Cleaning out sprinkler heads is wise advice

“We never know the worth of water until the well is dry.”

— Thomas Fuller, “Gnomologia,” 1732

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) was an English physician whose hobby was to collect pithy proverbs from various sources. A couple of years before he died, Dr. Fuller decided he had gathered enough wise sayings — 6,496 to be exact — and so he published them in a volume titled “Gnomologia,” an Italian word meaning, appropriately, the study of pithy proverbs.

I am a gardener who, like many gardeners, has a garden gnome amongst her plants. I find it interesting to know that gnomes were traditionally placed in gardens because they were thought to be wise creatures capable of spouting off many pithy proverbs while warding off insect pests and evil spirits. (I wish they could also ward off smoke.)

Dr. Fuller did not disclose the origin of the water proverb in his book, but I agree it’s a true testament to human nature that we never how good we’ve got it until we don’t have it anymore. Such was the case recently when I noticed something had gone awry with our garden irrigation.

Actually, I discovered there was a problem with the sprinkler system only when some of my plants were dying of thirst. Rule No. 1 for effective sprinkler maintenance: Don’t expect the garden gnome to keep an eye on it for you.

In my defense, the faulty sprinklers are set way in the back of my perennial garden. In that area of the garden, we use pop-up heads that spray a fixed, fan-shaped pattern of water. After a lot of trial and error, we settled on this type of sprinkler system because it’s more efficient for watering narrow spaces and requires less operating pressure (20-30 PSI) than rotating heads.

My perennial garden is always changing, so using drip irrigation tubes with emitters for individual plants was not working well. The downsides of using spray heads are they’re aimed at the plant rather than the roots, and the spray can be obstructed when plants grow taller as they mature. Another pithy proverb: Nothing’s perfect.

Upon closer inspection involving manually turning on the irrigation in that garden zone and observing, I found that the spray head was clogged. This is a common problem when dirt and debris build up over time and clog the small holes. (Garden gnomes don’t clean sprinkler heads, either.) In addition to the nozzle, the filter and the sleeve may become blocked.

To clean the sprinkler head, turn off the irrigation system, unscrew the nozzle from the sprinkler, and lift out the filter. Soak the nozzle in warm water while cleaning the filter. Turn on the system for a minute to flush out the sprinkler body and sleeve. Clean out the holes of the spray head with a piece of stiff wire, such as a paper clip, and then replace the filter and screw the nozzle back on tightly. Turn on the system again to make sure the spray is even.

It’s a good idea to clean out sprinkler heads as part of your annual spring gardening chores. The time and effort are well spent to prevent the loss of plants in the middle of summer when a sprinkler system in good working order is most important. A final pithy proverb courtesy of Dr. Fuller’s “Gnomologia”: “All things are easy, that are done willingly.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at For more about gardening, visit her blog at

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