The Best Watering Systems Are as Automated as Possible
You don't need formal irrigation to have an automated water system for your home garden. Connecting a timer and drip hose to your spigot will get you pretty darn close to a professionally installed system. This is an easy and inexpensive way to automate the watering of your raised garden beds, and even better, this is the type of system anyone can set up for themselves in half a day—no plumbing skills required.
You'll be able to rest easy knowing your garden is being watered, instead of waking up at dawn to lug a hose around or carry a watering can back and forth between your garden and spigot. Not only is drip irrigation more efficient for you, it's also more efficient with water than other methods because it delivers H2O right to the roots of your plants, losing very little to evaporation.
Ideally, you'll think about how you'll get water to your plants before you set up your garden, but this kind of system can be added at any time. Let's look at the basic steps to set up this simple irrigation system.
How Much Water Do Kitchen Garden Plants Need?
Most kitchen garden plants need about 1 inch of water per week—depending on the evaporation rate. Ideally, this water would be delivered consistently.
Consistency is, in fact, the key with watering. Plants are a lot like people: they thrive with a reliable routine (and they become stressed without one). When you water your plants on a schedule, their growth excels. I’m no psychiatrist and I’ve never done any plant counseling, but I’m 100 percent certain plants grow better for people they can depend on.
Since drip irrigation emits much less water than sprinkler heads for lawns and garden hoses, you could potentially need to run your system for a number of hours each week to water deeply. That's right—hours, not minutes. It depends on the flow rate of your drip system, so the time it takes to deliver 1 inch of water to the soil could be 5 hours. In that case, you'd run your system for 15 to 45 minutes each time several times per week.
Drip irrigation systems on a timer are largely set-it-and-forget-it. You will, however, need to adjust them every so often based on your rainfall and changing seasons. If you're getting a lot of rain, you'll obviously want to turn your system off for the week to save water.
DIY Drip Irrigation
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Supplies for Easy DIY Irrigation System
You don't need any specialty tools or plumbing skills to install your own automatic watering system. You only need the following supplies:
- T connector
- automatic timer
- pressure regulator*
- drip irrigation kit
- hose, PVC, or poly tubing (without holes)*
- elbow brackets (1 for each raised bed)*
- landscaping pins*
*Check if your drip irrigation kit includes these items.
These supplies are easily found at hardware stores, specialty irrigation stores, and online.
Also called a Y splitter or a 2-way hose splitter, this attachment allows you to continue using your water line for other things beyond the garden. You'll hook up your irrigation system to one side of the T connector and still have another side available for other watering needs. That way, you don't have to undo your whole system when you need the spigot for something (because if you're anything like me, you'll forget to put it back together until you notice your plants wilting in the heat).
Using a timer is a great way to give your plants a consistent watering schedule, and timers are easy to adjust as needed based on your rainfall levels and season.
A pressure regulator is important if you plan to use an irrigation kit with drip emitter lines or low-flow spray heads. What it does is slow down the water coming from the spigot. We don't need anything near the same force to water our plants as we do when we're washing our car with a hose. Some timers include pressure regulators, so check what you're buying.
Drip Irrigation Kit
Most drip irrigation kits do not include timers. There are all kinds of kits out there, including the Rain Bird Drip Irrigation Kit, which is available at most hardware stores, or the Flantor Drip Irrigation Kit, which is available on Amazon and includes nozzles that can be adjusted individually to meet the water demands of different plants.
Most kits come with distribution tubing, which carries water to the garden space. If the tubing isn't long enough to reach your raised beds, you'll need to extend its reach with a hose, PVC tubing, or poly tubing. Your kit might also include a faucet adaptor, which connects your tubing line or hose to the pressure regulator, and elbow brackets to bring the tubing into each raised bed.
Steps to Install Your Simple Irrigation System
Step One: Attach T Connector to Spigot
You'll obviously want to pick the closest spigot to your garden space to connect your irrigation system to. Go ahead and attach the T connector to the spigot as tightly as possible.
If your drip irrigation kit comes with plumber's tape, it's a great idea to wrap it around the male thread before attaching the T connector.
Step Two: Connect Automatic Timer
Pick one side of the T connector to connect your automatic timer; make sure it's nice and tight. (Again, you can use plumber's tape on the male thread before attaching the timer.)
Turn the knob on the other side of the T connector to the closed position so you can test your irrigation system and make sure water is flowing through the timer when it's turned to the manual setting.
