Drip Irrigation for Vegetable Gardens – The Ultimate Way to Grow Incredible Crops!

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When I had a little vegetable plot, I never imagined being in a situation where I’d think about drip irrigation. Those thirty minutes spent watering with a hose every summer evening were calm, relaxing, and therapeutic! But – we also confess that manually watering our garden took too much time! We eventually ran out of time to stand for thirty minutes to an hour to manually water our garden every morning.

So, the time came to start planning a drip irrigation system for our vegetable garden. Today, I shall share our experiences of this project, including the equipment and materials you need to set it up and problems and pitfalls to avoid along the way.

Why Drip Irrigation Systems Are Perfect for Raised Gardens

No hand watering is required to get crops like these when you use drip irrigation!

Drip irrigation systems are our favorite choice for raised vegetable gardens. We weighed the pros and cons of various irrigation systems when planning our vegetable plot, but it didn’t take long for us to figure out that drip irrigation would work best for us. Our preference for drip irrigation doesn’t mean that other options, such as soaker hosessprinklers, or garden misters, aren’t feasible for some situations. But to cover a large patch of uneven ground with awkward corners, drip irrigation was the obvious way to go!

Drip irrigation systems water raised garden beds beautifully. You can install them nearly anywhere – and the process is relatively straightforward. Drip irrigation consists of a network of narrow tubes that run through the growing area. Small drippers fit snugly into these tubes. The small drippers slowly emit drips or a small water foundation over a set period. This slow dripping allows water to seep gradually into the soil, keeping plant roots moist and well-hydrated.

Drip irrigation systems have many noteworthy advantages:

  • Drip irrigation helps fight evaporation – meaning you save precious gallons of water.
  • Drip irrigation works on unlevel and uneven ground – no need to level out slopes and banks!
  • Drip irrigation also minimizes the risk of water runoff, which can lead to a loss of nutrients and topsoil.
  • Drip irrigation delivers scheduled water to your plant’s roots. You can program it to run at the most beneficial time of day. (Which may vary depending on the crop, local climate, or region.)
  • Lowers risk of fungal diseases when water does not splash onto plant leaves.
  • Drip irrigation also promotes healthy, robust plant growth thanks to good root development.

Related – Is Using Well Water In The Garden A Good Idea For Your Plants?

Which Drip Irrigation Is Best For A Raised Garden?

Choosing the perfect drip irrigation kit can be overwhelming, and it took us a while to figure out which type to go for. Many companies offer starter drip irrigation kits, which can be a cost-effective option, while others sell components separately for you to build your irrigation system.

For a small bed drip irrigation system, starter kits can be a good option. However, it is vital to check that you can source additional parts separately. You might need to add extra tubing or drippers later.

In our case, we went for a locally stocked brand with drip irrigation components sold separately. The added flexibility enabled us to buy what we needed for each section of the garden, and we saved quite a lot of money by buying in bulk.

When buying a new drip irrigation system, it also helps to look carefully at which type of drip emitters are best for your situation. Some are adjustable and can turn on and off, while others drip steadily whenever the system turns on. In the watering system we use, the emitters are interchangeable depending on the needs of our plants. Fast-flow drippers emit a small micro-spray that covers a larger area of soil with several plants, while slow-flow trickle irrigation emitters tend to position closer to the base of each plant.

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05/25/2024 03:16 pm GMT

How Long Does Drip Irrigation Last?

Drip systems can be a relatively significant investment, and you’ll want a system that lasts long enough to represent good value for money. Years ago, I bought a cheap starter kit from a garden center, and it didn’t even survive one summer – not a good investment!

With drip irrigation systems, you get what you pay for, and a reputable brand should last for many years. The main issue is potential damage caused by direct sunlight, which can lead to cracking and perishing of plastic pipes. For this reason, subsurface systems tend to last longer than those on top of the soil. Make sure any hoses you buy are UV resistant, as this will hugely extend the lifespan of your vegetable garden drip irrigation.

Another common problem with drip irrigation is blockages in the emitter tubing and drippers. It is worth investing in a decent filter to prevent tiny particles from entering the system, as clearing out blockages is time-consuming and highly frustrating.

If possible, try to install drip irrigation before planting crops. Here, we placed the drippers closer together than usual as part of an intercropping experiment, planting shade-loving crops underneath a row of climbing beans.

