The Ray Tyler Lettuce Series is a new podcast mini-series hosted by Diego Footer and farmer Ray Tyler to take a deep dive into the technicalities of growing lettuce—from why lettuce is a farm staple to how to master growing the crop consistently to how to effectively market lettuce to maximize profits.
In this episode of The Lettuce Series, Ray and Diego talk about the nuances of irrigating lettuce: from the pros and cons of the different kinds of irrigation to use to how much and how often lettuce should be watered.
This Episode’s Guest: Ray Tyler
Ray Tyler is the farmer and owner of Rosecreek Farms, a financially successful one-acre market garden nestled in Tennessee. Ray Tyler is also an educator who has helped many farms become more profitable through his coaching services. He also offers his services in the form of his three courses: The Living Farm Course, Caterpillar Tunnel Success, and of course, his Lettuce Masterclass.
In this episode of The Lettuce Series
- Diego introduces the episode series on irrigating lettuce (00:31)
- Important irrigation considerations when growing lettuce (01:56)
- Water source: where is your water coming from? (02:08)
- What counts as high-quality water? (03:23)
- The current lettuce irrigation set up at Rosecreek Farms (04:09)
- Ray’s experience with wobblers (04:43)
- Using wobblers for germination (06:24)
- The specifications of the drip irrigation at Rosecreek Farms (08:15)
- Say goodbye to sand bags and hello to Kwik Hoops (10:17)
- How much water does lettuce need? (12:11)
- Visual cue of how much water crops need (14:08)
- Tolerating some drooping with lettuce (17:27)
- Consistency is key (20:20)
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Ray Tyler Lettuce Series - Episode 5 - Drip, Overhead, and Misters - Crop Irrigation Basics
[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to Farm Small Farm Smart. I'm your host, Diego, DIEGO. Today, it's episode number five in the Lettuce Grower series. We're halfway through this 10-part mini-series, which is a deep dive into growing one crop really well: Lettuce. We chose lettuce because it's typically a profitable crop that's easy to sell to most consumers, making it the ideal cash flow crop for a small farm.
[00:00:31] In episode five, we're talking irrigation. In this episode, Ray's gonna go over the different options for watering lettuce�drip, overhead, and misters�what are the pros and cons of each type, when is one more beneficial than another, and how much water does lettuce actually need. If you enjoy this episode and if you're enjoying the serie,s and you wanna follow along at home, be sure to check out the book that Ray wrote, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce.
[00:01:01] Ray�s someone who struggled growing lettuce forever until he went on to master it. This series in Ray's book gives you the opportunity to learn from someone who knows what you're going through, struggling with lettuce, and wants to help you succeed. To get his book and follow along at home, use the link below.
[00:01:21] If you're more of a visual learner, you can sign up for Ray�s Growing Lettuce Masterclass using the link below. Episode Five: irrigation. Let's get into it.
[00:01:35] I'm joined by Farmer Ray Tyler from Rosecreek Farms, who's growing in Selmer, Tennessee. His book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce is what we're working through.
[00:01:44] So if you wanna follow along, today, we're on chapter five in Ray's book, it's irrigation. Nothing grows without water. All farmers are what they are because of water. When you think about the crop that is lettuce, what are important considerations for growing that with respect to irrigation?
[00:02:08] Ray Tyler: The most important part of this is your water source. Where is your water coming from? And I think everyone wants to be on well, but just �cause you have well water doesn't mean that you don't have contaminants or your water minerals are off. Again, this is another�when driving home is test your water and send it off to a soil consultant who can help analyze your water and just make sure that you have good, high-quality water.
[00:02:43] That's gonna be the very first thing that I think someone should really consider. The second thing would be setting up a standardized watering system is really been helpful for us, and there's lots of systems out there, but if you can come upon one system that really works for your farm, then it's gonna be a lot easier to solve other problems that�s related to either underwater or overwatering. Just having a good system that's easy to manage, it's gonna be really helpful.
[00:03:23] Diego Footer: In terms of that water quality, like how would you define high quality water?
