Efficient backyard garden – Part 6: Drip Irrigation

Watering your garden by hand sucks.  It can take a considerable amount of time and is easy to forget about when paired with an already busy schedule.

A drip system solves this problem.  On vacation away from the house?  Dark out after you get home late from the office?  Doesn’t matter, the drip system will dutifully follow your programming and keep your plants watered and happy.

If you missed our initial irrigation layout article, I recommend reading that first.  Adding a drip system to a pre-existing setup is dead simple.


Understanding how a drip system works

The most basic of drip system is made up of only a few parts.  If you don’t have an irrigation (sprinkler) system setup in your yard, you can feasibly make a drip system attached to a hose bib.  This illustration from IrrigationTutorials.com does a great job at showing the basics in one picture

drip system parts
Drip system components from IrrigationTutorials.com

Valve: Turns on and off the system (the knob on your hose line)

Backflow preventer: prevents bad stuff from your yard (your drip setup is openly exposed and sitting on dirt after all) from coming back up into your mainline.

Pressure regulators: regulates the water pressure to a consistent level.  This is so you don’t blow out your drip lines with too much water pressure.

Filter: cleans the water before entering the system.

Adapter: allows you to attach your drip tubing, hose, or other devices to start your drip line.

Again, if you are installing a completely brand-new system, I recommend doing a bit of additional reading.  This articles mainly covers retrofitting drip off of a pre-existing irrigation system.  I included some great articles for further reading at the end of this post.

Adding drip isn’t much different than changing out a broken sprinkler head.  We simply add a riser for a drip manifold to sit on, add irrigation tubing, and some kind of emitter for water to release from.


Selecting materials

So, if your plan is to hook up a super basic drip system to your hose, build out the above pieces, and you should be good to go.  In our case, we have an existing irrigation system we can work from.  All I need to do here is use the risers we previously installed.

To do so, we need three main items to build out our system:

Drip manifold

drip manifold with tubing

These manifolds attach to a riser and have nozzles to connect irrigation tubing.  These are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

The more nozzles you get, the more expensive the manifolds become.  Additionally, some manifolds have twist valves to allow slight modification or shutoff of flow.  Before buying your manifolds, you want a solid plan on how many nozzles you need to keep prices down.

Irrigation tubing

irrigation tubing

The tubing for your water!  This can come in a variety of sizes depending on your setup.  If you are using manifolds as pictured above, you are usually going to be looking at ¼” micro tubing.

Irrigation tubing also has a wide array of features.  While your basic tubing connects point A to point B, some tubes have special coating, drip pre-built in along the tube, and more.

Emitter (dripper, bubbler, etc.)

drip emitter

Finally, our water filled tubing reaches our emitters!  Commonly called micro-irrigation or micro sprinkler heads, these little plastic sprinklers give you a ton of control on how you water your plants.

Again, there is a ton of variety in emitter types.  You can get bubblers, sprinklers, 180-degree sprayers, micro sprayers, and so on.  The emitters you choose are going to be dependent on how you want to water your garden.

Don’t want to bother with an emitter? You can even buy plugs and just use the drip tubing if you choose!

So, to summarize simply, we are going to connect a drip manifold to a sprinkler riser, attach tubing to the drip manifold, and attach an emitter to the other end of the tubing.


Putting a garden drip system together

If you are looking to create a system like mine, most of the heavy lifting has been done in our irrigation article.  We’ve already installed risers into our new irrigation piping and are ready to go.  To install our system, all we need to do is screw on the drip manifold to the riser.

garden boxes assembled with drip manifold

That’s it!  You now have a drip system!  Of course, it’s not going to do much without attaching irrigation tubing.

First, you want to figure out how to layout your tubing.  I found sketching out a few ideas helpful in coming up with my final layout.  The goal was to use open tubing where water drips directly from the line all the way up to the drip emitter.  In theory, I could wrap the line around the bed to ensure coverage across all growing areas and have a drip sprinkler at the end for elevated coverage.

Once you decide on your layout, measure the irrigation tubing and cut.  You can use a knife, scissors, or whatever you have on hand.  The tubing is simple to work with and doesn’t require any specific tools for our purposes.

Next, connect one end of the irrigation tubing to an empty port on your drip manifold.

Drip irrigation tubing connected to drip manifold
Make sure the tube fits all the way down on the line! If left like the top line in this picture, the tubing will blow off when you turn the system on

This part sucks.  The tubing is meant to fit snuggly, so it can be cumbersome to fit in place.  Don’t give up!  I like to rotate the irrigation tubing like I am screwing it into the manifold for better leverage.  Just be careful to not push too hard against the manifold.  Manifolds with angled plastic tips (like the ones seen in this article) can break easily if you push against them too hard.  Use one hand to hold the back of the plastic and use your other hand to push in the tubing.

Next, attach the other end of the tubing into your emitter.  This should be much easier to do!

I decided to go with 360-degree micro sprinklers.  These emit multiple streams that I can position to reach each quadrant of my garden boxes.  Best of all, I can control the flow by screwing down the cap on top of the sprinkler – easy!

Now for securing our tubing.  By far, the easiest method is to pick up a set of landscape staples.  These are great at holding down drip tubing in whatever layout you want.

staked down drip tube

That’s it!  Now we can test to make sure everything works correctly.  If your manifold has built in valves, be sure to open up the valves connected to your drip lines.

drip system running
Connected and running. The emitters hit each quadrant, and the tubing has pre-cut drip holes throughout.

Other options

A major reason I love drip systems is that there are a million ways you can customize the layout to your liking.  If you are dedicated to square foot gardening, you could use your drip system to create a grid across your boxes like this:

segmented garden boxes
Segment your garden and get your watering done with this grid setup from Garden in minutes.

Want to go real low tech and skip using emitters?  You can use a punch and different sized tubing to create a drip system without a manifold and emitters.  Great for those using a hose line.

Customize your system to your needs.  I went with a more modular system so I can move things around and change it up in the future.  I really like some of the array style layouts and may try that in my next project!



Finally, let’s look at the costs of a drip system like this.  In our garden irrigation article, we already included all the PVC costs.  This cost breakdown is specifically for the drip components.

Item  Price Quantity  Total
Adjustable dripper 10 pack  $    6.19 2  $  12.38
8 outlet manifold  $    6.86 4  $  27.44
100′ drip tubing  $    6.97 2  $  13.94

Total spend on drip system: $53.76 (or $13.44 per box)

If I went with a low-tech solution like connecting the system just using an array tubing, I probably could have saved more money.  However, I really wanted to test the efficiency of some of the bubblers and control the water flow for certain plants.  With a uniform tubed system, you really don’t have a ton of control over the water flow after it is installed.  The system shown here allows you to move the tubing and control the flow of each emitter.

Looking for more guides on setting up a drip system?  Check these out:

Now we have a completed backyard garden!  Our next step is to plant some seeds and start growing.


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