Overhead Irrigation of Vegetables

Gordon Johnson, Extension Ag Agent, Kent Co.; gcjohn@udel.edu

Irrigation is a critical management tool for producing high yielding and high quality vegetable crops. Scheduling irrigation for different vegetables grown under center pivot, travelling gun, or solid set overhead systems involves knowledge of the soil water holding capacity, the effective rooting depth of the crop (how deep water can be drawn by the crop), how efficiently water is being delivered (water losses to evaporation before it reaches the crop and how much water is lost to runoff), how much water is being used by the crop (transpiration) and how much water is being lost from the soil and wetted surfaces directly (evaporation). The combination of transpiration and evaporation losses is termed evapotranspiration.

To schedule irrigation, the goal is to replace water lost through evapotranspiration without excessive runoff or excessive loss through percolation out of the root zone. Another factor to consider is the permissible water depletion; how much will you allow the soil to dry down between irrigations. For most crops we set this at 50% of the water holding capacity of the soil. However, for some shallow rooted crops you may want to keep that value lower (only allow for 40% depletion between irrigations). By knowing how much water is being lost and how much is left in the soil, you can determine when to irrigate and how much to irrigate.

In classic work done by the University of Delaware Agriculture Engineering Department in the 1970s and 1980s, water use estimates were developed for a number of vegetable crops. These values remain useful guides for irrigating these crops. A summary follows:

Sweet Corn: Water use 40 days after planting was 0.10 inches per day, water use 60 days after planting was 0.23 inches per day and water use at peak (75 days) was 0.26 inches per day.

Potatoes: Water use 40 days after planting was 0.15 inches per day, water use 60 days after planting was 0.27 inches per day and water use at peak (80 days) was 0.37 inches per day.

Peas: Water use 40 days after planting was 0.16 inches per day and water use 60 days after planting was 0.33 inches per day (peak).

Lima Beans: Water use 20 days after planting was 0.13 inches per day, water use 40 days after planting was 0.25 inches per day, water use 60 days after planting (peak) was 0.33 inches per day and water use 80 days after planting was 0.23 inches per day.

Cucumbers: Water use 20 days after planting was 0.13 inches per day, water use 40 days after planting was 0.27 inches per day, and water use at peak (50 days) was 0.30 inches per day.

Watermelons: Water use 20 days after planting was 0.10 inches per day, water use 40 days after planting was 0.23 inches per day, water use 60 days after planting (peak) was 0.30 inches per day, water use 80 days after planting was 0.28 inches per day and water use 100 days after planting was 0.22 inches per day.

Tomatoes: Water use 20 days after planting was 0.15 inches per day, water use 40 days after planting was 0.27 inches per day, water use 60 days after planting (peak) was 0.33 inches per day, water use 80 days after planting was 0.28 inches per day and water use 100 days after planting was 0.25 inches per day.

In future articles information on irrigation scheduling aids (such as computer scheduling programs), soil moisture sensors, and irrigation scheduling under plastic mulch will be presented.

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