If you’re not using soaker hoses in your garden, now’s the time to start. It's a highly efficient way to water, so while you may spend a little on a soaker hose and fittings at the onset, you will re-coop those costs in time and money saved on watering your garden. Studies show that well-designed drip irrigation systems use at least 30 percent, and in some cases 50 percent, less water than other methods of wateringsuch as sprinkling.
A drip irrigation system can be as simple as a soaker hose or two snaked through your garden, or as complex as a network of tubes and other hardware. Either way, the principal is the same: a soaker hose or a perforated tube delivers water directly to the root zone of a plant, where it seeps slowly into the soil one drop at a time— dripping at just the rate that soil can absorb and hold moisture.
Soaker hoses’ slow, steady drip ensures that almost no water is lost to surface runoff or evaporation—all of that water goes to your plants. It also means very few nutrients leach down beyond the reach of plant roots. Furthermore, since soaker hoses deliver water directly to the plants you want to grow, less is wasted on weeds. The soil surface between the plants also remains drier, which discourages weed seeds from sprouting.
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For busy gardeners, the main benefit of using a drip irrigation system is the savings of both time and effort. Drip irrigation systems eliminate the need to drag around hoses and sprinklers—you place your soaker hoses once, and leave them be. For drip irrigation systems that use a timer, gardeners need only spend a few seconds to turn the system on; the timer automatically turns it off.
Drip irrigation systems are good for plants, too. Plants watered with soaker hoses grow more quickly and are more productive, because they have all the water they need and their growth isn’t slowed by water stress. (This is especially true when drip irrigation is used in conjunction with mulch.) Also, plants watered by drip irrigation don’t end up with wet foliage from sprinkler spray, and that can help prevent some foliage diseases such as powdery mildew.
The easiest way to experiment with drip irrigation is to buy a couple of soaker hoses, which ooze water over their entire length—the water seeps out through tiny pores along the length of the hose. You can snake soaker hoses through garden beds of roses and perennials, among shrubs, or in the vegetable garden, where the hoses can be stretched parallel to rows of crops. Leave the soakers in place through the growing season. When it’s time to water, connect them to the nearest faucet with a garden hose.
Tip: To get the kinks out of a soaker hose that has been stored tightly coiled, unroll the hose and let the sun warm it for an hour or more.
Pin Soaker Hoses in Place
Hold soaker hoses in place with wire pins designed for securing landscape fabric or drip-irrigation tube.
Use Mulch To Save Even More Water
A layer of mulch (but not soil) over the soaker hose reduces moisture loss from evaporation. Just remember to check where the hose lies before you dig.
Reduce the Pressure
The plastic pressure reducer or pressure regulator inside the hose coupling protects the hose from splitting under high water pressure. If your soaker hose doesn’t have a pressure regulator, you can purchase one separately, or simply keep the faucet turned low. Water should slowly seep, not squirt, from the pores.
How to Space Soaker Hoses
As you wind a soaker hose through a flowerbed, make an extra loop around plants with the greatest moisture needs, such as hydrangeas or cannas, but keep the hose a few inches from plant stems. Otherwise, space the lengths of hose about 24 inches apart over clay or loamy soils, or about 12 inches apart if the soil is sandy.
When several soaker hoses are connected end to end, most of the water will seep from the hose closest to the faucet; less water will reach the far end. Avoid uneven distribution of water by setting up separate watering zones with no more than 100 feet of soaker hose each. Use quick-connect couplings or Y valves to switch the water from zone to zone.
Tip: Leave the hose running until water has penetrated 6 to 12 inches into the ground (less for shallow-rooted annuals, more for shrubs and perennials). A trowel will help gauge soil moisture and calculate the optimum amount of time for a thorough soak. Once you know how long it takes to water a bed with the soaker hose, automate the process by adding a timer at the faucet.
When To Use More Sophisticated Drip Irrigation Systems
Soaker hoses are great for row crops such as carrots and beans, but for watering trees and shrubs or an expansive container garden, you’ll probably want to set up a more sophisticated drip irrigation system.
Drip irrigation systems move water at low pressure through a series of tubes and other hardware and deliver it to precise locations and specific plants of the gardener’s choosing. Although each system is different, water generally flows out of your faucet through a timer (which is optional), a filter, a pressure regulator, and into a series of hoses or pipes that carry water to emitters, which are small devices that release water drop by drop to the plants. Some systems use drip tape—flattened plastic hoses with holes at regular intervals. A complex system may contain two or more individual lines as well as valves that allow for watering specific parts of the garden.
The first step in designing a drip irrigation system is deciding what you want the system to water. Is it only for your vegetable garden, or will you use drip irrigation for your entire landscape? Topography is also a consideration: If your garden is hilly, you’ll probably need to use emitters that compensate for pressure changes in the line.
Keep in mind that plants can become “addicted” to drip irrigation, because roots will concentrate in the area where the water is available. When designing a drip system to carry water along the rows of a vegetable garden or to the roots of a prized rhododendron, it’s important that the water be spread uniformly throughout the irrigated area so root growth will be uniform. For example, if you are irrigating larger plants such as trees and shrubs, place emitters on two or more sides of each plant to encourage roots to grow out in all directions rather than clustering on one side. For the same reason, it’s best to use your system to provide a long, slow watering. If you turn it on for frequent, short waterings, water won’t have a chance to spread far in the soil, and consequently the roots will form a tight, ball-like mass around the emitters.
You can design your own system, but most companies that sell drip irrigation equipment will design systems for you if provided with a scale drawing of your garden, information on what you’re growing, your soil type, and garden topography. Their design will come complete with a list of parts and spacing for emitters. Whatever method you choose, start by making a fairly accurate drawing of your garden to determine how many feet of tubing you’ll need.
If you’re designing your own system, consider asking a few gardening friends to adopt drip irrigation too. That way you can split the cost of the system components, which have a lower base cost when you buy large quantities such as 500-foot-long rolls of drip tape or sets of 100 emitters.
The Best Soaker Hose and Drip Irrigation Kits For Beginners
A low-risk way to get started with drip irrigation is to buy a starter kit. Most companies that sell drip irrigation systems also offer kits for both small and large gardens, which come with the essential components necessary to set up the system. Keep in mind that some kits don’t pressure regulators, timers, backflow preventers, and line filters.
Gardener's Supply Snip-n-Drip Soaker Hose System
This highly customizeable kit includes a 25-foot PVC garden hose, a 50-foot recycled rubber soaker hose, faucet adapter, a quick-connect coupler, and plastic connectors, and an end cap. Just use scissors to cut the soaker hose to fit garden beds, and then cut the garden hose to fit between beds where you don't need water. Snap the fittings in place and you're ready to water. This kit can easily be added onto, so you can expand your system over time. Optional add-ons (sold separately) include angle connectors for connecting drip systems to raised beds, 3-way-connectors for creating watering zones.
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