What is the difference between sprinkler vs drip irrigation for your vegetable garden? This article gives you a breakdown between the two and explains why drip systems are the best.
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In general, garden grown vegetables require about 1 inch of water per week. Some of you live in areas that are blessed with a lot of rain. But even in those moist areas you often have to supplement watering.
This article is going to break down the difference between sprinkler vs drip irrigation for your vegetable garden. I will take you through the advantages and disadvantages of both methods for watering your garden. As many of you already know I prefer drip irrigation systems for vegetable gardens and I use a PVC based system.
Sprinkler vs Drip Irrigation
Watering your garden with sprinklers vs drip irrigation is usually the easiest way to go. Setting out a sprinkler to spray your garden can be a simple process. Let’s take a look at a few of the advantages of a sprinkler based system followed by a hard look at some of the disadvantages.
Advantages of a Sprinkler Based System
The main advantage of a sprinkler based system is its overall ease of use. You can simply set a sprinkler in your garden and let it run for a while and the whole area gets watered.
Watering with a sprinkler can be really inexpensive to set up requiring only a hose and a sprinkler. Sprinkler systems can also be automated. If you have an automatic system that waters your lawn it should be a fairly simple process to hook up to that system and use it to automatically water your garden as well.
The other advantage of a sprinkler vs drip irrigation system is one sprinkler covers a lot of ground! A big rain-bird or rotary sprinkler can water huge swaths of ground. If you have a small garden only one sprinkler setting may be needed.
Disadvantages of a Sprinkler Based System
Ease of use may be an advantage of a sprinkler vs drip irrigation system. But there are many disadvantages of a Sprinkler based system that means it may not be the best system to use.
One huge disadvantage of a Sprinkler system is water waste. Some studies have shown that up to 80% of the water you apply to your garden using a sprinkler will be wasted due to evaporation. This is especially true on hot, windy days. In fact, wind can be a real problem for sprinklers. On a hot windy day (just the type of day that might mean your garden really needs water) you may not even be able to run your sprinklers.
Water waste is also a cost issue. Losing up to 80% of the water you apply to your garden can be expensive when watering with pricey city water.
This can be a real problem with sprinkler systems. Because the water is being spread over the entire surface of your garden it can take a long time for sprinkler-applied water to soak down and get deep into the root zones of your plants. This often will promote very shallow rooted plants, because the plants are putting out roots high in the soil to take advantage of where the water is. Stronger and healthier plants have deep root systems that are developed by water deep in the soil.
Sprinklers cause more weeds
Because you are watering the entire surface of your garden, the growing beds, the space between plants and the rows between beds. There is a much greater chance that you will be watering and germinating weed seeds all over your garden. (for me this is the main disadvantage of sprinklers. I hate weeding!!)
Wet leaves are bad in a garden
Sprinklers spread water all over your garden including the leaves of your plants. This is often not a good thing. Water on the leaves of your plants, especially late in the day, can cause a lot of problems. Many garden diseases thrive on the moist foliage of garden plants. This is especially true of plants in the squash family. Keeping the leaves dry will help prevent the introduction and spread of many problems.
The nature of sprinklers is that they put out more water the closer to the source. So you can have a real problem with uneven watering. Your plants that are closest to the sprinkler may get too much water while those that are further out won’t get enough.
Taller plants will also cause problems. Plants like corn or beans on a trellis can interrupt the flow of water from a sprinkler to plants that are “behind” them. Also as the season progresses on the foliage on your plants gets denser, it becomes much harder to get water down into the root zone of the plant when you are using overhead sprinklers.
You can’t work on wet ground
The last disadvantage of sprinkler vs drip irrigation is that after watering your garden with a sprinkler you may have 2 or 3 days where the ground is too wet and muddy to even get into the garden. This can be a real problem if you need to get into the garden to harvest or weed.
Even if you put on a pair of mud boots and slog out into the garden this is also a bad thing. Wet soil shouldn’t be worked or walked on. Soil can become compressed and severely damaged if you walk on it while it is wet.
Drip Irrigation Systems
Drip Irrigation systems involve running some type of tubing, pipe or hose in your garden. These pipes or tubes will have some type of hole or drip emitter in them that will deliver water directly to your plants.
