Drip irrigation, put simply, is a lifesaver for any busy gardener. Whether you have a small farm or container garden, you can successfully use drip irrigation to save water, time, and money.
As the name implies, drip irrigation is a type of irrigation system to water crops and plants efficiently. Drip tape, T-tape, micro tape, and trickle drip – these are all names for the same irrigation, one that uses plastic tape to apply water directly where your plants need it – at the base of the plant.
In this article, we’ll talk about some of the benefits of using drip irrigation. We’ll also go over the steps to take when installing a drip irrigation system.
Let’s get started.
5 Reasons You Should Use Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation is, hands down, my favorite irrigation system, and it can be used at a small or large scale, for both annual and perennial crops. Here are 5 good reasons to use drip irrigation:
1. Conserves Water
Drip irrigation was designed to use the least amount of water to keep a plant healthy. This practice of irrigating crops was invented in Israel in the 1950s and has since taken the agricultural world by storm.¹
Because drip irrigation is so precise, gardeners with access to lesser water sources can still effectively water their gardens. According to Penn State Extension:
“lower-volume water sources can be used because trickle irrigation may require less than half of the water needed for sprinkler irrigation.”²² Harper, Jason, and Jarrett, Albert, “Drip Irrigation for Vegetable Production,” PennState Extension, 23 Feb 2016, https://extension.psu.edu/drip-irrigation-for-vegetable-production.
If you’re concerned about conserving water – which we all should be, whether or not we live in drought areas – drip irrigation is the way to go.
2. Energy Efficient
Drip irrigation is the most energy-efficient irrigation system available today. Large-scale drip irrigation systems tend to use water pumps, but due to drip tape’s design these pumps use less energy than sprinkler systems. Penn State Extension has observed that:
- Lower operating pressures mean reduced energy costs for pumping.
- High levels of water-use efficiency are achieved because plants can be supplied with more precise amounts of water.²
Drip irrigation can also be set up to be a carbon-neutral system with zero emissions. If you can, invest in a solar-powered water pump. Or better yet, capture your own water supply with a rain barrel uphill from your garden, and let gravity do the watering for you.
3. Automated System
What’s one thing that no farmer or gardener has enough of? Time. Watering plants properly can take so much time out of the day, but a drip irrigation system removes this problem entirely.
Invest in a battery-powered timer for an automated system that consistently waters your garden, even when you’re not physically present. There are even some Bluetooth timers that you can control from your phone or computer if you need to adjust your timer settings from afar.
4. Reduces The Chance Of Plant Disease & Discoloration
The beauty of drip tape is that water is slowly emitted throughout the day – so none of your garden beds will get flooded or soggy, which may contribute to root rot.
Since drip irrigation waters plants at their base, the foliage never even gets wet (unless it rains, of course). Plants like tomatoes – that don’t love having their foliage disturbed or getting wet – love drip irrigation. Drip irrigation reduces the risk of foliar diseases like powdery mildew.
If you’ve ever used well water to water your crops, you’re aware of how the water can turn leafy vegetables and flowers a rust-like color. Save yourself this problem by installing a drip irrigation system.
5. Reusable Parts Save You Money
Yes, drip irrigation parts are made of plastic. And while it’s important to move from plastic to more sustainable materials, drip irrigation parts are durable and reusable. If properly taken care of, you can reuse drip irrigation parts for years!
Read on to learn which parts you’ll need to install drip irrigation, and how to winterize drip irrigation to ensure many seasons of use.
Drip irrigation is an investment, but it is often a one-time investment that saves you water, time, and money in the long run.
The Drip Irrigation System
A drip irrigation system uses a variety of interchangeable and customizable parts to fit your garden’s specific watering needs. What follows are the general parts that comprise a drip irrigation system:
Drip tape is the flexible plastic tubing that you run along the length of your rows or raised beds. The tape has precut holes running the length of it, where the water drips out.
Also called “header,” mainline is the thicker tubing often intended to be a permanent part of a drip irrigation system.
Only needed with mainline tubing, emitters are plastic pieces with a spout for water to drip through.
Useful for repairing holes in drip tape, fittings connect multiple shorter pieces of drip tape into a longer, watertight piece.
Caps are needed on the ends of mainlines, so that excess water won’t run out the ends.
- Pressure regulator
Drip tapes are semi-delicate irrigation systems and parts may break if the water pressure is too high. Use a pressure regulator in between the water hose (or spigot) and the mainline. A pressure regulator of at least 15 PSI is recommended.
Timers aren’t required, but they take the guesswork (and the extra work) out of using drip irrigation.
There are even more pieces that can be incorporated into your drip irrigation system, but these are the essentials. Any store that carries drip irrigation will also have these parts in stock – which is especially handy, seeing as I always need more fittings and emitters than I bargained for!
Where To Buy Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation may be readily available at your local supply store, and it can be ordered and picked up in-store at Lowe’s, Walmart, Rural King, and Tractor Supply. Some large seed companies and grow supply stores, like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Harris Seeds, also carry drip irrigation kits.
There are a few specialty drip irrigation companies online, including:
- DripWorks (I bought from them and had a good experience last year)
- Dramm (irrigation supplies specifically for container gardening)
Wherever you shop for your other gardening needs, drip irrigation shouldn’t be too hard to find.
How To Install Drip Irrigation
Installing drip irrigation may at first seem like a daunting task, but it’s a task that you’ll get the hang of after you’ve done it enough times. Familiarize yourself with these steps, and if something doesn’t work for you, try to find a new way of doing it!
