Watering & Irrigation Basics ~ Insights From our Garden
How do I water my vegetable garden? This question fills my inbox frequently and I’ve always planned to write up how we have tackled watering our backyard homestead but never sat down to summarize this incredibly involved topic. I hope this rambling guide gives you some helpful insight into the options for watering your garden and some tips on watering your plants most effectively.
Related article: Let’s Talk Mulch! Mulching a Backyard Vegetable Garden
Can’t I Just Water By Hand or With a Hose?
Simple, fun, and effective. There’s really nothing wrong with watering your garden by hand if that’s what works for you and your garden. In fact, I know many gardeners who take a small respite each day to water their gardens, commune with their plants, and treat watering as a form of meditation. Watering by hand is budget-friendly and requires no additional tools or supplies other than a watering can and/or a hose. If you hose water, I highly recommend getting an attachment that allows you to turn the water stream on/off by using a switch like this one instead of walking back and forth to the hose bib or wasting water as you walk around. An added benefit of having a hose attachment is that it is safer for more delicate seedlings, sprouts, or directly sown seeds as it disperses the water more gently. Trust me, I’ve competely blasted away my soil before on days when I had misplaced my hose attachment.
Here are some great hose watering options:
Our Irrigation Systems
But if you are reading this, it’s probably because you are considering installing an irrigation system for your home garden. Here are some of the benefits:
Benefits of investing in an irrigation system:
saves time, especially for larger gardens
schedule flexibility (if you go on vacation)
decrease amount of water wasted with less splashing and more direct watering.
In our own yard and gardens we actually use multiple types of irrigation! As you continue reading, I hope you’ll keep in mind that each garden is different and I’m simply sharing what has worked for us. Another thing to note is some of the vocabulary. What a headache! When I first tried to wrap my head around irrigation I got so confused between drip tubing, drip line, emitters, emitter line…what?! Don’t worry, I did my best to use consistent language throughout this article, but keep in mind that I’ve found that some gardeners and suppliers even have different names for the same thing!
Our personal home irrigation: most of our irrigation was installed by Sam, and is connected to the main water line with Irrigation control valves. I’d recommend consulting a professional if you are seeking an in-depth, multi-zone system or planning to connect to the main water line. All of our connections use backflow preventers, and any of our drip irrigation has pressure regulators attached to the control valves. There are a total of 6 different irrigation “zones” (each “zone” is one control valve) run by our Irrigation Controller. We have 2 “zones” in the front—one for our small amount of grass and one for our foundation garden. There are a total of 4 “zones” in the back yard—one for our ever-shrinking amount of grass, one for the original raised beds, and one for the Cattle Panel Bed. The last zone is for the rest of our in-ground garden beds and fruit trees. One of our raised beds has been converted to use a Garden Grid from Garden-in-Minutes (discussed in this article). This bed is connected to the water supply via hose bib, backflow preventor, and garden hose. I am loving the coverage on this bed so far.
In a future article I’d like to cover my best tips for watering—such as time of day, how much, understanding different plant needs, etc.—but since the topic of garden irrigation systems is already pretty lengthy in itself, let’s focus on that first.
Related article: Let’s Talk Mulch! Mulching a Backyard Vegetable Garden
What Types of Irrigation Have I Tried In My Garden?
As with all things on Freckled Californian, I choose to share my experiences with methods and products that I have personally tried in my own garden. For the last five years, my husband and I have played around with the following irrigation setups:
Drip emitters off poly tubing (drip tubing)- individual watering heads attached to drip tubing on pressure regulated irrigation systems. There are many different emitters (small drips, mini sprinklers, bubblers, misters and more).
Soaker Hoses- a porous hose (usually flexible and made of rubber) that emits water over the whole surface to soak the surrounding soil.
Ollas (or Oyas)- an efficient form of watering used throughout history. Terra cotta or porous vessels are buried in the soil and filled with water. Plant roots attach to the vessels and absorb water.
Drip Lines- plastic hose tubing with a built-in emitters for watering spaced every 12″-18″ apart (depending on the product).
What are some considerations when choosing irrigation?
Time. How much time do you want to devote to your garden each day? Personally, our garden has reached the size that I already have too many tasks to complete (ie. harvesting vegetables, weeding, turning compost, feeding, seed sowing, etc.) that I can’t take the time to hand water my garden. Therefore, we have an automated watering and irrigation system.