Drip irrigation applies the water slowly to the soil, a drip at a time. This allows the water to soak slowly and deeply into the soil preventing runoff and evaporation. Because drip irrigation applies water directly to the root zone it promotes deep healthy roots on your plants.
Types of Drip Systems
There are 3 types of drip irrigation for home gardens
- Soaker Hoses
- Tubing and emitter systems
- PVC Drip Systems.
Soaker hoses are long black hoses that have small holes perforating the entire length of the hose when water is turned on it slowly oozes from the hose watering your plants.
Tubing and emitter systems are a bit more complicated, they involve drip tubing for long rows or crops and smaller emitters that are run to larger individual plants.
A PVC Drip system involves lengths of PVC pipe, usually above ground that have small holes drilled in them that water the rows and individual plants.
Each of the 3 types of drip irrigation has advantages and disadvantages. The focus of this article is on sprinkler vs drip irrigation in general so I won’t take the time to explain the details of each system, but all 3 work well to water your garden.
Advantages of a Drip Irrigation system
When comparing sprinkler vs drip irrigation, drip systems save water! Water is saved 2 different ways using a drip system.
First and most importantly you are only watering the plants with a drip system. Comparing a sprinkler vs drip irrigation system you are not spreading water all over your garden on the spaces between plants and on the pathways with a drip system. This saves a ton of water.
Second, because water is applied slowly with a drip system it can more easily soak into the soil. This prevents run off to other areas of the garden. Drip systems use between 1/4 to 1/2 the water that a sprinkler system uses. Drip systems also cause less soil erosion and nutrient leaching in your garden.
As pointed out earlier, you are only watering the ground directly around your garden plants with a drip system. Comparing a sprinkler vs drip irrigation system the drip system keeps the weed seeds that are in the spaces between your plants and in your pathways from germinating. When we switched from sprinklers to a drip system about 12 years ago I was amazed at how few weeds we have, especially during the summer after the spring rains have stopped.
Work doesn’t stop for 2 or 3 days
Because you are only watering the plants with a drip system work doesn’t have to stop for several days after you have watered your garden. You pathways and the space between plants and rows remain dry allowing you to continue working in and harvesting your garden even while it is being watered.
Stronger, healthier plants
The deep slow watering of a drip irrigation system promotes deep growing roots. This, in turn, promotes strong healthy plants that produce more!
The fact that your plants leaves never get wet also makes for less disease in your garden. Water going directly to the root zone of your plants just seems to make them stronger and better overall. Also as the season progresses and your plants get larger and develop a “canopy” of foliage you are still delivering the water deeply to the root zone. With sprinklers, this isn’t the case.
Disadvantages of a Drip Irrigation System
Initial Cost and Time Commitment
The main disadvantage of any type of drip system is the initial cost of both money and time to get the system up and running. Even with a PVC Drip system (which is the overall cheapest), you will spend over $100 to get a good system going.
The initial set up of a drip system takes time and planning and this setup time will happen every season. You have to plan out where your system will set each year and then configure it and plant based on the system.
When the season is finished you will also need to drain your system and put it away for the winter. Overall the time commitment for a drip system is much higher than for simple sprinklers.
Some of (if not all) of the initial cost of a drip system can be offset if you are watering with metered city water. You will see big cost savings each year because you aren’t using as much water.
Holes/Emitters get plugged
Another disadvantage of a drip irrigation system is that depending on your water quality your emitter heads or even just the holes in your pipe, drip tape, or soaker hoses can get plugged from debris, mineral build ups or algae growth.
There is a continual need to monitor your drip system throughout the season and clean heads and holes. Although not an overwhelming task it is still a time commitment that needs to be figured into your plans. Filter systems can be installed on drip irrigation systems if your water quality is really bad.
We Love our Drip System
If you can’t tell, I LOVE drip irrigation systems. In our garden, we use a PVC based system for our main garden and our raised bed gardens as well. We love it and it really has improved the overall quality of our garden. We have also used soaker hoses from time to time and we have found them to be a great benefit to many row crops like potatoes and corn.
I would encourage all of you to consider switching your garden to some type of Drip Irrigation system. If you would like to learn more about our PVC drip system you can check out this article.