[00:03:27] Ray Tyler: You don't wanna see any contaminants, like any chemicals. You don't wanna see any E. coli. You have well water, and you're near a place where cows have been eating and pooping, and�
[00:03:42] Keeping that water source away from livestock, it's gonna be really important. And so those are the big things that you're really looking out for because you don't wanna spray�that's where a lot of, maybe not, I would say a big enough percentage from these E. coli outbreaks that you hear about in the news comes from contaminated water of some sort. So that's something to really, really think about.
[00:04:09] Diego Footer: In terms of systemizing the water coming under your farm, the two main ways most farmers do it, irrigation, overhead, some combination of the two. Where are you right now on your farm in terms of those two types?
[00:04:25] Ray Tyler: Right now, we only have two types, and that is drip and overhead Netafim misters, they're very simple. Every tunnel is the same. And so that has worked really well for us the past several years.
[00:04:43] Diego Footer: Looking at some of the overhead systems out there, the popular one that this has probably came up in the last�since I've been doing the podcast, we maybe six, seven years�wobblers.
[00:04:56] So overhead sprinklers that are mounted on ground posts that tie into a main line and they put out a circular spray. They're three feet above the ground or so. Putting it out, you do have some issues with wind blowing that water, if it's a fine enough stream. What's been your experience with those?
[00:05:20] Ray Tyler: I would say�I would steer away from those because of the one thing you mentioned, wind. If you have anything above five miles an hour, you have the potential to run into problems with inconsistent watering pattern. So let's just say you have four wobblers in a row. It's watering an eight-bed block.
[00:05:49] The wind comes from the southwest side of your block, and then that southwest corner of your block is dry and your northeast side is too wet. And I know a lot of farmers have this problem, too. So I do� I just don't recommend the wobbler system as a general, just mainly for that reason. Now, if you don't have windy conditions, it's a really easy system to set up, easy to move as well, and it can provide really good coverage very fast.
[00:06:24] Diego Footer: I know one reason a lot of people like 'em is for the germination side of things or getting transplants established. Drip is great for established crops, but once sometimes when you transplant 'em in or direct seeded crops, drip�s not as great because of how it delivers.
[00:06:40] So if you have open field, do you just�lay off that wind consideration and say, Hey, this is probably gonna be better than drip to getting some of these crops established?
[00:06:52] Ray Tyler: So there is�there's three ways to do that. And I would say the first one is, yeah, there's just gonna, maybe you would put more in line to help compensate for that wind and just hope for the best and just check on it.
[00:07:07] Or if you're going into bare soil that's not covered, then you can run drip tape an hour or two before you plant, and then you just plant right where that drip droplet happened. So you're very precise about where that's gonna go in. Or you could�one thing we've done before with the wobblers is, we'll, if we know we gonna have a windy day, say we're gonna plant tomorrow, and we know it's gonna be windy, maybe we will run the wobbler the day before and just get everything damp, where it's not dry powder.
[00:07:44] And then that would give us a good chance to see if, Hey, did we have a wind? Is there any spots that got missed? Is that gonna be a problem or not? So there's definitely some workarounds around that. Again, if you have windy conditions, you are gonna be very frustrated and at some point, you're gonna lose some crops because of the irregular watering pattern due to the wind blowing around those droplets.
[00:08:15] Diego Footer: For drip, it's obviously not affected by the wind �cause the tape is laying right on the ground or some people even bury it. So not a factor at all. What does your current drip system look like on a bed level? What's the spacing of the emitters for your soil? How many lines per bed? On surface are you burying it? What do you do?
[00:08:34] Ray Tyler: We're laying drip right on top of the soil, and we are doing�for lettuce, it is different for different crops, but our system for lettuce is two rows of drip. These are four-inch apart emitters.
[00:08:51] It's pretty close �cause we wanna be able to get a lot of water on that bed as fast as possible. So we've found that four-inch is a nice spacing. And then they're centered between row number one and two of your lettuce and row number three and four.
[00:09:13] Diego Footer: What have you found for drip in terms of your soil? Maybe that's something we have to hit on here to establish a baseline �cause I don't think that's came up. How would you describe your soil from clay to loam to sand? Where's the soil in your farm?
