What is Drip Irrigation?

close-up of using drip irrigation in a plant bed

If you’re ready to say a fond farewell to your water-hungry sprinkler system, drip irrigation may be the white knight of your watering woes. But what is drip irrigation? Drip irrigation delivers small, targeted amounts of water directly to the roots of your plants. This means very high water efficiency and almost no evaporation. 

Let’s learn more about what drip irrigation is, including the pros, cons, and the easiest way to get started.

Drip irrigation 101

Drip irrigation delivers water drop by drop around the plant root zone. A hose with small holes or emitters meters out the water slowly and directly to the plant’s roots, which means maximum water efficiency. Drip irrigation is used in settings that range from small home gardens, raised beds, and ornamental beds to large commercial agricultural applications.

Two major advantages of drip irrigation for home gardeners are that it saves water (up to 50%) and can be automated, so it saves time as well.

Drip irrigation is known by a few other names:

  • Trickle irrigation system
  • Low-flow irrigation system
  • Micro irrigation system

Drip irrigation systems are either low-pressure or high-pressure systems. Stuck with low water flow? No problem. Water sources for drip irrigation systems are varied. You can use a well, outdoor faucet, or rain barrel and have plenty of water pressure to run the system.

Another practical advantage of using a low-flow system is that no clamps or glue is required. This means fewer components and that the system is easier to adjust as your garden grows.

Types of drip irrigation systems

There are many different types of drip irrigation systems to choose from. You may need to use several different types in different areas of your garden. 

Pro Tip: Cover your drip lines with mulch for even greater water savings. 

Poly tubing

Use polyethylene tubing (poly tubing, for short) to attach micro sprayers, ¼” or ⅛” line, emitters, sprayers, and risers. Grab a punch tool to customize the emitter spacing to your needs.

Soaker hose

A soaker hose “bleeds” water from its pores. The upside is that you never have to worry about spacing emitters around individual plants. The downside is that these hoses can be brittle and may need to be replaced often.

Drip tape

Drip tape comes with slits already in the tape, so choose the spacing that works for you. These lines are best used for row crops in the ground or raised beds.

Farm fact: Large farming operations can use drip irrigation as well. However, in these cases, the tubing is installed far below the soil surface (subsurface) so that farmers can continue to till without damaging the line.

Equipment for a drip irrigation system

If you’ve never installed a watering system before, the new vocabulary can be overwhelming. 

Here are a few terms you’ll need to know to get started:

  • Hose splitter: This can be as small as a two-way hose splitter or Y connector, or a larger, four-way hose splitter. This means you can use your garden hose and keep your drip system hooked up at the same time.
  • Timer: Automate your watering!
  • Backflow preventer: This prevents water from flowing backward into the water supply.
  • Filter: Filtration is key to keeping sediment out of your drip line.
  • Pressure regulator: Regulates the water pressure coming out of the water source so it’s not too high for your drip system.
  • Soaker hose, drip tape, or drip tubing: This is your main water line.
  • Other fittings and tools: Attachments, adapters, drip irrigation emitters, fittings, tees, plugs, hole punch, stakes.

If you read that list and thought, “I just want to water my plants,” start with a drip irrigation kit. You can buy them anywhere, and they have all the components you need in one box.

Pros and cons of drip irrigation

Consider these advantages and disadvantages before you set up your drip irrigation system.

Pros

✓ Greatly reduces evaporation
✓ Leaves stay dry
✓ Less chance of foliar or fungal disease
✓ No water waste — saves money!
✓ No erosion, no runoff
✓ Less weed growth
✓ Consistent watering means healthier plants
✓ Set it and forget it: Use a timer to automate your watering
✓ No more heavy watering cans or time spent at the faucet
✓ Apply fertilizer, compost tea, fish emulsion, or pesticides via the drip irrigation system
✓ Little to no fertilizer leaching
✓ Increased yield and quality in some plants
✓ Some drip systems suitable for curved or oddly shaped gardens

Cons

✗ A small investment to get started (depending on the size of the area)
✗ Susceptible to leaking or clogging with dirt or debris
✗ Hoses must be replaced every few years
✗ Should be flushed regularly, and more often during the warmer months
✗ Can be damaged by insects, rodents, or tools

If you’re busy setting up your new drip lines to the garden, let one of our local lawn care pros mow, edge, and take care of your lawn.

Main Photo Credit: Alabama Extension | Flickr | public domain

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.