 048  mobile 966 728 293
or see his website: http://dragonsplace.ning.com/

4 Comments

  1. sophie says:

    hi mim, loved reading your post, thanks! i’ve also got part of my garden on dirk’s gota-gota system, it’s a trial to see if i want to expand on it to cover the whole garden – which i will definitely be doing 🙂

  2. Tiago says:

    Very good text! Thank you so much for sharing! I wish I had a stream in wich to use a ram…

  3. […] We Got a Gota Gota – The Ups & Downs Of Installing An Irrigation System | Awakened Life Project : Projecto Despertar a Vida Posted on July 4, 2010 by venaurafarm We Got a Gota Gota – The Ups & Downs Of Installing An Irrigation System | Awakened Life Projec…. […]

  4. Roberta Anderson says:

    I am really impressed by your perseverance in hanging in there to make this happen!

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