Homestead life is highly rewarding and extremely satisfying but everyone will agree it is also hard work. It is demanding both physically and mentally, therefore anything that does not go to plan can be very frustrating.
Growing anything, whether food, flowers, should remain high up on everyone’s list of undertakings despite the hard-physical effort that is required to achieve success.
We have all taken cuttings or planted seeds, and waited with eager anticipation to see the rewards of our labor, only to be disappointed when they die.
Perhaps we have watered them too much or not enough. Many plants die because we have tried to be too kind by watering too much, some plants prefer to be kept on the dryer side especially those plants that are native to warm dry climates.
For a rose or a geranium that might not survive it is disappointing, however, if a whole row of lettuce or peppers dies due to incorrect watering, we could go hungry.
This does not need to happen, there is an exceedingly simple system that we can use that will ensure we have afforded our plants the best opportunity of survival.
How do we water our plants, and what do we need to ensure the successful cultivation without breaking our back or the bank?
Using a hose is one way of watering plants, however, since it is indiscriminate, water is wasted by being applied to areas where it is not required. For young plants especially, this method is too aggressive, and possibly will cause them significant damage.
Using a hose also requires someone to walk around the whole of the cultivated area, which I suppose for those who have small cultivation areas is not necessarily a large problem, however, for those with larger cultivated areas, it can become quite a chore.
Many homesteads will not necessarily have the water pressure available to use a hose without resorting to pumps.
Using a watering can with rose fitted is a helpful option since it is far gentler, and is quite precise. It is, however, a backbreaking task to constantly walk backward and forwards to fill the can.
This task is also an unwelcome chore, as it is best undertaken at nightfall, or even at night. Since time is everyone’s truly precious resource anything that can effectively assist to save time is worthwhile.
How then is it possible to complete this chore in an effective manner that will yield the growth results that we are looking without spending excessive time and effort?
The most efficient way to water plants is to irrigate them. What then is the difference between watering and irrigation?
Watering is using a container to move water to the plants in an indiscriminate way Irrigation is a method of supplying a controlled quantity of water to a growing area over a quantifiable time.
Control is an important factor since irrigation systems can be built and adjusted to quantify the amount of water and when that water is presented to individual plants.
Irrigation is a system that has been used commercially worldwide since the fifties. However, anyone who has seen a commercial irrigation system will be aware that it is a complex maze of different pipes, valves, and pumps that has a definite industrial feel.
This type of system is not suitable for the majority of homesteads since it is far too complex, costly, and relies heavily on a power source to achieve its goals. What is required is a smaller user-friendly more self-sufficient system based on this commercial equipment.
A Gravity-Fed Drip Irrigation System Is the Solution
A gravity-fed irrigation system allows the correct quantity of water to be delivered to plants without the chore of having to personally carry the water.
This is a tested and proven system that is currently and has been used by many hobby gardeners and those growing for their personal consumption around the world.
One of the main advantages of this system is that it can be used in many locations and situations.
We normally think of irrigation as being rows of pipes in straight lines, and quite often it is, however it can be just as useful in a variety of locations.
I have almond and olive trees that are growing side by side on sloping ground. If I had a flat field with only olives, I could periodically flood the field and water all of the trees. However, since the land slopes, this would not work, especially since the almond trees do not require water.
Drip irrigation is perfect since it allows me to send specific amounts of water at night to the trees when it is needed, and that is when they flower and as the olives grow.
Gravity-fed irrigation is perfect as I do not have to supply power to move the water, and as I said, the ground slopes so I can make the best use of gravity.
Gravity-fed irrigation is also perfect for flower and ornamental gardens. Providing elevation can be achieved, this system can also be used to water hanging baskets, water them with a can and very little of the water will infiltrate the compost. Drip irrigation will allow the water to be absorbed in a much better rate.
Many years ago, I had a contract to supply and maintain hanging basket in several locations. At any one time, I could be maintaining more than one hundred baskets.
To achieve this, I installed a series of tanks that drip-fed the hanging baskets, and kept them flourishing for the complete season. Some of the tanks were filled from mains by a timing device and some were maintained by harvesting rainwater.
This system of irrigation can also be used for container plants and raised beds that are growing flowers or vegetables or even herbs.
In reality, this gravity-fed drip irrigation system can be used in just about any location for any type of plant providing there are gravity and water available.
Is DIY Drip Irrigation Expensive or Complicated?
It is possible to buy one of the many different sized kits that contain all the various styled components required, but I find kits do not offer the flexibility to suit all of my requirements.
I have found with kits I need another two pieces or end up with excess. Not having enough components to complete a task is especially frustrating.
My preference is to buy the components separately to use them in conjunction with my existing supply of bits and pieces. I prefer to buy the components separately as this will normally leave me with excess parts that I always find useful when I want to change or repair a system.
Normally kits are more expensive than separate components, especially if extra components are needed to add to a kit to finalize construction.