Step Three: Attach Pressure Regulator
Add the pressure regulator to the bottom of the automatic timer if your timer did not already come with one. If your kit comes with a faucet adaptor for the tubing line, attach that to the bottom of the pressure regulator.
Step Four: Connect Hose, PVC, or Tubing
It's now time to attach the simple garden hose, PVC pipes, or poly tubing that will carry the water from your spigot to the garden. If your kit comes with different types of tubing, make sure to use the tubing that does not have holes in it for this step.
If you'd like to hide your irrigation tubing, dig a trench about 4 to 6 inches deep along the route from spigot to raised bed to protect the line. If you don't want to dig, you can always just leave a hose out in the open.
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Step Five: Bring Tubing into Raised Bed
Once you get to your garden space, you'll bring your hose up into the raised bed, add an elbow bracket, and attach the drip tubing on top of the soil.
If you're using PVC pipes, you'll need special PVC cutters, which are available at hardware stores; the same goes for poly tubing. Cut a piece of pipe or poly tubing to the height of your raised bed and use a connector at the top so that the pipe comes horizontally into your bed, ready to connect to the drip tubing.
Step Six: Arrange Drip Lines on Soil Surface
Drip lines from irrigation kits are very difficult to uncurl. Do your best to straighten out your drip lines before trying to work with them. Trust me, it'll make the process much easier. Some kits recommend leaving the lines out under the sun for a bit. I lay mine flat on the driveway and put some bricks on top of them. Give them a day or two to straighten out after unboxing them, if possible.
Arrange the drip lines on top of the raised beds. In each raised bed, one side of the drip line will connect to the elbow bracket, and the other side will be closed off with something called a goof plug (these will be included in your kit).
Secure your drip line in place with the landscape pins or special stakes included in your kit.
Step Seven: Set Automatic Timer to Run
Set the clock and then the start time on your timer. The best time to water your garden is in the early morning to help the plants prepare for the day of growing ahead. I recommend setting your timer to run around 4 or 5 a.m.
It's a little harder for me to give you set answers for how long you should run your irrigation system and how often. In truth, the best run time and frequency depend on a number of factors unique to your setting (including the evaporation rate, the growth stage of your plants, the current growing season, etc.) and will change from month to month.
Like I said, most gardens need about an inch of water per week. I recommend grabbing a simple rain gauge to measure your rainfall so you can know when your garden's had enough water and the system can temporarily be turned off or when you need to crank the system up.
Check your garden frequently to figure out what works best. Stay flexible and make adjustments if something doesn't seem to be working. Take notes to help you remember next year what kind of schedule worked best each month.
Tips to Maintain Your DIY Irrigation System
Check the Batteries
Most automatic timers run on two AA batteries. These will likely need to be replaced about every 6 months or so. Check on the battery level periodically, especially before going on vacation.
Observe an Entire Cycle
About once a month, it's a good idea to turn your irrigation system on and observe it as it runs through a full cycle. This allows you to check for leaks, notice if certain plants are getting too much or too little water, and ensure things are working as they should.
Adjust Watering Frequency and Duration with the Seasons
Your watering schedule will likely need to change throughout the year to meet the garden's needs. The schedule that worked in rainy April is not going to work in dry July when it's 100 degrees outside. You'll need to adjust your schedule at least once a season. Increase your water at the height of sun and temperature levels and decrease it when temperatures fall in the cooler parts of the growing season. During extreme heat, you might need to water as often as twice a day.
Adress Leaks ASAP
Even if everything looks beautiful on the garden end, make sure to observe your spigot frequently to check for leaks. Water is a precious resource, and we want every single drop to go toward watering our plants, not dripping on the wood deck. If you didn't use plumber's tape to begin with and you're seeing leaks, disassemble the system and add plumber's tape now to make each connection tighter.
Check on Your Plants
Keep an eye out for leaves that are wilting or turning browning—signs your plants are dehydrated. If the soil surface is dry and cracked, that's another sign that you need to adjust your system to supply more water to the garden. If you see leaves that are turning yellow, mildewing, or rotting, that's a sign that your garden is getting too much water.
DIY Doesn't Have to Mean Do It All by Yourself
Even though it's possible to set up this super simple DIY irrigation system yourself, there's no shame in hiring an irrigationist or landscaper to do this work for you if you feel overwhelmed or unsure about messing with your home's water supply. Do what you need to do to feel certain you've installed your watering system in the very best way possible.
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