Beneath the grass

Customers can’t see it, but subsurface drip irrigation saves water and money.

Matt King was open to anything that would help him sell his products.

Now the owner of Monarch Sustainable Landscaping, King first learned about subsurface drip irrigation in the middle of a crazy drought in 2010. Based out of California, he didn’t think there was a way to keep business rolling while it rained so infrequently. The drought only got worse: The period between 2011 and 2015 is recorded as the driest span of time in California history.

“It’s not really a drought every once in a while. It’s a constant drought and we get rain once in a while,” King says. “The water companies were actually paying people to get rid of their grass. At the time, I was like, ‘We’re never going to install grass. Grass is a total waste of water.’ Then I did my first subsurface drip irrigation (installation), and I never did sprinklers again.”

He learned about drip irrigation (a watering method that emphasizes sustainability) from a colleague, Mike Garcia, who is now the founder and owner of Enviroscape LA. Garcia says drip irrigation started in Israel, where they’ve successfully managed to bloom plants in the middle of the dessert. When it came to the United States several decades ago, it was widely panned. Now, it’s been adopted as an effective way to save water.

“It was new, novel, and some of us questioned why would you ever plant drip. It seemed like a lot of work. Plus, 40 years ago, we were not into saving water at all,” Garcia says. “Then all of a sudden, bingo! We realized there’s no backup planet, there’s no plan B. What we have on this planet is what we have, and when we run out, we’re going to be up the creek.”


Using specially designed pipes that distribute water through emitters spaced all across the drip irrigation grid, the system slowly releases water directly beneath lawns and plants.

If done correctly, the drip irrigation system applies the water evenly and conserves excess water.

“The main thing is that the water goes directly to the roots,” King says. “All of that water is being used by the grass, nothing’s being wasted with the runoff. It can’t be evaporated as fast because it’s underneath.”

King says he spaces his emitters 12 inches from each other, and the system is only a few inches beneath the surface. Garcia says he thinks people should time their systems to water every 30 minutes. He also says some companies include strips of copper on their pipes, which creates a negative ion and subsequently an acid that prevents roots from growing into their systems.

Garcia will also use a fertigation system to keep plants healthy, and both say there’s no need to aerate lawns in a traditional sense because air travels through the pipes and naturally aerates lawns anyway.


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SELLING SYSTEMS: King suggests showing potential clients videos and

charts that explain drip irrigation.

Maintenance is a breeze, King says. If properly installed, drip irrigation systems will have flush-out valves that need to be released once a year. This keeps the lines free of debris and prevents diseases from building up in the lines. An air release valve also helps landscapers avoid back suctioning of debris into the pipes.

Of course, this system isn’t problem-free. Gophers and other pests can disrupt the lines, and some fertilizers that must be activated by water might not work with drip irrigation.

It’s also not low-cost. King estimates the initial installation might cost more than double the price of sprayer installation, but he also thinks the amount of water saved and easy maintenance justifies the first financial hit. The systems should start paying for themselves over time, he says.

“The maintenance on a subsurface drip system is so much easier than a sprinkler system,” King says. “In a sprinkler system, you have to maintain every single sprinkler head and nozzle. It’s like so many moving parts. With the drip system, the maintenance is once a year.”

Customer skepticism is also an issue, albeit the doubtfulness is waning as clients become more eco-friendly. It can be difficult to explain drip irrigation to customers who are nervous their lawns aren’t being watered.

Sprinklers provide people the satisfaction of seeing their irrigation systems in action. Subsurface drip is exactly that – below the surface and out of sight.

King says he sells his systems by showing clients videos and charts detailing what’s going to happen to their lawns. “People are always super skeptical of it,” he says. “They’re like, ‘This is the worst system ever,’ and when you don’t install it right, that’s absolutely true. It gets a bad reputation because these guys come in and install it as fast as they can using the cheapest parts that they possibly can.”

“The maintenance on a subsurface drip system is so much easier than a sprinkler system.” Matt King, owner, Monarch Sustainable Landscaping


Ultimately, the biggest appeal for subsurface drip irrigation is how much water can be saved, particularly in the West, where droughts are more common. Garcia says the systems can be installed anywhere, but dryer states like California – where both King and Garcia reside – should consider alternative irrigation methods like subsurface drip.

Sprinklers that overspray and hit concrete sidewalks or don’t even apply water to their lawns could be a waste of money, King says. Garcia says he’s even seen homeowners’ associations sue contractors because sprayers hit doors and warp the wood. If the property isn’t the size of something large like a football field or in spots where how much water you use isn’t an object, King says there’s no real reason to want to irrigate differently.

“As the years have gone on, everybody’s kind of accepted that this is the way to water a lawn,” he says.

Doing the right installation on subsurface drip systems and planting properly can even create a carbon sink, Garcia says. This means the plants will suck in harmful carbon and retain it rather than releasing it back out into the air.

“If you get everybody on board, you can make a difference in saving the planet,” Garcia says. “Landscapers have a unique opportunity to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.”

February 2019
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