As water rates climb and irrigation restrictions expand, home gardeners are looking for more ways to keep plants green and healthy using less water. Drip irrigation, also known as "micro-irrigation", is one solution. Drip irrigation technology delivers low volumes of water at low pressure directly to the root zone of plants. Originally designed as an efficient watering solution for the agriculture industry, drip irrigation is rapidly gaining popularity in home gardens.
When designed correctly, a drip irrigation system can save water and improve plant health. Because water is applied slowly, less is lost to runoff and evaporation. While conventional overhead sprinklers water everything within a broad area, drip irrigation targets water directly to plants. This reduces waste and cuts down on weeds. Drip irrigation also makes it easier to tailor watering to the precise amount of moisture needed for optimal plant health.
A typical drip irrigation system consists of a network of flexible tubing that runs to individual plants or to groups of plants. Various devices connected to the tubes release water at or just above soil level. At the beginning of the system a control valve, a back-flow prevention device, a filter, and a pressure regulator help ensure that water is free of debris and delivered at the correct pressure.
There are several types of devices used to apply water in drip irrigation systems. Drip emitters are small outlets inserted into flexible tubing by an installer in the field. They are placed close to the individual plants and release drops of water directly to the soil. Drip tape is similar but emitters are pre-installed by the manufacturer at regular intervals along the tubing. Micro-sprays are like mini-sprinklers mounted on short stakes a few inches above the ground. These water broader areas in a variety of spray patterns.
The design of a drip system depends largely on plant spacing and plant watering preferences. For densely planted gardens in areas where wind is not a major concern, micro-sprays are an option. In sparser planting areas, drip emitters often make more sense. In gardens where you want to evenly soak large areas or where plants are situated at regular intervals, drip tape might be the way to go. Drip emitters and micro-sprays are not typically installed within the same zone.
Gardeners can adapt their drip irrigation systems to meet changing watering requirements as plants grow and gardens change. Because drip irrigation technology uses flexible tubing, it can easily accommodate curving gardens and narrow planting areas without spraying water beyond garden borders. This makes it easy to add new gardens and new portions to the drip system over the years.
Drip irrigation technology has the potential to save homeowners a significant amount on their water bill. Many municipalities even offer homeowners financial incentives for installing drip systems and exempt them from watering restrictions. While drip irrigation is used most often for flower beds and shrubs, some manufacturers make products that can be used for sub-surface drip irrigation in lawns. As drip irrigation technology improves, these systems will become even more common in the home landscape.