Budget. Implementing an more automated irrigation system can cost anywhere from $50-$1000 depending on so many factors. When we first started our garden, I chose a location near a hose bib (check out my checklist of Things to Consider When Building a Garden) because we only had five raised beds and I could easily use a hose to water the garden. There are other options I’ll discuss below that are a middle-ground between the cost of hose watering and a full drip irrigation system.
Type of Garden and Plant Choice. Have you read What Type of Garden is Right For You? That article covers the different setups you might consider if you are about to start your own garden. Depending on your type of garden, certain irrigation methods might be more effective or applicable. As you’ll read below, the type of plants you are growing will also influence your choice for setting up a watering system in your garden.
How does irrigation connect to the water supply?
There are a couple options here, and it can depend on how your home was built/setup. Also, we are not professional plumbers, so I won’t go into details on plumbing or how to mess with the water lines. Just make sure you do your research and contact a professional if you are looking to make any big changes.
The first and simplest option is to connect your irrigation system to a hose bib. Most of us already have these in/near our garden and a lot of types of irrigation systems lend themselves to being connected to hose bibs with little/no modifications.
The other, more involved option to connect to the water supply, is to install underground water lines with irrigation control valves. This takes some basic plumbing knowledge to install (unless your home already came with this sort of setup—like grass sprinklers). I won’t go into doing this sort of install in this article.
Do Your Research!
This isn’t meant to be a DIY how-to article, since there are too many different types of setups to cover before choosing what might be right for you. Hopefully you’ll get a good introduction into the many options available to us home gardeners and feel confident in knowing some of the basic parts and components of irrigation in the garden.
Related article: Let’s Talk Mulch! Mulching a Backyard Vegetable Garden
Drip Emitters~ My Choice for Fruit Trees, Perennial Gardens, Semi-Permanent Landscape Design
Living in Southern California, I’ve always been concerned about my water usage. We rarely get rain, and we especially do NOT get Summer rain to my chagrin. Our first foray into irrigation was with a drip system that utilizes tubing (AKA mainline or poly tubing) and a variety of emitters to provide water directly to the plants’ bases. The emitters—mini sprinkler heads, drip flags, and bubblers— are installed by you and can be selected based on what you think the plant needs. We were setting up our front yard landscape with a variety of plants that were drought-tolerant, evergreen, or perennial. I’m talking lavender, rosemary, some roses, geums, verbena, grasses, etc. As with most home foundation plantings, this was going to be a garden that would be mostly permanent (semi-permanent) in that I would not be constantly sowing seeds, transplanting annuals, or moving/replacing plants in the design.
This garden also did not have plants placed in perfect rows or spaced apart in a predictable pattern. Using a mainline with custom-installed drip emitters allowed me to move the water wherever it was needed without wasting water in between.
To this day, I am so happy with this choice of setup! The idea here is that each plant gets a designated drip flag, tube, or sprinkler head that directly targets its root area and is tailored to the plants’ needs. This kind of targeted watering has great benefits for this type of landscaping:
Wastes less water because water is only distributed at the root system instead of all over the garden.
Customizeable. Drip heads can be tailored to specific plant needs.
Weed control. Since water is only dispersed at the root of the plant, the surrounding areas recieve no extra water or spray, making it difficult for weeds to sprout or germinate.
Prevents leaf diseases due to moisture. Instead of spraying all over the plant, the water is directed right at the ground level.
The fruit trees around the perimeter of our property are also run using a drip emitter system. I personally think it is ideal for established fruit trees, large shrubs, and semi-permanent landscapes.
Related Article: Things to Consider When Buying a Fruit Tree
The biggest downside? This type of irrigation is not easy to switch or change once you have installed the appropriate drip emitters or tubes for your garden. This is why I do not prefer drip emitters for my constantly rotating annuals or my raised beds where I’m clearing and changing the plantings every season.
Another downside to drip irrigation? It’s hard to direct sow seeds. Because the watering is so targeted to each plant, water will not soak the entire garden bed. This means that if you like to sprinkle seeds all over in between plants, they most likely wont have enough moisture to germinate (unless you have rain or set up an emitter solely for the seeds).
Drip Emitter Irrigation Setup Basics
You’ll need to ensure you have a pressure regulator (either on your hose bib or on your in-ground irrigation lines because this type of system works on lower pressures (around 25-30 psi). Most house pressure is at least 50 psi or higher. You can use a water pressure test gauge to find out your home’s psi.
Backflow preventors are necessary to ensure that dirty or contaminated water doesn’t make it back into the main water supply. You can view an example of one simple setup below.
