Garden Irrigation System DIY – Complete Guide

Save water by applying it only when and where it’s needed

Irrigation for gardens can help you save water at home, if the alternative is running the garden sprinkler to keep your plants from wilting. Garden irrigation systems can be set up to water your plants and only your plants – not the fence, the shed, the patio pavers. They can be attached to timers so that the plants are watered early in the morning, so that most of the water soaks into the ground near the plants roots. And more advanced systems can be set up to measure soil humidity and only turn on the water when the soil is dry. There’s nothing more upsetting to an avid water saver than to see a sprinkler running (on a timer of course) when it’s raining out!

Benefits of garden irrigation

There are many benefits to irrigation for gardens:

More free time: Other than the initial effort required to set the garden irrigation system up, and a yearly purging of the lines, your time is your own. You don’t have to remember to turn on the sprinkler every third day, or drag hoses from the front to the back, or coil them up when not in use.

Water when you’re away: Last summer we were up north when one of the hottest days on record hit our town. While many of our neighbors’ plants were literally wiped out from the heat, and our next door neighbor even lost a tree in one day, our garden survived thanks to our watering on a timer.

More efficient use of water: The standard practice in many home gardens is to set the sprinkler up, turn the tap on, and either set the kitchen timer to remember when to turn it off, or just guess how long the water has been running. I’ve seen people forget to turn off the tap for hours. As a teenager I did worse. I ran a small summer business watering the gardens of people who were away on vacation, and once left one garden sprinkler on for three days. The couple were thrilled with how green their lawn was when they got home a week later, but they must have had a shock when their water bill arrived.

Customize water per plant: With drip irrigation for gardens you can actually adjust the amount of water provided to each plant individually. So you can make sure your thirsty plants get everything they need, while providing lesser amounts for more drought tolerant species.

Reduced clutter: All those hoses and sprinklers winding through the yard, or coiled up on the hose rack, can be unsightly or even annoying. (My kids have ruined sprinklers by inadvertently stepping on them.) With a system of automatic irrigation for gardens your watering system can be next to invisible.

Water plants in pots: My friend Dave lives in a walk-up apartment that has a front balcony facing southeast. He built large containers out of cedar and fastened them to the balcony outside the balustrade, and connected them up to a DIY drip irrigation system. He also buys pregrown tomato and other plants in pots and hooks them up to the irrigation system. Even though he’s away half the summer, whenever he is there he harvests tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, basil, and other super-fresh crops.

How to get started

I’ll briefly cover three ways you can set yourself up for irrigation for gardens: the bicycle system, the Corolla system, and the Cadillac system. In other words, cheap DIY; sophisticated DIY; and professionally installed and maintained.

Cheap DIY irrigation for gardens: You can easily reduce your water use and/or prevent drought/heat damage to your lawn or garden plants by simply buying an electronic water timer system and setting up the hoses and sprinklers so that they water where and when you want. I installed an Orbit watering system a few years back on the side tap of my house (an older model than the one shown below, which I paid over $80 for, but it looks pretty similar), and connected two hoses to it – one to the back and one to the front. I’ve used it for several years and it does a great job keeping the yards properly watered. It took me about half an hour to set up the timer, connect the hoses, position the sprinklers, and set the right water flow level to make sure I watered all the garden and only the garden. I set it up to water the front at 5am and the back at 5:30am, every third day. (I bumped it up to every other day during a heat wave – something you can’t do if you’re away during the heat wave!)

Assuming you already have the necessary hoses and sprinklers, this is a good cheap option, although you are still likely to use more water than a drip irrigation system would (for garden plants), or than a professionally installed irrigation system, since the sprinkler goes on when it is programmed to, even if it’s raining out.

One really useful feature I’d like to see in this type of sprinkler is a “Skip a day” button. If I’ve programmed it to water every third day, and it rains the day before the next watering is due, it would be handy to delay that watering by 24 hours at the press of a button. (Better yet, at the press of a button on a remote control, since my timer is wedged in an 18″ passage between my house and my neighbor’s.) I got around this by shutting off the water main in my basement when I went to bed at night, if I knew it had rained the day before, and then turning it back on in the morning.

One warning here: you might be in for a surprise if your sprinklers are inadvertently (or intentionally) moved between waterings. One summer morning I woke up to find my kitchen table flooded, because I’d left the windows open, and my son had moved the sprinkler much closer to the house so he could play in the back yard without bumping into it. I even had a laptop on the table, which was ruined by being doused by the water. Be careful about setting sprinklers up so they won’t get knocked out of place or moved on purpose.

Benefits of cheap DIY system: Cheap, especially if you already have hoses and sprinklers; very easy to set up; easy to put away before the first frost sets in.
Disadvantages of cheap DIY system: Easy to reconfigure accidentally, hard to position sprinklers so they water all your plants and only your plants, unsightly hoses and sprinklers, provides water even when not needed.