This type of system does not need to have a high cost, and once a few basic concepts regarding the components are understood it is not complicated. It may need a few tweaks or alterations to ensure that it is working correctly, but then devices generally do.
There are only three components in a homemade drip irrigation system:
- Water supply
- Tubing and connectors, which allow the water to flow to where it is required
- A restrictive device that allows the water to drip rather than flow from the tubes.
This is where a little planning goes a long way, and it is an appropriate idea to draw a plan of how to construct the system to best suit individual requirements. This will create a guide to refer to, and will also help estimate the quantity of materials required.
The supply of water and its location in relation to the area that requires irrigation is extremely important as without water the system will not work.
Every situation is unique, possibly the necessary water is available to be piped directly from a water source.
Whatever the environment the water supply needs a higher position than the area that requires irrigation since by being higher gravity alone will allow the water to flow through the system.
Sometimes, a header tank is an effective idea as this will bring the supply closer to where it is needed, and it may be easier to position this into a raised position if the existing water supply is not high enough.
In either case, the distance between the supply and the irrigation is better kept as short as possible.
The size of the header tank will need to be assessed according to the amount of water that is going to pass through it, this quantity relates to the size of the irrigated area, and the quantity of water that it requires.
Homesteads use many different water supplies: some have rivers or springs some have wells. Especially important for those living in dry, hot geographic locations is to use a supply that is not going to affect the supply of water needed for the homestead.
Rainwater harvesting is a beneficial solution for those that have a limited supply of water even if there is only enough for part of the growing season.
Gray water, that is water that is harvested from showers and sinks after being used, could also be a decent supply of additional water.
Providing care is taken over the soaps, detergents, and cleaning agent that pass into this water, it will provide a nutrient-rich solution that generally plants will appreciate.
It is vital to take care of when using gray water, ensure that it is rigorously filtered to remove any particles as these will repeatedly block the system, and use the water within 24 hours to prevent any smells from developing.
Any plastic container has the potential of being a header tank; the majority of people will have some form of plastic container in their store, while in some areas many discarded ones are just laying around.
These tanks are perfect for storage and header tanks. They are constructed from a strong colored plastic that makes them easy to maneuver into a raised position and resilient to terrible weather conditions.
Colored plastic is best for this, as this prevents the sun from activating a biological process that would encourage a buildup of algae. The choice of size, of the container, is dependent on the size of the system that is being installed.
It is easy to expand the system by adding extra containers that can have a link at the bottom of each container. I have five of the large containers connected to provide a rainwater harvesting station that supplies water for drip, and from other forms of irrigation.
The small container shows a pipe connector that has been fitted to allow water to flow to wherever required. I use this small size to act as a primary collection tank to collect gray water from a kitchen sink before sending it to another tank for irrigation use at night.
I prefer to use a connector that allows disconnection of the tube to allow for cleaning of the system, but a hole with a tube glued in position will work just as well.
Tubes and Connectors
Once the water supply and its location have been established it is time to look at the tubes. Generally, irrigation systems will require at least two sizes of tubes. Initially, a larger one connected to the supply to take the water to the irrigation area.
A smaller tube distributes the water to the plants and arranged in such a way that the whole irrigation area is covered with each plant having a supply of water.
The reduction in tube size helps maintain pressure in the water to help it to flow. A range of T- and L-shaped connectors can alter the direction of the pipes to best cover the area.
Using the appropriate connectors for the correct sized tube allows the tube to cover the area that requires irrigation. Keeping direction changes to a minimum will aid the flow of water and help to prevent blockages.
For larger or zoned areas several runs of the tube may be required to maintain the pressure required in the system. Several pipes will allow different zoned areas to be watered at different times of the day and possibly permit the use of different water supplies.
Long runs of tubing can create problems for gravity-fed systems, short lengths allow efficient operation. Although, for the majority of plants, it is best to water at nighttime others could possibly require a constant supply of water or may prefer daytime watering.
This system makes applying feed an easy task, especially in zoned areas permitting the application of different quantities or types of feed.
Tubes of various sizes. (Various tubes)
Irrigation tubing is available in various sizes, however, for the majority of systems, providing the water supply is within a few feet of the irrigation area the size of the tube does not matter ¼ , ¾ , ½ are all good sizes, microtubing is also useful.
A larger tube is best for installing a line of emitters to irrigate rows of plants whilst the small is better for supplying individual plants. A larger tube may be required if the water supply and irrigation area are more than ten feet away, however, it is best to keep the distance short to avoid any problems.
A tube cutting tool is a must-have as it makes cuts quickly, and provides a neat level cut that is essential in joining pipes without leaks.
The distance that water will travel along the tube depends on the pressure exerted by the amount of water that is in the tank and how high the tank is above to irrigation area. The length of pipe is also a factor.
In general terms, it is best not to assemble the pipes too long better run three or four separate pipes, this also allows for better control.
