Easy DIY Irrigation Systems for Gardens

gloved hands laying garden irrigation hose

Climate change has already started to affect our landscapes, and much of that has been an increase in drought conditions.

For those of us with gardens, this can wreak havoc on our plants. All of a sudden, plants that did just fine in one area are wilting, feeling the pressure of a hotter sun and less rainfall.

A great way to keep your plants happy is to irrigate them properly. Since we can't rely on the same amount of moisture, finding ways to catch excess rainfall and watering efficiently should be a primary concern for gardeners.

To save on water costs and keep plants looking their best, here are some easy DIY irrigation systems for gardens that will also make watering an easier task.

Benefits of Irrigation Systems

Irrigation systems are meant to serve a few different purposes. Using water efficiently, whether it's from an outdoor faucet or rain catch system is one benefit, but also the way in which plants are watered is important, as well.

Sprinklers and water spray techniques are fine for grass, but not so great for plants. The best way to irrigate plants is to slowly water at the base so the majority of water gets down to the root system. Leaves don't need to be watered, and cannot soak up rainfall—in fact, wet leaves can lead to a variety of plant fungal and bacterial diseases.

Drip irrigation is one of the best ways to water plants at the base, while also employing a slow drip that is one of the most efficient way for plants to utilize water.

This not only saves on water usage, it also makes for healthier, happier plants! Most of the ideas in this article employ the basics of drip irrigation. It ensures that the soil stays moist, even when the sun is pressing down.

Secondarily, but not lost on gardeners, is the fact that drip irrigation does the work of watering for you. Once the system is set up, the gardener doesn't need to bring out the hose and lug it around to different areas of the yard, or continually fill up watering cans.

Drip irrigation is not only convenient, it's also an eco-friendly practice that saves you money and keeps plants looking their best in the most efficient manner possible. There may even be local rebates for setting up water-efficient systems, so check your municipality's website.

DIY Soaker Hose

If you want a professionally set up drip irrigation system, it will cost around $300-700 for a 100-300 square foot area. This works out to $3/sqft on average. The average American garden is 600 square feet, which could cost just under $2000 for an irrigation system.

You can also purchase drip irrigation systems and install them yourself. This will be much more affordable, but still may run around $100-500 when purchasing a kit for a similar sized area.

While either system is well worth the money in the long run, you may be able to set up something very similar for free if you have an old, broken hose lying around.

By poking a few holes in it and attaching it to your outdoor faucet, you have a simple, but efficient drip irrigation system or soaker hose.

If you're worried about using too much water, you don't have to run the faucet all the time, only when your plants need watering and the soil has been sufficiently soaked.

Take some time to plan the holes by laying the hose out around your garden. That way, when you turn the water on, only the area around the plants is watered deeply, which is the most efficient way to water.

Just remember to block off the end of the hose with a nozzle or a cap so water doesn't leak out, and consider adding backflow prevention to ensure water doesn't enter your home's plumbing system.

rain barrel with hose attached at bottom

Gravity Fed Rain Barrel Irrigation System

An even better solution to efficient and eco-friendly water techniques is to use a rain barrel to feed your drip irrigation system. This way you are collecting rainwater and using the best source of water for your plants without relying on your outdoor spigot.

If you don't already have a rain barrel, they are moderately expensive, and cost around $50-200 depending on the size and material they're made of. They can save you approximately $35/month during the growing season, so they will eventually pay for themselves.

There are a few different styles of rain barrels, but essentially there should be a bottom spigot and an overflow tube at the top. You want an overflow because a regular sized roof can fill up a 50-gallon rain barrel in about an hour in a moderate rain storm.

This overflow also has to go somewhere—either directed away from the home's foundation or into another rain barrel.

You'll also want to lift the rain barrel up at least a foot, but ideally three feet to create enough gravity pressure to force water down the lines to different areas of the garden. The further the water has to run, the more gravity force should be applied.

Attach your drip irrigation lines to the bottom spigot of the rain barrel and open the valve when your plants need a drink. A valve on the spigot is important to be able to turn on and off the flow as you need.

The 5-Gallon Bucket System

This is a great idea to use in areas where the hose can't reach, or where rain barrels can't service. Instead of lugging around buckets of water to a location, setting up a few 5-gallon buckets as mini rain barrels will help keep a few plants watered well, especially when it rains.

Buckets will naturally catch rain, especially if they're fed by eaves troughs or other rain catch accessories like rain chains. With just a few tweaks to the bucket, you can have a mini rain barrel to service out of reach areas.

Just like regular rain barrels, you'll want a tap or way to close the opening so water isn't always leaking out. Drip irrigation lines come with their own shut-offs, so if you attach the line directly to the bottom of the bucket, you can turn it on and off as needed.

Make sure the bucket is raised up on bricks or something else so that gravity will force the water in the lines when you open them up. A lid for the bucket will also help to keep bugs and other debris out, but you'll have to remember to take it off when it's raining, or use a screen.

You can also run PVC piping to feed water directly into the buckets, eliminating the need for removing the lid or installing a screen.

While this method isn't the most aesthetically pleasing option, it can serve a function in the hard to reach places of the garden, and a few buckets here and there won't cause too much of an eyesore.

PVC piping

PVC Pipe Irrigation

PVC piping is to DIY irrigation what the wooden pallets are to DIY carpentry. If you have a creative mind that understands how to direct the flow of water, you can use PVC piping to bring rainfall where you want it.