How to Install a Drip Irrigation System for Your Raised Bed

So, you’ve got your plan – what next? It’s time to set the whole thing up – a surprisingly easy and satisfying task!

Step 1. Cutting Drip irrigation Pipe Lengths

The first thing you will need to do is cut pipe lengths to fit your garden. The irrigation hose usually comes on a reel, and it will naturally want to twist itself back up again as soon as you unroll it. Let me tell you, this is hugely frustrating!

To get around this problem, I prefer to cut and lay out the hose in straight lines a day or two before I install it. The ends are weighted down to keep them straight, and it is then far less stressful to work with when installation day comes.

Step 2. Assembling the Drip Irrigation Tubing

When installing your drip irrigation system, sections of irrigation tubing can be connected using plastic jointers and dividers. These can be a real pain to push into place as irrigation hose tends to be rigid and inflexible. Here, I can let you into a little secret – put the end of your irrigation tube into hot water (with care!), and it will slide straight onto the connectors with little effort. Connect up everything except the far end of your drip lines, as you will need to flush these through before closing the system.

Step 3. Installing the Drip Irrigation Emitters

To install the emitters, you will come across two types – drippers that push onto the ends of narrow tubing or drive through the side of the irrigation hose. For the latter, you will need a bespoke tool to make a small hole in the hose. Or – in our case – a nail and a pair of pliers. This irrigation setup is one of those jobs that is far easier on a warm sunny day when the hose is soft and easy to work with.

Step 4. Running Water Through the Drip Irrigation System

Once you install the emitters, run water through the system for several minutes. Running water for a few minutes will flush any tiny particles out of the ends of the irrigation hose, helping prevent it from becoming clogged up in the future. You can then fit stoppers to the hose ends or connect the ends to create a closed-loop system.

Finally, turn on your water. Then, watch the joyous sight of your garden getting watered without any effort on your part!

I’m glad I don’t have to water this jungle by hand! The plants you’re looking at are just two spaghetti squash plants behind some bell peppers and eggplants. The base of the plants tuck away behind foliage, but this isn’t a problem when we deploy drip irrigation.

How Do You Install Drip Irrigation for Vegetables?

To install drip irrigation, you need to start with a water source. The water source can come from a mains water supply or a water storage system. The water supply needs to be under enough pressure to ensure it is forced at an equal rate through all the emitters using one of the following methods:

  • Standard pressurized mains water supply
  • Pumped water
  • Gravity-fed water

Our land is on a steep slope, so we placed a water tank at the top, which gravity feeds the entire drip irrigation network. If you use a pump or mains water supply, you may also need to include a pressure regulator within the system.

Related – Rice Water For Plants – Facts, Benefits, And Disadvantages

Does Drip Irrigation Go Under Soil?

For a vegetable plot, the most common type of drip tubing lies above the ground, either directly on the soil or raised a few inches above ground level. Subsoil drip irrigation systems are also available. But these are more commonly used for perennial crops and young trees.

The advantage of a surface system is that you can check it regularly for leaks and blocked drippers. Checking for leaks and blockages helps ensure every plant gets the water it needs. Raised overhead watering irrigation is good for easy access to the tubing and is less likely to become blocked than micro-irrigation on the soil surface.

However, sun exposure can cause the drip tape lines to deteriorate more quickly than in subsurface systems. A layer of mulch will help protect from sun damage while retaining soil moisture.

This young zucchini seedling is thriving with the help of drip irrigation!

What Is the Best Pressure for Drip Irrigation?

The best water pressure in drip irrigation depends on the system you use. Most standard drip irrigation networks for vegetable gardens operate within a pressure range of 20-30 psi (pounds per square inch). This pressure range is around half the pressure of a standard municipal water supply, so you may need a psi pressure reducer to prevent damage to the hoses and emitters.

Drip irrigation systems water raised garden beds beautifully. You can install them nearly anywhere – and the process is relatively straightforward. Drip irrigation consists of a network of narrow tubes that run through the growing area. Small drippers fit snugly into these tubes. The small drippers slowly emit drips or a small water foundation over a set period. This slow dripping allows water to seep gradually into the soil, keeping plant roots moist and well-hydrated.

Related – How Often Should You Water Herbs Indoors, Outdoors, And In Pots?

How Do I Plan a Drip Irrigation Garden?