Below you’ll see a simple setup that lets you run your drip irrigation from a hose bib using the components described above, plus a garden hose with a hose adapter:
All threaded connections should be wrapped with teflon tape prior to connecting to ensure a water-tight seal.
Once you have your mainline poly tubing (which has no emitters because you install the different emitters yourself), you can pick and choose the emitters to install depending on each plant you want to water. For a quick idea of all the different emitter options you have, check out this page of Drip Irrigation Emitters. You can even use 1/4″ poly tubing to reach off the mainline and attach an emitter.
PS: Sam has no issues getting the emitters to attach into the black hose tubing (you need to stab them in), but I have lots of trouble. My fingers just don’t have the strength. There is a tool that will make the holes for you like this.
Can you see how it would be really frustrating to change the locations and emitters each and every season? This is why I like this emitter-type irrigation solely for beds that won’t change very much.
Below I am also sharing a photo of an emitter that I’ll sometimes use for areas where I might toss some seeds. You can twist these emitters on/off, so if I don’t put any seeds there, I simply twist it off.
Soaker Hoses ~ Cool, But Not For Me
Remember how I mentioned above that targeted drip emitters aren’t as friendly for direct sowing? I tried soaker hoses one season because I liked the idea of soaking the entire garden bed. Soaker hoses are porous tubes that allow water to leak out of all the pores and leach into the soil. As the soil slowly absorbs the water, the entire area can end up being moist. I saw this as a huge benefit for my raised garden beds because I often like to direct sow seeds and I wanted each bed to have full water coverage no matter where I planted. Soaker hoses mean that you don’t need an emitter for EVERY SINGLE plant. Instead, the entire garden bed will gradually absorb the water for even, full coverage.
To be fair, I still think the concept behind soaker hoses is a good one, but just not for me. Our water has a lot of minerals and the calcium build-up can be very intense. Again, in fairness, we only had 1/4″ soaker hoses in our garden shed and Sam seems to think that a larger soaker hose wouldn’t have the same problems as the skinny soaker hoses. I didn’t find the experience beneficial enough to try again with a larger soaker hose.
What went wrong? Within the season our soaker hoses clogged up almost completely so that coverage was terrible. The garden was not watering evenly, and some of the areas wouldn’t garden at all! I just don’t have the time to maintain/unclog soaker hoses. Some have mentioned buying a filter or attachment for the hose bib to remove minerals that might clog the soaker hoses, but my goal is to keep it simple and buying “extras” that will need to be replaced periodically isn’t something I wanted to deal with. I should note that build-up can be an issue for any type of irrigation system, but I’ve had little to no problems with the drip lines.
If you are considering soaker hoses, I’ve heard great things about this one from Gardener’s Supply Company.
For soaker hoses you MAY need a pressure regulator before connecting to the water supply. Ask about the “operating pressures” of your soaker hose to find out as there can be a lot of variations.
Drip Line Irrigation ~ My choice for raised garden beds & in-ground annual beds
My first mistake when transitioning our raised vegetable garden beds to an automated irrigation system was choosing a style of irrigation that did not work as well for annual, edible plants that frequently are switched out, rearranged, and directly sown—I simply tried to copy our front yard landscape irrigation.
Drip line irrigation is now my preferred way to water my raised garden beds, edible annuals, and in-ground beds that experience a lot of change or movement from season to season. Also ideal for growing crops in rows and evenly spaced intervals.
Drip Line Irrigation Basics
What is drip line? Drip line is tubing that has emitter holes automatically throughout the tubing at evenly spaced intervals. The one we use has an emitter hole every 12 inches, but you can also purchase 16″ or 18″ as well. This tubing is brown, and it actually is self-regulating in regards to pressure (unless your pressure is extremely high). With water coming out every 12 inches, the drip line gives you the same coverage as a soaker hose, but I have not experiences any issues with clogging. Alternatively, drip line is extremely effective for growing crops in rows, evenly spaced, because you can plant your crops near each hole, 12 inches apart, and know that the plant will have direct water right to its roots. In fact, check out our drip line setup for our newest dahlia bed below. You can also see our DIY Fabric Row Covers and Hoops in action!
Drip Line Tube Irrigation Might be Good For You If:
You need full water coverage.
You might have hard water with lots of minerals that could cause clogging (like I experienced with soaker hoses).
You grow your vegetables in rows or groups that will benefit from the 12″, 16″, or 18″ spacing
A simple way to set up drip line tube irrigation off a hose bib is to follow the same basic steps listed above (for drip emitter irrigation) but you would connect the drip line tubing with an appropriate adapter.