PVC piping can also be used as the drip irrigation tubes themselves, though keep in mind they aren't flexible like drip irrigation tubing, and would need holes drilled in them. The benefit is that they are durable enough to be buried underground if you want to create an irrigation system that goes unseen.

Underground systems can reach the roots of plants even easier. The downfall is any repairs will be harder to do, and the only way you'd be able to inspect the lines is to dig up the earth around them.

They don't need to be deeply embedded, though, so it's not too much work to get at them when they need servicing. Drawing a map of the system will be helpful when trying to located the pipes.

PVC pipes can also be used with other methods to help direct rainfall to the area you want. Metal channels can help bring water from one area to another, usually leading to a larger catch system like buckets or a rain barrel.

These pipes can also be run in and out of buckets and rain barrels, as well as large pots and planters to create an irrigation system that runs directly through the soil.

As long as there's an "out" for the water to drain off at the end of the line, this can be a very efficient system for hilly landscapes or difficult terrain.

Upside Down Water (or Wine!) Bottles

This DIY watering idea is great for pots and planters, although it can be used in garden beds, as well. Potting mix and planter mediums dry out a lot quicker than larger beds since the growing medium is lighter, and doesn't have the same water retention of the soil in larger garden spaces.

You may find you're constantly watering anything in pots when the weather is at its most extreme temperatures, and no rainfall is in sight. Drip irrigation systems aren't always practical to run to individual pots.

If you have some water, pop, or wine bottles kicking around, you instantly have access to a self-watering system. Simply punch a small hole through the lid or cork with a hammer and standard sized nail, or heat up a pin with a lighter and poke through the plastic a few times.

Then, fill up the water or wine bottle, put the lid or cork back on, flip it upside down, and place it in the pot or planter about two or three inches into the soil. Soak the soil first, and as it dries out the plant will naturally draw the water it needs from inside the bottle.

Because there is a vacuum effect, water will drip slowly into the pot as needed. It won't all pour out at once, giving your plants the perfect kind of watering: slow and right down to the roots.

This is a great trick to use all summer long, but is especially helpful if you are going on vacation and can't find someone to water your plants. A regular-sized water bottle should keep a small pot watered for about a week, but use 1-liter pop or wine bottles for larger pots and planters, or for water-hungry plants.

You can also purchase helpful screw-in nozzles to add to your bottles instead of making your own holes. They're cheap (under $20 for a 12-pack) and the spikes make it easy to keep the bottle in place.

Use Old Fabric

There are many ways to direct water from one place to another, and this interesting technique uses fabric. This idea is especially helpful for daintier plants like seedlings or newly sown seeds that prefer a more gentle but consistent watering schedule.

Find an old t-shirt or towel, and tear it into half-inch strips. Put one end of the strip in a bucket full of water, and the other one into the soil, about an inch or two deep.

The fabric will wick water from a larger bucket or pot and bring it slowly to the soil as it dries out, much like the upside-down water bottle technique. Depending on the size of the main reservoir, this can keep smaller pots moist for up to two weeks straight.

As long as the material has wicking properties, this system will work like a charm. Keep your eye on the soil for the first few days to make sure the fabric is doing its job.

You may have to get creative when it comes to keeping one end of the fabric in the water. Try weighing it down with something heavy or placing a rock over the top of the strips. Add screws to the bucket to wrap the strips around, or attach them with paper clips.

Irrigation Systems FAQ

What is the life expectancy of drip irrigation?

Most drip irrigation systems are made of poly or plastic tubing that are durable enough to last 10-15 years if installed properly. Always read the manufacturer's instructions before installing.

How deep should drip irrigation lines be buried?

While not all drip irrigation lines are buried, covering them with a bit of mulch will help to prevent evaporation in the lines or keep them from heating up. If you want to make an underground system, PVC piping should be at least one-foot deep, whereas the smaller, flexible poly tubes only need to be six inches deep.

What is the disadvantage of an underground irrigation system?

If the irrigation lines or pipes get clogged or need servicing, it can be more difficult to fix than an above-ground system. Small animals may also chew on the tubes, causing a leak, and it may be difficult to locate the source of the problem.

Are rain barrels worth it?

Even small gardens will benefit from a rain barrel since the amount of water you can catch off the roof during a storm can be used to irrigate plants for weeks or months. It's an excellent way to conserve water and save money with an all-natural source.

How long is water good in a rain barrel?

Rainwater can be stored in barrels for the entire growing season as long as there is a screen to prevent debris and it's located in a shaded area. Gardeners tend to use the water in rain barrels before it has time to stand around too long; however, if the water starts to smell bad, you may not want to use it.

What size rain barrel should I get?

The most common rain barrel sizes are 50 or 90 gallons. A small garden under 100 square feet can be irrigated by one 50-gallon rain barrel, whereas medium or large gardens may need a 90-gallon rain barrel, or two or more rain barrels set up.

How long should I turn on drip irrigation?

The best way to use drip irrigation systems is to fully soak the soil less often rather than watering a little bit every day. This ensures plants get a good drink and learn to extend their root systems to seek out water. Start with a 45-60 minute run time and adjust as needed.

Do I need a timer for drip irrigation systems?

Automated programmable timers are very helpful accessories to add to drip irrigation systems. Once you find a schedule that works perfectly for your plants, you can simply set the timer and it will do the work for you. They can be attached to outdoor faucets or rain barrel spigots.