[00:09:24] Ray Tyler: We have heavy clay, like it's really heavy. We've had to work hard to get a little bit more loam and organic matter, but you could�the place where we have not been addressing our soil, like maybe outside of our tunnels, water just does not perk on this property.
[00:09:48] It's very tight. So the good thing about that is that when it does get wet, it can, it does tend to hold that water. So where if a sand, you'd have to water a lot more. Maybe on our farm, we don't have to water as much as, say if you were like, have some friends in Texas who have very sandy soil, they have very little soil diseases because of that. But, they have to water a lot more frequently.
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[00:11:10] So everything you hated about poly low tunnels in the past, whether they were made from PVC or EMT, all those negatives are gone with Kwik Hoops. These have been tested in some of the windiest locations in New Zealand, being exposed to 70 plus mile per hour winds. They're made from high tensile steel, and they should last you a decade or more. That's not an estimate.
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[00:12:11] Lettuce is a crop. Where does it fall on its water level? How much water does it want from? From Think of something on the extreme of cactus, say you don't have to water it that much, to some of these tropical plants that are�they need a ton of water. Where is lettuce in that spectrum?
[00:12:33] Ray Tyler: I would say a good inch a week, probably. And that would translate into�that's like a baseline. In the wintertime, it's once a month, like we're growing on�we're doing dry soil farming in the wintertime. What we'll get in that�that really has to do with disease, controlling disease. We'll get that into our disease portion of this, but in the summertime, it's like once a day.
[00:13:04] Now, it used to be like four times a day when we were open field. But now that we have tunnels that accelerate our poly and block from the wind, it's really helped reduce our watering. So now, it's maybe one time a day. We are using the Netafim overhead misters when we first plant lettuce into the ground, and maybe that will go on 10 minutes, four times a day in a 24-hour time cycle.
[00:13:34] That's just to make sure that if it's really hot, because we have P200s, and they are as, they're not like this massive deep cell, they tend to dry out a little bit faster, so you want to just make sure that you have good watering programs so they don't dry out and die.
[00:13:52] Diego Footer: Are those overhead misters more adding humidity to the air, moisturizing the top layer of the soil, or are you getting good percolation from those?
[00:14:02] Ray Tyler: Oh, we're getting soil drenched, like it's a gentle rain, but it's a lot of it.
[00:14:08] Diego Footer: And come summer, once these plants are established, is there a visual of that you've noticed of getting too much water, get not getting enough water so you can dial that in? Because for somebody new, this is always a question on crops.
[00:14:26] How much do I water? And I know there's no, hey, five minutes, 20 minutes. But is there a visual cue of your soil needs to feel like this, look like this? Or the plant needs to look like this?
[00:14:37] Ray Tyler: So what you don't want is you don't want the surface of your soil to be dry like powder. Right. And I'm going by soil moisture, not by the looks of my lettuce, because if you could look at that lettuce at the wrong time�let�s say if you look at your lettuce in the morning, here's a good example: in the mornings and evenings when it's cooler, the lettuce could be dehydrated, but there's enough moisture from the air where they look perky.
[00:15:06] But during the day, there's just flat, right? There's just no water left. I don't look by the plants. I am going by the soil moisture content. A good rule of thumb is that you wanna be able to kind of take a little finger full of soil and squeeze it together. You don't want water to drip out necessarily.
[00:15:30] What you want is you wanna be able to take it and form a firm ball of soil and stay that way. Not like a muddy, like you don't want mud, but you don't want, if you let go of your fingers, you don't want it to fall down in powder. So you just want a good�you want good moisture, but you also want good drainage.
[00:15:53] This is why sandy soils can grow really great lettuce because it's not holding onto that water too long because it needs to drain enough where it's getting rehydrated. That's how nutrients are getting into the plant, but it also needs to drain enough where you have good oxygen as well. So a general rule of thumb that a good place to start would be from Mat �til, I would say, first week of October.