The supply pipe to the irrigation are can be buried if required, especially if this supply route will not vary too much. The irrigation pipe can also be covered with soil if preferred whilst the drips are usually best to keep above the soil.
Pipes that are laid above the ground are susceptible to damage from the sun unless they are protected in some way. Painting them is a useful option for protection.
Burying plastic tubing can be problematic in some areas they have rodents burrowing underground who might enjoy a nice meal of plastic. I don’t have many pests underground as my location is extremely dry and rocky, my main pest is wild boar and deer that like to dance around sometimes.
The task of laying irrigation can be somewhat daunting, especially if the tube has been stored rolled up. When the tube, especially some of the larger ones, is released it seems to have a mind of its own. It wants to go anywhere except where it is required.
I find if the coil is left in the sun for some time before the installation process is to be undertaken as the tube heats it does become just slightly forgiving.
Staples made from firm wire that has been shaped into a “U” can be used to pin the tube to the wire. This is helpful even if the tube is going to be buried in the soil.
Fluctuations in the levels of the pipe will alter the water flow within it. Remember, no pumps are being used, only the force of gravity, which naturally allows the water to flow to a lower level.
Controlling the Water Flow
Once the tube has been laid out over the irrigation areas the tubes need to have a stopper in the end to prevent water flowing straight through.
A series of drip nozzles can then be attached at the site of each plant that requires watering. Different sized drip nozzles and adjustable features allow the flow of water to be adjusted to meet irrigation requirements.
These emitters permit water to flow through at an extremely low rate, hence the name drip, the water drips through allowing a constant flow of water that can permeate down into the soil to the roots of the plants that are being irrigated and or fed.
Since the aperture of these devices is incredibly small, they are susceptible to blockages both from debris in the water that is being used and from the soil and insects that may try to infiltrate them.
An inline water filter will help to reduce any blockage problems.
It is possible to buy the small hose that has drip emitters built in 6 inches apart, whilst this is fine for general irrigation, I prefer flexibility in what and where I water.
Emitters can be removed, and a small plug inserted to remove that watering point, it can be added back at a later date.
A simple tool will allow the correct sized hole to be made in the tube for emitters to be positioned. Although this tool is plastic it is sharp and with only a small effort will fashion the perfect hole for emitters. A nail or drill will achieve the same result but is not so easy.
Could it be any easier?
As we’ve seen, this gravity-fed drip irrigation system is so easy to install, the “hardest” part is probably the planning process.
- Once the plan is in place it only requires a few minutes in positioning the water supply tank, remembering to position it higher to allow gravity to work effectively.
- Connect the larger supply hose to take the water to the irrigation area.
- Connect the smaller tube to take the water to the growing area.
- Install emitters at the required locations.
Now it is possible to add the water and watch it work, a few tweaks may be needed to ensure complete efficiency before it can be left to do its job.
Remember this is a gravity-fed device relying on natural forces to allow the water to move. Connecting this system to a mains water supply or adding a pump will force the drip emitters to be ejected by the pressure.
Devices can be installed to reduce the water pressure, however part of the simplicity of this system is that it is gravity fed and can be left to function with minimum interference.
A Mini Drip Irrigation Alternative
There are occasions where a temporary or small drip irrigation system is required, for example, when cuttings are first planted a constant supply of water without overwatering will help roots to become established quicker and easier.
Here is a simple solution that is quick and easy to set up in any garden location. A simple water bottle 1 ½ gallon is perfect to be positioned close to the plant or plants to be watered, with a single or multiple small tube connections.
The bottle can be sprayed with plastic paint if required or alternatively find another plastic container that is made of colored plastic.
A drip emitter can be connected or, alternatively, a small screw will partially block the tube, and will permit the required water to flow.
What problems could be encountered with a gravity-fed drip irrigation system?
The usual problem encountered with this type of system is the flow of water may not be adequate to supply all the emitters. This will normally be due to the water supply not being high enough, or if there’s not enough water in the system.
If individual emitters are not working, clean them out, and readjust. This will reestablish the water supply.
Clearly a gravity-fed drip irrigation system is simple to fabricate and install. Kits are available for those that are not so practical, however, for the majority, it can be assembled from storeroom stock or by buying individual components.
This is simple and flexible since once set up it can be adjusted and modified to change irrigation needs. Change the crop, change where crops are growing simply move, adjust, and it’s ready to go.
This will save loads of valuable time that can be spent doing other things on your homesteading and gardening to-do-list.
Three years ago, I bought an off-grid Cortijo in a small valley in the Andalucian mountains. Although, perhaps the lifestyle is in my genes as my grandfather and his four brothers were Homesteaders in Alberta Canada in the 1900s.
The mountains of Spain are a difficult place to grow many of the flowers that I was used to in the UK. However, veggies grow well year-round. Peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, cucumber, melons and chard all fare well in the Mediterranean climate. Almond trees provide me with a cash crop of around 1 ton while still retaining some to make almond milk and flour.