Murphy's law prevails, so don't assume last year's drip system is ready for your spring garden. Devoting just an hour to checking its components this spring can ensure this year's crop is better than ever.

Drip irrigation is ideal for vegetable gardens because it delivers water to the plant and nowhere else. That means less weed growth in between plants and much lower water bills. With all the new products available, a drip system can also be put on a battery-operated timer to water on schedule while you're at work.

When drip irrigation first took hold in the United States, we learned many things. It wasn't long until landscapers discovered how drip irrigation systems can fail, and that regular maintenance is needed to ensure continual operation. Failure to do so can result in clogged emitters that remain unnoticed until the plant it serves wilts, turns yellow or dies.

Attend to these maintenance tasks so you can count on optimal operation all season long:

• Install fresh batteries in your hose timer. Even if it's still operating, change the batteries anyway because some timers go haywire if underpowered. Use this task to reset your watering time to spring demands of young plants because it may be still geared for last fall.

• Check out all hose washers and replace as needed. Since drip systems are typically installed with a faucet and hoses, each connection contains a rubber washer. They dry and may crack over a year's time, and this causes leaking and water waste. In fact, changing all your hose washers in spring is a great water-conservation practice that relieves you of the hassle of leaking couplers.

• Disassemble the filter and clean thoroughly. Drip systems have filters to keep particulate matter in the water supply from clogging up your tiny emitters. There may be a good deal of material in the filter left over from last year. When filters become too full they restrict flow rates, which in turn shorts your plants.

• Reattach any lines removed for winter. When we clean up the garden for spring planting, it's common to set the drip system aside to work the soil. This year you might have new locations for your emitters due to the importance of crop rotation. Make sure any lines abandoned are capped off or use "goof" plugs to seal holes in main lines. Just one open hole can interrupt the pressure and flow, causing plants at the end of the line to suffer.

• Open the end caps and flush out all the lines. There should be a special closure at the end of each ½-inch feeder line. Remove the closures, and open up the system so that water forces any algae, dirt, bugs or bits of plastic out the far end of the lines. This scours them clean rather than forcing all the junk into the ¼-inch spaghetti tubes to clog emitters.

• Inspect all drip emitters, bubblers and spray heads. Once the system is ready to operate, turn it on and then take a good look at each emitter to make sure water is flowing freely. Emitters that aren't working properly can be cleaned, or replace them with new ones because they are so cheap.

• Inspect all tubing for cracks. Once you've done all the previous steps, make sure that your tubing is solid. Run the system before planting. Water seepage at cracks or holes will show up with wet dirt, pointing you to the places where there's damage. Simply splice in a new piece of line where damage occurred.

It's very hard to correct any of these problems after you've planted your garden. Get them done today so you can plant with confidence knowing that each and every seedling will receive the water it needs all summer long.