Sophisticated DIY irrigation system: Most big-box building stores, and some garden centers, sell all the components required to set up your own drip or spray irrigation for gardens. You can also buy whole kits online, or each of the individual components you need to build a brand new system or expand an existing one.

For example, you can start with a simple kit like the one shown below, purchased online where the price tends to be cheaper, along with a watering timer such as a single-valve version of the Orbit timer shown above; start assembling it for your garden, and then if you find you need a few more parts, pop over to the garden center or big box store to buy the extra parts. Most of these systems use standard 1/4″ tubing so the same T connectors, elbows, and stakes from your local retailer should work with them.

If shopping online, make sure you read the customer reviews for products that have them. I’ve found that a number of the drip irrigation kits on Amazon, for example, look like they have dozens of parts, but what’s in the box is a small fraction of what appears in the Amazon photograph. Of course, Amazon is pretty good about returns and refunds if the shipped product doesn’t meet your expectations or match the product description or photograph.

I suggest starting with a small system, trying it out, and slowly building it up. That way you’ll get used to what works well, which products are well built and which are flimsy. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy enough parts to set up your entire yard before you really know what you’re doing. I’ve heard of too many people who got carried away with these DIY garden irrigation systems, only to rip them out a few weeks later because they didn’t work properly, or at least the way the person expected.

You can go with either drip irrigation for gardens, or sprinkler irrigation for gardens and lawns. The drip irrigation is ideal for container gardening, vegetable gardening, or where you have a number of larger plants; sprinkler irrigation (where the sprinklers are at ground level, but pop up during watering) works well for lawns, ground cover, and smaller plants.

Be aware that DIY irrigation for gardens may require you to flush out the lines each fall before you shut down for the winter, otherwise water in the lines can burst or crack couplings or even the tubing itself.

Benefits of sophisticated DIY system: Cheaper than a professional installation; relatively easy to set up or to expand from a more basic system; relatively unobtrusive; drip irrigation can be more water efficient for individual plants than sprinkler irrigation; great for container gardening.
Disadvantages of sophisticated DIY system: Harder to reconfigure as your watering needs change; initial kit often contains the wrong mix of parts; buying individual parts to expand the system can get costly; may need to flush out all lines in fall before a frost damages components.

Professionally installed irrigation for gardens: Yes, this post is mainly about DIY systems but if you want your garden to be featured on the neighborhood garden tour, you’ll likely want a professionally installed system. You’ll pay several hundred to several thousand dollars for such a system, depending on the complexity, the quality of the components, the amount of design work required, and the professionalism of the company doing the installation.

Of course, installing such a water system isn’t really about saving water; it’s about getting the optimum amount of water to each plant or garden area, with a minimum of homeowner effort. Or, if your neighbors already have such a system and you don’t, maybe it’s just about keeping up with the Joneses.

Professionally installed systems almost always involve lines running underground, with very discreet pop-up watering sprinklers strategically located. They also typically involve calling up the installer every fall to have the lines flushed with a high pressure injection of air. Don’t forget to do this, since if you get a hard frost and haven’t flushed your lines, the underground and surface components can be ruined as the freezing water expands. Fortunately, most competent installers have a vested interest in calling you each fall to remind you of the need to shut off and flush out your system, since it keeps you happy, and earns them a little extra for the service call.

Benefits of professionally installed system: Minimal homeowner effort; turnkey solution; optimized for plant health and garden aesthetics by a professional; can be set up to operate only when soil conditions require watering; if properly maintained can last many years.
Disadvantages of professionally installed system: Start-up cost, annual maintenance costs, often impossible to reconfigure as your watering needs or garden layou change; frost damage can destroy the system if you (or your installer) forget to schedule a service call to flush the lines.

Irrigation for lawns

The North American obsession with having a big green lawn surrounding the house is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that from both an environmental and a water use perspective, has done its fair share of harm. While a big green lawn, well trimmed, watered and fertilized, might look great to a certain aesthetic, there are more natural and water friendly ways to use your garden space – ground cover, patio pavers, wildflowers to name but a few. Still, if you have to have your lawn, having a professional irrigation system installed to water it when needed can keep the lawn looking healthy while using less water than ad-hoc watering with a sprinkler.

Another alternative, which is becoming more common in my home town, is artificial turf. Companies have made great strides in improving the appearance, ease of installation, and durability of artificial turf products in recent years, and the only way I can tell the fake lawns from the real lawns in my neighborhood is that the fake lawns are an even green all the time, whereas the real ones get patchy and grey in the winter, and brownish yellow in the hot dry summer. 

Artificial turf can be costly – the product shown at right is $250 for about 50 square feet, or just enough to do a 7×7 foot square. Not what you want on your quarter acre lot. But for a small front lawn such as those in my neighborhood (where most lots are 25 feet wide, part of which is for a driveway), artificial turf is a good way to say goodbye to lawnmowers and twice-weekly waterings. It’s a little more complicated to install this artificial turf than just slapping it down and fastening the edges – you have to carefully apply infill over top of the grass mat and then brush it in – but this helps give the lawn a more realistic look.

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