Editor’s Note – With the fall season winding down, and the ground yet to be frozen, perhaps this is the time to get outside and install a drip irrigation system.
A lot of time and hard work goes into planning, planting, and caring for a home garden. Once little seedlings sprout up through the earth, the impending summer heat could be the demise of all of your hard work.
Depending on your location, the intense heat and a dry climate can provide poor conditions for your garden. And even in a fairly temperate location, going out of town once in a while shouldn’t mean coming home to sad, withering plants and vegetables.
To keep your garden growing strong and to free up some time, install a timed drip irrigation system. Read on for reasons why drip irrigation works, the basics on drip irrigation, the reasons why you should have a system of your own, and where to start.
Benefits of a Drip Irrigation System
Although some new gardeners may be tempted to rely on a sprinkler system to water their gardens, a drip irrigation system is a better choice for a number of reasons.
Drip irrigation is the most efficient method of irrigating. The tiny water emitters in the system deliver water directly to the plants, meaning more precision and less waste. Although some modern sprinkler systems can be around 75 to 85 percent efficient, drip systems are typically 90 percent or higher.1 Water efficiency is not only good for your wallet, it’s great for the environment. Many studies show drip irrigation systems use 30 to 50 percent less water than conventional watering methods, including most sprinklers.2
A proper irrigation system provides small but constant quantities of water, which creates ideal growing conditions for most plants. Additionally, more efficient watering means less pesky weed growth.
Another clear benefit of a timed irrigation system: Hardworking gardeners can take a break once in a while. Those breaks provide your garden with a consistent watering schedule, which saves the hassle of lugging around a clunky hose through the garden day in and day out.
Even if your garden is fairly small, the initial investment and labor to install the system is worth it. Upfront installation costs range depending on size and location. If a professional installs an irrigation system in a ¼-acre lot, it could cost around $3,000 to $4,000. However, there are DIY versions that run closer to $1,500.
Strategizing a Home Garden Irrigation System
Organize Your Garden
Like gardening itself, installing an irrigation system requires research and a meticulous hand.
If you’re just starting a new garden, you have the ability to design it with an irrigation system in mind. Long, straight beds make for more efficient and economical watering, as well as an easier installation process when the time comes.
Next, categorize plants and vegetables into groups with similar watering needs so you can organize your individualized watering system more efficiently. It’s easy to get frustrated planning a precise watering system suited for each and every plant, but there are some general guidelines to followfor organized and efficient watering.
Know Your Soil
Considering soil is the lifeline through which water and nutrients travel to your plants, planning your irrigation system around your garden’s soil is essential. Knowing what type of soil you have in your garden helps guide your irrigation system installation. It also impacts your choice of drippers or emitters.
To determine which types of soil you have in your garden, grab a handful of dry soil, grip tightly, and release.3
- Clay soil holds together without breaking. Water usually absorbs very slowly.
- Light, loamy soil is composed mostly of sand and silt. It holds together but breaks apart easily. Water moves slowly through the soil and spreads out evenly.
- Sandy, coarse soil crumbles and falls apart when released. Water goes straight down without much absorption.
The Basics of an Irrigation System
With a soil-based watering strategy in place, the next step is to choose the best system for your garden. An irrigation system should reflect the size and content of the garden as well as location and availability of outside water sources. In essence, the overall system should be as simple as possible, yet still functional and efficient.
Here are the essential parts of a small- to medium-sized irrigation system.
Valves let you turn water on and off from the primary water source. Purchase a valve with a blackflow preventer and pressure regulator.4 This stops contaminated water from running back into the initial water source and regulates the water pressure to keep it at a constant level.
Use simple stop valves at various places in the system to troubleshoot common gardening problems. For example, a rainy period may flood a part of the garden. A valve gives you the option to shut down that part of the irrigation system but still water the rest of the garden.
One of the most common and frustrating problems with irrigation systems is clogged emitters. To help prevent these, install a filter between the water source and irrigation line. Filters are crucial in most systems, but they are especially important if your water comes from an unfiltered source such as a lake or pond.
3. Tubing Adaptor
No matter what size of garden you have, you need to connect a few different parts in the system, and those connections should be watertight. If you need to connect the water source to the tubing line through various filters, it’s a good idea to use an adaptor. Adaptors are also commonly used between tubing and emitters to reduce water loss.
