Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:19 pm

Drip irrigation is one of the most widely used automatic systems for watering vegetable gardens and orchards. In today’s post we will see what are the components of a drip irrigation kit and how to install it.

Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages
Drip irrigation pipe

We will talk about the importance of drip irrigation in orchards, where it is one of the most widely used irrigation systems due to its many advantages. The benefits of drip irrigation are due, among other things, to water saving and to the fact that the drop-by-drop distribution is highly recommended for horticultural plants, flowers and other typical garden plants.

Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages
Drip irrigation pipes

What is drip irrigation or drip irrigation?

Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages

Drip irrigation is a highly efficient irrigation method that is characterised by the frequent application of small, localised amounts of water close to the roots of plants.

Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages
Drip irrigation on cultivation plateau

One of the main advantages of drip irrigation is that this system greatly reduces water consumption, as water is only applied drop by drop through drippers or emitters. The drippers release a small amount of water, but this is sufficient for the good growth of the plants in the garden

The drippers are usually inserted or punctured in a flexible polyethylene pipe at a greater or lesser distance from each other depending on the separation of the plants in the garden (for most vegetables, one dripper per plant is sufficient).

There are also drip irrigation pipes with built-in drippers (like the one in the photo above), but if we opt for this type of installation we must make sure that the spacing between drippers is adequate for the placement of our plants.
Advantages and disadvantages

There are almost all advantages to using this irrigation system in the vegetable garden. Below we will see the benefits of using drip irrigation and the possible risks or disadvantages of drip irrigation (which, although few, also has some “cons”).

Advantages of drip irrigation for the vegetable garden

  • The frequency of watering is higher and the water is applied exactly where the plants need it (close to the roots), thus enhancing growth. Vegetables, in general, grow better when the substrate remains constantly moist and do not suffer from “water stress”. Drip irrigation provides a small amount of water so that the soil does not become waterlogged, but more frequent irrigations ensure that the root zone is always moist.
  • In contrast to surface irrigation, such as furrow irrigation, drip irrigation saves a lot of water as there is very little loss through evaporation and surface run-off (water that circulates on the soil surface and does not penetrate the substrate).
  • As it is an automatic system, watering the garden is more convenient and less laborious. If we connect an irrigation programmer to the outlet of the tap or water supply, we do not even have to be physically on site for the drip irrigation to start up, which means a significant saving of time and effort.
  • The harmful effects on the soil are less than in other types of irrigation: less erosion (because the water does not circulate on the soil surface) and less loss of nutrients by washing or deep infiltration (due to the lower speed and quantity of water applied in each irrigation).
  • Reduction of weeds around crops. As the water is applied directly in the vicinity of each plant in the orchard, adjacent areas are not wetted and weeds are less likely to thrive.
  • No earthworks are required for installation, as in the case of furrow irrigation or the buried pipe method.
  • It is very versatile: it adapts to any type of terrain and slope. Moreover, by modifying the number of drippers, the frequency of irrigation and the quantity of water, it can be used to irrigate all types of orchard plants and fruit trees.
  • The drip system can be used for the application of liquid fertilisers in the irrigation water (fertigation or fertigation), which saves time in the cultivation of the orchard.
  • Drip irrigation prevents fungal diseases. As the water is applied a few millimetres above the soil, the stems and leaves of the plants are not wetted, which minimises the chances of fungal growth.
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Disadvantages of drip irrigation

  • More expensive: although it pays off in the long run by saving water and time, the initial installation cost is higher than for other types of irrigation.
  • Dripper clogging: if the water has impurities, too many salts, or if the drippers are not of good quality or are very worn, they can become clogged and this prevents the irrigation water from flowing out.
  • To avoid the above risk, several water filters may be necessary, which means an increase in the installation budget of the drip irrigation system.
  • It is a fixed irrigation system, so once installed the soil cannot be tilled. If any work such as weeding is carried out, it must be done very carefully so as not to damage the pipes or drippers.

How drip irrigation works and how to install it

The water leaves the irrigation head (which comes from a tap or tank) and circulates under pressure through distribution pipes until it reaches the emitters or drippers, where it loses pressure and speed so that the output is drop by drop.

Drip irrigation kit for the vegetable garden

The drip irrigation installation will start from a tap or water supply or, if there is none nearby, from a tank or pond (if the garden is small, a 15-20 litre canister will suffice, which will be refilled each time it runs out).

Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages
Homemade drip irrigation water tank

The components of a drip irrigation installation are basically: the irrigation head, the pipes or water distribution network, and the emitters.

  • Irrigation head: it is made up of several elements such as the filters, the pump or the pressure regulator (depending on whether the system is based on a reservoir or a tap, respectively) and an electrovalve that automates irrigation. For small gardens, commercial irrigation controllers that can be purchased at any garden shop come with all of these components included.
  • Irrigation distribution network: The complexity of the piping and drip tubing system depends on the layout of the plants and the size of the garden (see some examples in the last section). You will also need elbows and tees for the joints and branches, as well as plugs for the end of the drip lines.
  • Drippers: There are many types of drippers. Drippers of larger or smaller size/flow rate can be chosen depending on the needs of the plant. In addition, they can be inserted in the drip pipes or there are independent drippers that can be “punctured” at any point of the drip pipes.
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How to install a drip irrigation system

As a picture is worth a thousand words, I have been looking for videos that explain in an easy way how to make a drip irrigation system.

Without wanting to promote the French multinational (who doesn’t pay us for it…), I leave you with this practical tutorial on how to set up a drip irrigation system step by step:

Types of drip irrigation

Here are some examples of drip irrigation installations (if you know or have installed drip irrigation in another way, you can also tell us about it and leave photos in the comments thread at the end of the post).

Drip irrigation on terraces and roof terraces

As shown in the video above, the drip irrigation system on terraces must be adapted to the layout of our cultivation containers.

It is important to calculate, depending on the number of drippers, the flow rate to be carried by the primary and secondary pipes in order to choose the appropriate diameters.

If the vegetables in the different beds do not require the same amount of water, small valves can be installed at the beginning of the secondary and tertiary pipes to shut off/open irrigation independently in each bed (“irrigation unit control” in the picture above).
Drip irrigation for fruit trees

In the case of drip irrigation for fruit trees, drippers with a higher flow rate than those used for vegetables and aromatic plants should be installed (8 and 16 l/h are usually used).

As we have seen, depending on the water needs and the size of the crops, it may be necessary to install several drippers per plant. For large fruit trees, up to eight drippers per tree may be required.

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For a more uniform irrigation covering the whole root system, the dripper pipes starting from the distribution pipe are usually arranged in a circle around the trunk. In this case it is important, in order to avoid vascular diseases or the proliferation of fungi, that the drops coming out of the drippers do not directly touch the trunk of the trees.

Drip-by-drop irrigation by exudation tape

Drip irrigation or drip tape irrigation is a type of drop-by-drop irrigation. It has the particularity that, unlike the drip irrigation system, the drops do not come out of emitters or drippers separated by a certain distance, but pass through the surface of the emitter pipe or exudative tape (which is porous) along its entire length.

Drip irrigation: What it is and how it works. Types of drip irrigation and advantages
Exudation drip irrigation pipeline


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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