1. Measure & Sketch Out A Plan
Before you go ordering drip tape, take some measurements around your garden to determine where you need mainline or tape (and how much of each). Count your connections, and count how many trees, shrubs, and perennials you have that will need a permanent setup (don’t bother counting how many annuals you have).
2. Order Supplies
Check your local garden supply store to see if they have any drip tape supplies in stock, or order online from the suggested companies above.
If you’re on the border about how much to buy, buy a little more than you think you’ll need. It’s far better to have too much drip irrigation than to be just a little bit short on your projects.
3. Cut The Mainline To Size
Once you have all the needed drip irrigation parts, choose a day to get it all done (you can space the chore out over a few different days, but I prefer to get it all done at once). Try to choose a day with little to no wind – wind and rain certainly complicate this project, so save yourself the frustration and plan for a pretty spring day.
Run the mainline the width of your garden or raised beds. Make sure that your garden hose will reach the mainline, or bring your mainline all the way to your water source. Either way, cap the downhill end of the mainline to stop excess water from running out.
4. Lay Out The Drip Tape
Drip tape is typically sold on spools, so recruit a partner to help you if you can. If you’re forced to go it alone, bring two chairs out to the garden and run a metal pole or broom handle through the tape spool so that it unrolls nicely.
Next, put the spool of drip tape up and walk the length of your raised beds. Flip the drip tape so that the emitter side (the side with a stripe and small holes) is face-up – this helps prevent the emitters from getting clogged with dirt and debris.
Cut the drip tape at the end of the bed, but leave about eight inches extra. Walk back to the spool and go again. I like to run a drip line in between two rows of plants so that the two rows share the water, but you can also run a line for every row.
5. Use A Hole Punch To Make Holes In The Mainline
Use a hole punch to make holes in the mainline where the drip tape will attach. Try not to make the holes too big or you’ll have a leak. If you mis-punched a hole, use a goof plug to plug the hole and punch another one.
6. Connect Tapes Together With Fittings
Now that you have all of your drip tape laid out and holes in the mainline punched, use the fittings to attach the tape to the mainline. They should snap in nicely, with little to no water leak.
7. Fold The Ends
Now it’s time to seal the ends of the drip tape. Find an end, and cut a two-inch section off of it. Take the new end and fold it over on itself several times, pinching the tape tight. Slip the two-inch piece over the end to cap the line and repeat for each line of drip tape.
8. Secure Mainline & Tape With Landscape Staples
Battening down drip irrigation isn’t always necessary – once water fills the lines it will hold them down, and when the plants mature, their foliage will keep the drip lines from flying away.
I do like to take the extra step of securing drip irrigation, both mainline and tape, with landscape staples – the kind used to pin down landscape fabric. You can use other items too – just take care not to pinch the drip lines into the ground so much that water can’t flow through them.
9. Install A Pressure Regulator
If you have decent water pressure you’ll want to install a pressure regulator. Regulators can be inexpensive, and they decrease pressure going into drip irrigation, which, if left alone, could be damaged by high water pressure.
A pressure of 15 PSI is recommended for most home gardeners. However, if you are working with more drip irrigation or a commercial water source, you might need a different size regulator.
10. Turn On The Water & Check For Any Leaks
The most important step of this process is the final walk-through. Turn on your water source and watch your drip irrigation system closely.
Walk the length of your mainline and each garden bed to make sure that your irrigation isn’t leaking profusely (there will always be some small leaks). If your drip tape lines are blowing away from the mainline, it’s a sign that the water pressure is too high or your lines weren’t connected correctly.
Turn the water off and reconnect the lines, making sure to really tighten the fittings. If you’re still having leaks, try a stronger pressure regulator.
If your drip tape has holes or a bad leak, mark the spot and turn the water off. Come back with a pair of scissors and a drip tape connector piece.
Cut out the tear or hole in the drip tape, and throw that piece away. Connect the two new ends with the connector, and your drip tape is good as new!
How To Store & Winterize Drip Irrigation
Many gardeners reuse drip irrigation year after year with no problem. Mainline, especially if it’s buried, can be left out through the winter.
Drip tape, as it’s a little more delicate, will need to be picked up and stored for the winter – or it might get chewed on by animals or damaged by freezing temperatures. I like to use the spools that drip tape comes on to store the tape over the winter, but you can also fold drip tape and tie it in bundles.
Either way, you’ll want to squeegee as much water as possible out of the lines before storing them, or you’ll be in for a mess.
Be sure to mark how long each piece of drip tape is, or otherwise mark how it fits with your garden beds, to save you the frustration of matching drip tape to raised beds next season.
Drip irrigation is a godsend for the gardener who’s stretched a little too thin – which is most all of us, isn’t it? Invest in a quality drip irrigation system today to save water, time, and money in the long run.
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¹ Frankel, Daniel, “Drip Irrigation: Israel’s Ingenious Invention,” Hasbara Fellowships, 11 May 2021, https://hasbarafellowships.org/drip-irrigation-israels-ingenious-invention/#:~:text=Simcha%20Blass%20is%20known%20as,it%20small%20amounts%20of%20water.
² Harper, Jason, and Jarrett, Albert, “Drip Irrigation for Vegetable Production,” PennState Extension, 23 Feb 2016, https://extension.psu.edu/drip-irrigation-for-vegetable-production.
About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.