DURING this torrid time of the year, hoses may be a garden's lifeline but they also kink, tangle and trip, prompting more expletives than any other tool or accessory, maybe more than all others combined.
Coiled by the spigot, they certainly look harmless. But try to reach that potted plant on the other side of the patio and they strike, just like the snakes they resemble. Loops lash out, snapping off nearby plants and knocking over pots, coils wrap around legs, and just as the hapless gardener gets everything untangled, the hose kinks and shuts off the supply of water. Aaarrgh!
The snake can be charmed: There are better quality hoses that are less likely to kink and coiling, and storing them properly definitely helps. A good hose-end device will slow the flow so rushing water does not wash away your garden or the soil from pots. Some have a shut-off valve at the end to save water and cut down on mud.
Keep it short
The longer a hose is, the harder it is to handle. Wrestling with a 30-foot anaconda is no fun and neither is fighting a 100-foot hose. Nothing is more difficult to coil and uncoil, and 75 feet is nearly as awkward. It makes more sense to run permanent, underground PVC water lines into the garden, and add spigots.
That way, hoses can be 25 feet long, or 50 feet max, which makes them easier to coil or drag around.
Hoses kink, no matter what the label says. Frank Burkard of Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, a third-generation nurseryman, kids his customers, asking, "What do you want, a hose that kinks sometimes, a hose that kinks most of the time, or one that becomes hopelessly snarled after its first use?"
Hoses really get a workout at nurseries so they've learned which are the good ones.
As in most things, you get what you pay for. A good flexible hose that will rarely kink costs at least $50 for a 50-footer. Like a good tire, a quality hose will have several plies. The Flexogen 8-ply is a favorite with Southern California gardeners and has passed the nursery test. There are heavy-duty rubber hoses used by commercial gardeners but they do more damage than good, breaking plants and pots because of their weight.
Sturdy brass couplings are important because if you step on one and it bends, which can happen on cheaper hoses, it's no longer possible to attach it to the spigot, or attach anything to it until you replace the fitting.
A thick reinforcement on the spigot end will keep the hose from kinking -- and eventually tearing -- at that crucial spot.
Permanently coiled hoses expand but hold their shape like a big soft spring, so when let go of, they return to a fairly tight coil. Their interior diameter is small so some gardeners find they don't deliver enough water. They are mostly used in balcony gardens.
Stow it away
The secret to avoiding kinks has more to do with how the hose is stored. Some gardeners carefully coil a hose as if it were a line on a naval ship, but it's far easier to put it on or in something. Hose reels have been around for decades. They work best when the reeling in, or pulling out, is directly in line with the face of the reel.
There are a few reels that have tension devices and work like the self-retracting water and air hoses at gas stations. There is also a reel that feeds though a hole in the side. These fancy styles cost $100 and up. Nurseries and home centers carry many, and most reels and simple hangers can be seen at www.hosereelsource.com. Burkard finds reels "pretty ugly" so he prefers a decorative pot in which to store a hose, much like a cobra in a basket. The special pots come in a variety of finishes, including natural terra cotta and handsome glazes. They have a hole in the side where the hose pokes out to connect to the spigot. Many have a raised section in the middle for coiling the hose.
There is one catch. The pots must be heavy or they tend to follow along when the gardener pulls out the hose. Burkard's favorite is a super heavyweight, made in Madera, Calif., by Hans Sumpf Co. The pots come in four colors and two sizes, for 25-foot and 50-foot hoses. The big one weighs nearly 50 pounds (with hose) and costs about $100.
At Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, manager Liz Kimmel said that their glazed hose pots from China and Vietnam were not as heavy but were certainly decorative. They typically hold a 50-foot hose and sell for around $60. You just have to be a little more careful pulling out the hose.
The Chinese pots have a rough, earthy sage green or cream finish; the Vietnamese pots are a deep cobalt blue.
There's a trick to coiling a hose inside a pot or even on the ground. As you coil, twist the hose, which works out the curl that causes kinks. Some gardeners, before coiling, spin the hose like a jump rope to work out the curls. Most gardeners have found that a warm hose is easier to work with than a cold one so that might suggest getting the hose out at the end of the day rather than in the morning. On those rare frosty mornings, stepping on a hose can snap it in two.
Clamping your thumb over the end of the hose is not good for the garden, though it may be fun on hot days. Good gardeners use hose-end devices that blunt or buffer the force of the water so it doesn't eat way at the garden, or wash the soil from pots. Some come with a shut-off valve or a trigger handle so you don't waste water and get the ground muddy as you walk. Don't leave the valve off for too long or the hose may be damaged. Use a metal wand for hard-to-reach plants.
Robert Smaus can be reached at email@example.com