By Richard Robinson, Farmer at Hopestill Farm
There are three major reasons I love to use drip irrigation in the garden: It puts water where it does the most good, it puts enough of it there to really make my plants happy, and it allows me to set it and forget it for the rest of the summer—a real benefit to a busy, lazy farmer like me.
Drip systems got their start in the desert, and that’s where I first learned about them. But they are useful wherever plants need more water than the sky will supply.
There are many types of drip emitters, but for gardeners, the most common and most useful is drip tape—thin tubing with regularly spaced slits. Laid in straight lines down the planting bed, drip tape weeps water that percolates down into the root zone, allowing the plant’s roots to dive deep for water (and bring up nutrients from there as well), rather than spread wide and stay shallow.
Drip tape will also deliver much more water than most gardeners will have the patience to water in by hand. Ten minutes of hand watering is a lovely interlude; an hour is much more time than I’m willing to spend, but certainly less than my large garden wants in June to really allow my plants to shoot up. But if I turn on my drip system, I can walk away and come back in an hour or three to find the soil evenly moist and wet down where it really counts.
But what really makes the drip system superior for me is that I can set the whole thing up on a timer and not think about it again all summer. Not only does it save me dozens of hours when I don’t have to be watering—it saves me dozens of hours when I don’t have to think about whether I should be watering. And if I want to take a few days away, I can leave knowing my plants will be perfectly watered without me.
When you first open a drip irrigation catalog, like that from Dripworks (which I heartily recommend), it can seem a little intimidating—there are lots of options, lots of different parts, and some initially confusing lingo. But a great system for your garden is really pretty simple.
It starts with a spigot, or faucet. It’s best to attach a Y splitter, so that the drip system can use one arm of the Y and you can still attach a hose to the other. Next in line is a timer (optional, but highly recommended). After that comes a filter. Next is a pressure reducer, which takes house or city pressure (usually 30-60 pounds per square inch, or psi) and steps it down to somewhere around 8-12 psi.
After the pressure reducer comes “mainline” tubing, black plastic tubing ½” in diameter. That gets the water to your beds. Off of the mainline tubing comes drip tape, which runs down the beds. The exact configuration of mainline tubing and drip tape is entirely up to you.
You can buy some drip supplies at your local home center, but I strongly recommend beginning with Dripworks, which has a well-deserved reputation for great customer service. They will spend time on the phone with you to help you get the parts you need, and avoid the ones you don’t.
A couple final points:
- Drip tape links to mainline with a fitting, which can be open all the time or valved. I prefer valved, because it allows me to work on a line without shutting the whole system down, or to turn it off for the season without pulling the fitting and inserting a goof plug. Whichever you choose, buy a good punch for your fittings. Bad punches make for foul-tempered gardeners.
- You don’t need mainline or drip tape closers. Mainline can be bent back on itself and held in place with electrical tape. Drip tape can be closed off by folding the tape 2-3 times back on itself, then slipping a 3” sleeve of drip tape over the folds to hold them tight. Hold-down staples are pretty useless on tape, which will expand and contract too much, but are useful for mainline tubing.
- The best hoe for working around drip tape is the long-handled wire weeder, which can slip underneath the tape and won’t cut it. A stirrup hoe can be used, as long as you rotate it just a bit so the trailing edge of the hoe contacts the tape as you pull, rather than the leading edge.
For more gardening tips from Richard Robinson, read his previous articles in the NOFA/Mass newsletter.
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