Now for the fun part – planning your drip irrigation! I’d highly recommend you do this on paper first. Sketch a map of your entire garden layout to help you calculate your needed materials. Some pre-planning will also enable you to set up the system efficiently.

We decided on setting up three separate drip irrigation systems – one each for the vegetable garden beds, polytunnel, and food forest. Our spread approach let me control each section separately, depending on the time of year and weather conditions. It also means we’re not reliant on high water pressure. We’re only ever running one section of irrigation at any one time.

Once you’ve got an irrigation design plan, it’s time to start mapping your drip lines. Our garden slopes slightly, so we placed the main water lines at the higher end, with a piece of header tubing running across the length of this end of the garden. We then fitted a series of drip lines at right angles to the entire header line, each running to the other end of our veggie garden.

Because we opted for a semi-rigid black drip tubing, we needed to use connectors to go around corners. These connectors also enabled us to add extra hoses where necessary and join the entire network to create a closed-loop system in the polytunnel.

Speaking of closed-loop systems, you might wonder if you need to connect the ends of your drip lines. Or can you have a system with dead ends? We’ve used both designs, and there is little difference in their effectiveness.

In the polytunnel, there are no dead ends in our irrigation network – everything loops around and joins back onto the central line. This method is slightly more efficient if water pressure is neither consistent nor high enough.

We ran a series of long dead-end standard drip irrigation tubing in the main vegetable plot. These seem to work equally well for now. We can connect the ends in the future to close the loops. But for now, it works just fine.

A layer of mulch around the irrigation tubing helps to prevent moisture evaporation.

What Is the Best Spacing for Drip Lines?

To ensure complete coverage of your vegetable beds, drip irrigation lines should spaced 12 inches apart. Our vegetable beds are 24 inches wide, so we run two lines down each bed, each line around 6 inches from the edge. Drippers are placed on each line at 10-inch intervals, staggered to cover the maximum soil area.

If you popped into our vegetable garden in the morning, you would see a small circle of damp soil below each dripper. However, this doesn’t mean you can only plant crops in this zone! Dig down a couple of inches, and you’ll find that the water distribution is sufficient to support individual plants across the whole width of the bed. Seeds and young plants may need a smidgen of additional watering, at first, until their roots reach deep into this beautiful nutrient-rich damp soil.

A steady water drip keeps the soil surface relatively dry, reducing the risk of fungal diseases such as blight in our tomato plants.

What Is the Best Drip Rate for Vegetable Garden?

While I’d love to go into this topic in great depth (I’m a bit of a maths geek!), the question of the best drip tube flow rate is far more complicated than it sounds. The ideal drip rate and duration will depend on many factors, such as the brand of irrigation hose you use, the type of drip device, and your water pressure. Your soil type is also a significant factor, as sandy garden soils and clay soils behave differently regarding water retention.

The good news is that most reputable brands of drip watering systems have a simple guide to watering rates, so this information is easy to look up. For example, one system with an excellent reputation is Rain Bird, and their drip rate guide is available here.

From here, you can calculate the quantity of water per week your plants require and break this down into how many gallons per hour you need for your network of valves and water line installation.

Once you’ve calculated your drip irrigation requirements, you’ll need to decide upon the best time of day to irrigate your garden. If you’re turning the system on and off manually, this will depend on when you are available to do it and the water demands of your plants.

We irrigated this way for around a year, and I couldn’t tell you the number of times I forgot to turn the irrigation off! Leaving the irrigation on when it isn’t needed is a waste of water and risks drowning the plants. So we bit the bullet and bought timers this spring, and I’d say that they were a worthwhile investment.

Our three systems are ready to activate for an hour each from 4 a.m. onwards, meaning the whole garden space is well-hydrated before I’ve even finished my morning cup of tea! Experts advocate that this is the optimum time of day for watering, allowing the plants to quench their thirst before the day’s heat.

Drip irrigation for vegetable gardens the ultimate way to grow incredible crops.

Summary

I hope you’ve enjoyed our first-hand experience setting up our garden drip irrigation system. Although this project did require some initial financial outlay, the time we’ve saved this summer has been invaluable! If you’ve got any questions or comments about setting up your drip irrigation for your vegetable garden, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks again for reading.

Have a great day!

Another intercropping experiment – parsnips and onions – thrives thanks to stable soil moisture levels provided by drip irrigation.

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