Steve Hendrix, Washington Post Staff Writer, August 11, 2008

It was the original flavored water, although you're not likely to see it bottled and sold. "Eau de Garden Hose" lacks a certain marketing allure.

But could anything taste more like summer than a long, gulping draft from the sparkling arc that gushes from a sun-warmed hose?

The first one in from the ballfield — or the trampoline, or the fierce round of backyard tag — gets the first overheated spurt as other sweaty arrivals line up jostling behind. Everyone knows the drill: Let it run until it's cool, then gulp freely and messily, directing as much down your neck as into your mouth. Drinking from the hose is a chance to wear your refreshment as much as drink it.

The hose is the plumbing of a summer day, an ever-ready drinking fountain, a reliable stand-in for a trip to the pool, a maddening, tangly indispensable fixture of a thirsty garden. Of course, like a lot of fun things from childhoods gone by (bare-headed bike riding, firecrackers, anything worth doing off a diving board), the hose has become a target of the safety scolds.

Not that a scorching summer day is the easiest time to follow all the new rules.

"I like spraying my sister," said Nicholas Ward, 5, who along with his twin sister, Caroline, is a serious practitioner of backyard hose play at their home in Takoma Park.

"They spray each other, they spray me, they spray anyone who comes in range," said their mother, Beth Hedstrom. "For the kids, it probably has all the appeal of getting to pretend to shoot someone, but in a form a little more palatable to moms."

Add a sprinkler, and the humble hose is upgraded to a tiny backyard water park, a little personal rain shower for kids to dance with in the summer sun. Any lawn sprinkler will do, but the toy industry has long viewed the hose as a promising sales point: There are slippery slides and spouting water snakes and watery volleyball nets. There is Mt. Tiki-Soki, a Polynesian idol that squats on the grass building pressure until water explodes in all directions.

The Ward twins have a Nemo sprinkler and a very cool device that shoots water eight feet into the air with a plastic rocket balanced precariously at the top of the plume.

"Sometimes it hovers, and sometimes it just falls down," Caroline said. "But I like jumping through it."

The backyard waterworks is so satisfying that the twins have a hard time choosing between hose play and pool play. "I wish I could do both at the same time," said Nicholas, imagining his own summertime nirvana: a swimming pool equipped with a garden hose.

And when he's thirsty? His toy becomes his drinking cup.

"It tastes a little bit like grass," Nicholas said of his drinks from the hose.

Hose water is venerable and refreshing. But is it safe? Hedstrom allows her kids only the occasional sip. Others are even more squeamish. There is always the chance the nozzle has been sitting in a puddle of pesticide, and many people are uncertain whether water from an outside faucet is as clean as the indoor variety.

"I've never been sure that it's real safe to drink outside water," said Connie Bowers, a gardener in Colesville.

In fact, Bower's outdoor faucets run with fully treated drinking water, like those served by most public water systems in the region.

"The water that runs from your kitchen tap and the water that flushes your toilet and the water that comes out of your garden hose is all the same, and it's all potable," said Kira Lewis of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The biggest risk from hose water is probably the hose itself, according to the California-based Center for Environmental Health. The group, which specializes in sniffing out toxic content in consumer products, found traces of lead in many brands it tested. The center warned parents not to let kids drink from hoses, fill kiddie pools with them or even play in sprinklers. The group filed suit against the hose industry, and in 2004 several of the biggest manufacturers agreed in a settlement to reduce the lead levels and post warning labels on hoses that didn't comply.

Now there are drinking-water-safe hoses on the market, and the Center for Environmental Health recommends those for any kind of child play.

Of course, for those who do more toiling than frolicking in the yard, the hose is a tool of frequent frustration, the unwieldy serpent in a backyard Eden. Garden technology has invented the speaker concealed in a rock, the robot lawn mower and the seedless watermelon, but it has yet to cure the common kink.

"They can drive you crazy," said Bowers, whose three-quarter-acre garden is laced with more than a dozen hoses. "I used to get very frustrated as they got all tangled together."

Bowers said she has become a better hose jockey by watching how professional landscapers wrap hoses: letting the natural coil flip free as they spin them 'round and 'round their forearms. But a good part of her yard time is still consumed by hose management, keeping them from bulldozing the beds as she tugs them around, straightening out the hissing pinches, tucking them out of the trip zones.

Just preparing them for storage at the end of the season can take the better part of a day. She drains them, wraps them as tightly as possible and either ties them or coils them inside a small barrel or box for storage in her basement.

"It's easier to fold them tightly when they're still warm," she said.

A good hose is to a busy gardener what a good knife is to a serious chef. It pays to invest in quality, and it demands a lot of care if you want it to endure more than a summer or two.

Steve McCully still owns — and uses — the black rubber hose from Sears that his dad gave him 20 years ago. He keeps it empty of water, coiled and out of the sun when he's not using it. Leaving a hose pressurized, even with a strong nozzle at the end, will cause "sun bubbles" and weaken the hose walls over time, he said.

"If you take care of them, they'll last a long time," said McCully, a sort of grand master of hoses thanks to his job as garden manager at Behnke Nursery in Potomac. He estimates that nearly 1,000 feet of them snake around the 6.2-acre property. The Behnke hoses are like the ropes on a sailing ship, and McCully is the exacting skipper.

"I give someone a C-plus for this one," McCully said, stopping to inspect a hose coiled semi-neatly against a fence post.

McCully also sells hoses, from an entry-level vinyl mesh ($28.50 for the 50-footer) to the high-end, mostly rubber Dramm, available for the first time this year in purple, orange, red and other designer colors ($64.99).

The No. 1 request from customers: "They want one that's not going to kink up," McCully said. "They all kink, but the rubber is the key. The more rubbery, the less they kink."

He recommends a pinch test. "If you feel that thicker wall, that's a good sign," he said. "That's what we look for, and we abuse a lot of hoses here."