Garden-In-Minutes Grids ~ Fast & Efficient for Raised Beds
These garden grids are simple to assemble and provide great water coverage for all your plants. The best example I have is our total raised bed makeover, where we switched out a really terrible irrigation setup to a drip irrigation grid from Garden in Minutes. You can read about the problems we had with this raised bed, and see a “before” shot, HERE. Essentially, we had previously installed 1/4″ soaker hose and it was failing terribly. I kind of knew it would be a problem, but it was all we had in our garden shed, and the pandemic was at an all-time high where I didn’t think we needed to go to the store just for one part.
I’d had my eye on Garden-in-Minutes garden grids for quite a while, so when they offered to send me one to try for this bed makeover, I was ready!
If you garden in raised beds, these garden grids provide amazing coverage and makes installation so simply and easy! If you plan on purchasing anything from Garden-In-Minutes, remember to use my code: freckledcali10 for $10 off $100.
Reasons to love Garden Grids:
Quick & Easy set up
Simple to add irrigation to an already existing bed.
Your garden is not far from your hose bib for easy connection.
You have been struggling with even & consistent watering in your garden
For more detailed information on setting up these garden grids, visit their website: HERE
Ollas ~ Great for singular plants or supplemental moisture
There are many DIY olla projects on the internet, but years ago I was gifted some ollas to try from Grow Oya. We had created some small raised beds in our front yard that didn’t have access to any irrigation system, so it was a great way to try oyas and see how they work!
Traditional ollas were simply terra cotta vessels buried in the ground next to plants. When kept filled with water, the plants’ roots were able to access water anytime they needed it, so there was very little waste and fantastic consistency! With my first attempt at using the Oyas, I made the mistake of trying to cover too much area. While the soil in the raised bed didn’t dry out as badly as it would have sans-Oya, the plants located farthest away weren’t able to get their roots to reach access the water well.
My second attempt using the Oyas was much more successful. I took a 10-gallon grow bag, put an Oya in the middle and planted a couple ground cherry plants around it. This arrangement worked so well on our abandoned side yard area where there is no irrigation system. The roots of the ground cherry plants quite literally attached to the Oyas, so I only had to water them a couple times a week (depending on weather). NOTE: you always need to water the plants by hand directly when first installing Oyas because the roots haven’t reached the vessel yet.
If gardening in climates where water can freeze, you do need to care and properly store your Oyas like this.
You should consider ollas if you…
Are setting up a new, small garden where you may not be able to water as often as you might need to.
Grow in grow bags and want a little help watering consistently.
You grow on an balcony and don’t want to run water on the lower level.
You are just getting started and want to try something different and budget-friendly.
Additional Irrigation Supplies & Basics
Holding your line in place. For your irrigation project, you might have the need to secure your tubing to the ground. You can use loop stakes to hold tubing to the ground in the pattern you desire.
Closing the end of a tube. Another useful irrigation component is a “figure-8“. These are little plastic pieces in the shape of an eight that are used to close/seal off the end of your poly tubing or any drip line. Check out this quick video for how to use this irrigation piece.
Last but not least, if you are living in an area with freezing Winters, make sure to do your research for how to prep your lines to avoid damage. Since I don’t have any experience in that area, I won’t attempt to go over that here.
How to Automate Your Irrigation
Our whole garden is run off of a larger automated system . This was always the goal for us because Sam and I often find ourselves doing last minute camping trips and, while we have people who would look after our pup and our garden, I’ve never wanted anyone to feel overwhelmed by all the plants. It’s just better for everyone to have our whole garden automated.
The easiest solution for automation is to purchase a hose bib timer for systems that are on a hose bib. This doesn’t require a huge system of piping, extra wires or anything complicated because it attaches to your hose bib.
If you desire a tech-y solution, and like to be able to control your watering from wherever you are, check out Orbits B-hyve! This is what we use to control the different irrigation zones in our garden. This type of controller is used for main water line connected irrigation valves. It allows us to control th different watering “zones” we have setup in the garden.
Friendly reminder: Even with automatic irrigation, it is important to periodically check and make sure it is functioning properly and that all emitters, hoses, or pieces are working. This is especially true when gardening in an extremely hot climate like ours. This is one thing I talk about in How to Protect Your Garden in a Heatwave.
Feel free to ask questions below. Remember, each garden is unique and this is just what has worked for us in terms of irrigation in this space. As you can see, irrigation plays a huge role in garden planning and setup but it can also be installed in a way that fits your lifestyle and needs.
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