Cost-Free Ways to Set Up Trickle Irrigation

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Drip irrigation bottle

Ah, summertime, when the living is easy – unless you’re a vegetable gardener with a dry spell on your hands. When hot, dry weather strikes, all you can think about is keeping your plants from going thirsty.

It’s tempting to set up a sprinkler, but about half of water delivered by sprinklers is lost to evaporation, and plants are prone to diseases that spread on damp leaf surfaces. Watering by hand is time consuming, especially when soil is so dry that it resists taking up water.

Trickle irrigation diagram
Wetting patterns of surface water and trickle irrigation in fertile garden soil

Enter drip irrigation, also called trickle irrigation, which can be as simple as placing leaky jugs or buckets among parched plants. Whether you are using soaker hoses, drip tapes, bottles, buckets or bags, trickle irrigation gives you tight control over where the water goes, foliage stays dry even when you water late in the day or at night, and you can water in wind or blazing sun.

But there’s more. When water slowly drips into the soil over a period of hours, gravity and capillary action move it down much deeper than when water is applied at the surface, or when it rains. The vertical wetting pattern that results from trickle irrigation is especially beneficial to deep-rooted vegetables including artichokes, melons, lima beans (butter beans), parsnips, pumpkins, winter squash, large indeterminate tomatoes, and watermelon.

Soaker hose
Soaker hoses and inexpensive and easy to use for larger areas

Soaker Hoses and Drip Tape

Gardens that are laid out in rows or are comprised of large planters or closely spaced containers are good candidates for soaker hoses or drip tape, which seep water along their length. Soaker hoses are cheap and easy to use, especially if you work with them on a warm day, because heat makes them more pliable. Plastic irrigation tape or tubing is a bit more complicated to set up and may be prone to clogging unless the lines are purged often. When installing soaker hoses, drip tape, or emitter systems, the trick is to adjust pressure as needed to make sure water is pushed to the end of the line.

Drip irrigation jug
For more precise deep watering of tomatoes, this drip irrigation jug has holes only on one side

Reusing Plastic Bottles For Trickle Irrigation

Drip tape and soaker hoses may be cheap, but free is better! I have two rectangular beds planted with widely spaced peppers, for which large plastic drip irrigation bottles are the perfect method for deep watering. Using a small nail, I make tiny weepholes on the sides of a bottle, about a finger’s width up from the bottom. That way, the almost-empty bottle will still hold enough water to anchor it in place. In very windy locations, gardeners add small stones to drip irrigation bottles to keep them from blowing about.

As long as plants are well hydrated, you can use drip bottles to deliver booster feedings of liquid fertilisers. Should the holes clog up, simply rinse out the jugs with a hose. Clogging is the biggest reason not to bury drip irrigation bottles, especially in tight clay soil. Besides, letting water drip from a bottle on the surface works really well!

I love finding re-uses for my own plastic containers, and I sometimes pinch bottles I need from the community recycling bin. The trash bins at laundromats are overflowing with potential drip irrigation bottles, and restaurants often discard food-quality plastic pails. Modern society is knee deep in reusable plastics. Why buy more?

Trickle irrigation bag
Attached to a tall tomatillo’s support cage, a leaky bag drips water to the soil below

Irrigation Bags and Buckets for Hard-to-Reach Roots

True fact: in the US, a major retailer is selling IV bags for watering plants, outfitted with drip lines to stick into the soil. I find the drip lines a bit silly, because water always knowns where to go. Down. That said, when I needed a way to drip water to my giant tomatillos, and there was no room on the ground for bottles, I repurposed a plastic bladder from a box of wine as a drip bag. One pinhole trickle and two litres and two hours later, the tomatillos breathed a sigh of relief.

One also can spend a pretty penny on drip irrigation bladders for newly planted trees. These are probably not as good as leaky bottles or buckets, which can be moved around the plant to provide water to different sides. Most of a tree’s new roots grow a short distance from the main trunk, so being able to move drip irrigation bottles or buckets is a major benefit.

For more smart watering tips, see Ben’s video on avoiding beginner mistakes. And when the next drought comes, start dripping.

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Show Comments


"I love the idea of recycling plastic containers to use for water irrigation, but am equally concerned that in direct sunlight, dangerous PFAs will leech from the plastic into the soil. I don't know if these could get taken up by the plant and subsequently become another route into the produce that we are trying to grow as organically as possible. What are your thoughts/ideas?"
sarahpiscina on Saturday 6 July 2024
"Sarah, that's a very good question! I bought a water-safe hose a few years ago and use it as much as possible, but beyond that plastics are hard to avoid. I think the stiffer and more resilient the plastic, the less likely it is to degrade, but I could be wrong. That's why I like the jugs. Cool water stays in them only a couple of hours. Also consider that almost all commercially grown produce is grown in plastic mulch. I agree, it's alarming. "
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 7 July 2024
" Trickle irrigation is a great way to conserve water and deliver it directly to the roots of your plants, where it is most needed. I especially appreciate that the article addresses concerns about using recycled plastic, something that many people worry about. "
Safecastle on Wednesday 10 July 2024

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