Guide to Drip Irrigation Systems for Your Garden (2024)


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Peg Aloi

Peg Aloi

Peg Aloi is a gardening expert and former garden designer with 13 years experience working as a professional gardener in the Boston and upstate New York areas. She received her certificate in horticulture from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in 2018.

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Published on 01/24/22

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Kathleen Miller

Reviewed byKathleen Miller

Kathleen Miller is a highly-regarded Master Gardener and horticulturist with over 30 years of experience in organic gardening, farming, and landscape design. She founded Gaia's Farm and Gardens,aworking sustainable permaculture farm, and writes for Gaia Grows, a local newspaper column.

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Guide to Drip Irrigation Systems for Your Garden (3)

There are a number of different watering methods for gardeners to choose from: spraying from a handheld hose, using a sprinkler (with or without a timer), digging furrows or trenches, and a good old-fashioned watering can. But for larger gardens, a drip irrigation system can save time and effort, and can water your garden efficiently and thoroughly. It's a fairly high-tech option, and if you like the sound of that, you may want to look into getting a drip irrigation system.

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What Is Drip Irrigation?

Drip irrigation is a method for watering that uses a mechanical system that is attached to a water source and can be arranged throughout your garden. It is intended to disperse water slowly and evenly, and to conserve water.

There are four main types of drip irrigation: soaker hoses (also sometimes known as porous soaker lines), emitter systems, drip tapes, and micro-misting systems. Each system has different features and benefits depending on your needs.

Soaker Hoses

Soaker hoses (also known as porous soaker lines) are hoses with holes spaced evenly along their length and they can be placed alongside row crops, hedges, lines of shrubs, lawns, or in vegetable gardens. They are flexible and easy to use. These hoses seep water slowly into the soil all along their length. They're not suitable for using on slopes. Be aware that some varieties are made of recycled rubber, and so may not be the best choice for using on your food crops, but are safe to use in your yard. These hoses can also be left in place all year round, as they're not damaged by freezing. Also, they only work up to a length of 200 feet, as the flow of water will decrease beyond this length.

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Emitter Systems

These are becoming more popular with home gardeners in times of climate change, when our expected amounts of rainfall seem to vary. They take a little while to set up but are efficient and relatively economical. These systems, which come in several types specific to your water pressure needs, are made of a series of small hoses with evenly-spaced nozzles (known as "emitters") that slowly drip water into the soil, and are excellent for keeping small shrubs (such as roses) or trees watered efficiently throughout your landscape. You can also set them up in your vegetable garden. These systems are useful during long periods of drought in summer.

Drip Tape

This is the most economical option, though it's not as long-lasting as other systems. It's also easy to install and use. It only works when set up in straight lines, but many gardeners have straight edges on their flower beds. This is an excellent choice for annuals and vegetable gardens. You can bury it or cover with mulch.

Micro-misting Systems

Also known as micro-sprinklers, this is a device you can attach to your irrigation hose system. Micro-sprinklers are normally used by orchardists but are becoming increasingly popular with home gardeners. They're ideal if you have large trees on your property, and can also be used for flower beds, ground cover areas, hillsides and slopes. This device disperses water slowly and evenly over root zones, and is beneficial for shallow rooted shrubs like rhododendrons, azaleas, and hydrangeas. They can also be used to protect buds from an unexpected late frost in spring by gently misting the branches until temperatures rise above freezing.

Benefits of a Drip Irrigation System

If you have a large garden, there's no question a drip irrigation set-up will save you hours of watering time every season, not having to move your sprinkler around, or stand/walk while spraying with your hose. Once the system is set up, all you need to do is turn the water on and off.

Drip irrigation is also an excellent way to cut down on water waste and to save money on your water bills. It gets water to precisely where it is needed, and water is dispersed slowly and evenly, conserving a precious resource, eliminating run off, and watering your garden evenly and efficiently.

Downsides of Drip Irrigation Systems

Some may find using drip irrigation systems cumbersome, or have issues with having to use mowing or other equipment around the hoses. Also they can present a hazard if someone trips or falls over them. They can be somewhat complicated to install, depending what type you choose, but there's plenty of information available online. Ask a local lawn or garden professional if they install irrigation systems.

Drip irrigation can be more costly than traditional watering methods. But if you have a large garden and/or limited time, or live in an area with limited water resources, drip irrigation might be an excellent choice for your needs, and more economical in the long run.

Installing and Maintaining a Drip Irrigation System

Some drip irrigation systems are easier to install than others. Some systems can be operated manually, and some can be set up for automatic shut off. There are a number of considerations before choosing and installing a drip irrigation system, such as the area you're trying to water, the slope of your lawn, the frequency with which you'll need to water your plants, costs, and more. The initial outlay of effort may seem daunting, but the amount of time saved later will prove to be worth it. If you're handy and have time, you can order kits with instructions for installing your own system.

Some drip irrigation systems may require a water pump. Some require careful installation, some seem foolproof (drip tape is closer to the latter, although you have to make sure the water holes are facing upwards). Some systems, especially most emitter systems, need to be dismantled and stored over the winter in cold climates to avoid damage from freezing. You'll want to periodically inspect your irrigation system to make sure it's functioning properly, and replace or repair any parts that are worn out or damaged. Most soaker hoses should last at least 3 to 5 years before they need to be replaced.

Guide to Drip Irrigation Systems for Your Garden (2024)
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