[00:16:29] You can water lettuce, new lettuce, once a day for 10 minutes, and you'll be fine, except if you have a rainy week, then maybe just pause it until the sun comes out again. Then once the lettuce is mature or mature to say like week number three and four, then we're using drip tape at that point. Then you're going maybe once every two days, maybe 30 minutes every two days.
[00:16:54] So a deeper watering, but giving it more time for that oxygen, for that water to drain and for that oxygen to get to your roots. That's when I'm at right now, and I found that's a good place to start. And then ultimately, you have to observe, every single day, what's happening. But if you start with that as a good baseline, then you can either back off or add more as you feel like you need it. Overwatering is sometimes worse than underwatering.
[00:17:27] Diego Footer: In the summer in the heat, you've talked about sometimes, those plants go flat. I'll see it outside of my yard in the middle of the day. It's almost like a protection mechanism. The plant just droops down. You had no water, but come evening, the plants perk back up.
[00:17:40] Do you ever wanna see that on lettuce or are you looking for lettuce to be that same perfect head shape 24/7, meaning, hey, it's hot, but it�s sucking up water so it never has to droop or are you okay with the droop?
[00:17:54] Ray Tyler: I'm a little okay with it. When the heat index, the humidity is like 120, a hundred twenty degrees, I don't�I never like to see it. But, and sometimes that can be a nutrition problem. I've seen it where if I add on, I want to say zinc. If I fully spray zinc, it can help reduce some of that floppiness. Not every time. Yeah, it's always scary, no matter how many years you�ve been growing it, you see it, Hey, water's good.
[00:18:25] My nutrition, I think, is on point. As long as I don't see that into the evening, I'm good. Sometimes that droopiness could be from disease, lettuce drop if there's other fungus that can cause that. If you see that, say, you see 10 plants in a row, everything else is perky looking really good, but you have 10 plants in a row. It's probably not water.
[00:18:49] It's probably some kind of root knot nematode that's affecting your plants. So sometimes, you think it's water. This is why it's really important to go check your soil, because if you see droopy plants, and you think it's water, and you turn it on, then you can have a real problem. Always check your soil content.
[00:19:11] Again, it goes back to observe. Like, I just can't stress on how important it is for you to really understand this relationship between your actions, your growing practices, and how lettuce is responding to that.
[00:19:27] Diego Footer: And this really ties back into the previous section we did on covers, where if you're growing in the open field, you have no control over the rain.
[00:19:36] You get six inches of rain in 24 hours, that's that. And then the next week, if you get two, that's that. And you can irrigate to compensate, but it's pretty much impossible to take that water away that's coming down. So put yourself undercover, and now you give it that much more even profile.
[00:19:54] And one thing I'm detecting is like the more a lettuce plant can just grow, I don't wanna say the stable state, but without a lot of stress, the better that plant's gonna grow throughout the year. So you're just trying to say, operate in this band. And I think you'll do okay, where if you have that roller coaster, just like anybody's life, if it's up and down all the time, it�ll be harder for it to thrive.
[00:20:20] Ray Tyler: That's right. You nailed it. Again, this goes back to consistency is key. Like everything in the system needs to be consistent. And so if you can consistently, like it would be better for you to water lettuce consistently every other day than to go two days in a row, skip a week. You would rather it needs to be, whatever you do, pick something that you can reliably and consistently do each day, each week, each month without exception.
[00:20:55] Diego Footer: Thanks for listening to today's episode. For any tools and supplies referenced in this episode, please visit the show description below. There, you'll also find a link to Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, as well as a signup link for Ray�s Online Course, his lettuce masterclass.
[00:21:14] Those are two additional ways to go even deeper into growing better lettuce on your farm. If you enjoyed this show, can you do me a favor? Take a minute and leave a review on iTunes. Just pause the episode, swipe over to the Apple Podcast, and leave a hopefully positive review. Every review helps. It only takes you a minute, but it means so much to us.
[00:21:38] So if you enjoyed this show, please leave a review. That's all for this one. I hope you enjoyed it, but more importantly, I hope you can do something with the information in this episode to make a major impact on your farm business using lettuce. Thanks for listening. Until next time, be nice, be thankful, and do the work.
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