4. Drip Tubing
The primary water source connects to drip tubing to carry water to the plants. In some cases, one tube is sufficient. However, depending on the size of your garden and number of garden rows, you may want to consider installing thinner, flexible tubing to carry water from the main tubing line to each individual garden bed. These lines provide more flexibility in terms of individual plant watering needs. For example, thinner lines with water emitters are often recommended for raised garden beds because they provide more precise watering.
5. Water Emitters
The water emitter market is a vast one. Do your research on what type of water release works best for your individual plants. Consider two factors when shopping for emitters: flow rate and coverage (spray diameter). Although there’s a large variety of fixed range sprayers, sprinklers, and misters for any type of plant, water emitters typically fall into three main categories:
- Non-pressure-compensating drippers:
Flow rate varies with pressure. The lower the pressure, the lower the flow rate and vice versa.
- Pressure-compensating drippers:
Flow rate remains the same regardless of pressure.
- Adjustable sprayers:
Offers more variety in terms of watering individual plants on a single irrigation line.
Although there are quite a few emitters to choose from, adjustable drip emitters work well for most gardens since they provide individual flow and pressure options. With average discharge rates of zero to 10 gallons per hour at a constant pressure, you can adjust quantity and pressure accordingly.
Note: Use a hair dryer or boiling water to soften hard hose or tubing before inserting the hard plastic connectors.
6. End Cap
After you successfully connect the tubing and valves to the water source, place an end cap on the end of the tubing lines to stop water flow. This should be the same size as the tubing.
A reliable timer is key to your irrigation system. Look for a programmable timer that regulates the watering schedule for the duration needed.
How to Install a Drip Irrigation System
With all the parts ready to go, it’s time to get your hands dirty with the installation process. In most cases, a simple irrigation system can be set up in just a few hours, but remember to be patient and precise. Do it right the first time to save time and money down the line.
In addition to the parts mentioned above, you need a few more items for the installation:
- A hose puncher (to attach emitters to the tubing)
- Goof plugs (to plug up any unwanted punch holes)
- Metal stakes and zip ties (to secure the drip lines where you want them)
- End caps (to close off the water line ends)
- A tape measure
- A pair of garden or work gloves
Step 1: Connect Tubing to Water Source
Use an outdoor faucet or water valve to connect the water source to the main water line tubing. Connect the two with a backflow preventer valve to stop contaminated water from leaking back into the initial water source.
Note: In nearly all cases, an anti-siphon valve (a combination valve and backflow preventer) is recommended for most home irrigation systems. However, there are strict local codes to follow when using these valves. Check your local code for installation guidelines before you begin.
Step 2: Distribute Tubing Line and Connect Emitters
Once the water source is connected to the main water distribution line, it is time to lay the tubing in accordance with your garden layout.
Roll the tubing out around the garden beds, laying the line flush but not too taut. Once the tubing is in place, use a punch tool to make a hole in the tubing line wherever an emitter goes. In most cases, position your emitters so they are close to the root zone of each plant. To punch the holes, use boiling water or a hair dryer to heat the tube, which makes it more pliable.
Once you have the tubing laid out and your emitter holes punched, secure the tubing into the ground with tubing stakes (which should be the same size or just slightly larger than the tubing circumference).
Step 3: Test the System
Before you turn on the system and bask in the glory of all your hard work, you may want to make some adjustments. Before closing the tubing with clamps, leave all of the tube ends open to test the system. Turn on the water and allow it to run freely for a few minutes to flush out any dirt or debris. Once you see the system runs properly, close the tubing with an end cap.
Maintaining Your System
Once your system is in place, it’s not exactly time to sit back and relax completely. Like the garden itself, an irrigation system needs to be maintained on a regular basis.
- Clean and/or replace the filters regularly to ensure optimal flow.
- Check soil wetness at rooting depth to adjust watering schedule and pressure.)
- Check the timer battery and replace as needed.
- Drain the water lines once in a while, especially if you live in an area with freezing temperatures in the winter, which can wreak havoc on the lines. Use a compressor or drain the line. Open the lowest part and let gravity do the work.
- Regularly check emitters for leaks and blockage.
With proper installation and regular maintenance, a simple drip irrigation system can do wonders for your garden, save money and water costs, and open up some well-deserved free time for home gardeners.
About the Author – Nicole Jewell writes about architecture and sustainable living for a range of websites and trade magazines as well as her own blog, Pass the Ham. When she’s not freelancing she can be found traveling around Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, taking in the rich historical and modern architecture of the area.