Solve the Challenges of Irrigating Container Plantings
Perfect container maintenance with the right irrigation plan.
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Containers can lend a splash of color, brighten a drab corner or create a dramatic focal point in the landscape. The design possibilities are endless, but once the installation is complete, the real test begins — maintenance. With most maintenance contracts calling for weekly visits, keeping container plantings well watered can be a challenge, to say the least.
It starts with design
Thriving potted plants start at the design stage. Keep in mind that the larger the container, the more soil it holds and the more water is available. Do yourself (and your clients) a favor and avoid containers that are less than about 1 gallon. While 4 inches of color might look cute, it will need water on a daily basis or more to thrive.
“Double potting” is a popular technique that will not only conserve water, but will also streamline any plant changes that need to be made. Instead of direct planting into your decorative container, drop the plant in its own pot in the container. You can use Styrofoam pieces to raise the plant. Then hide any mechanics with Spanish moss or other decorative mulches.
Self-watering containers are another great option. They are available in dozens (if not hundreds) of shapes, sizes and prices. If you are handy, instructions are available for making your own.
“We used to do a lot of interior plantscaping in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Jeffrey Bruce, owner and president of Jeffrey L Bruce & Co. LLC . The Kansas City, Missouri-based landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Among his numerous credentials, Bruce is president of the American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC).
“The Mona system was one of the first self-watering planters,” he says. Instead of drainage holes in the bottom, these containers have an overflow hole on one side. The potting soil sits on a perforated platform directly above a water reservoir. Plant roots grow through the medium and into the water.
In most cases, water is wicked up from the reservoir into the medium. In a way, these containers could be considered a hybrid between hydroponics and conventional pots. Roots grow in the soil and in the water. These can stretch the time between irrigating by several days.
Potting media and water retention
Choosing the right potting media can also help plants thrive. Potting soil usually doesn’t contain any real dirt at all. Instead, it is a mixture of composted bark, peat moss and other organics, often with perlite or vermiculite to encourage drainage.
Other amendments can also help with water-holding capacity. “You could look at some of the hydrogels,” Bruce suggests. Soil hydrogels and the like have been available for decades. These polyacrylamide granules can absorb hundreds of times their weight in water and release it back slowly.
Although claims of water conservation may have been overblown, polymers are actually perfect to stretch the time between watering containers. “You can probably get four or five days of extra watering capacity, depending on your soil type,” Bruce says.
Be sure to hydrate the polymer granules before adding them to the soil. If you add them dry and don’t allow for expansion, they can literally overflow when hydrated, which could lead to a big mess.
A newer product, calcined clay, also holds water well and can help reduce irrigation frequency. The product is like cat litter and is good for drainage and nutrient retention.
Studies at Clemson University showed that using calcined clay in nursery production reduced water use, increased available water for plants and kept plants turgid for days longer than those without. Plus, the soil media was 20 percent lighter — worth looking at for roof garden installations.
Time to water
Now that everything is planted, let’s look at different watering techniques. First and most simply, there’s the “bucket” approach. Simply fill a watering can and go. Sounds simple enough, but you must be sure to wet all the media in the container. This may require more water than you might expect. It will take a bit of practice to learn how much water a particular container will hold before overflowing (a messy situation you want to avoid).
Interior plantscape professionals use a rolling tank on wheels that can be filled and used to hand water many plants before refilling. These are especially handy for large commercial sites with extensive container plantings.
Drip irrigation sophistication
For the utmost in sophistication, drip irrigation is the way to go. Drip systems on automatic clocks can be programmed to irrigate containers as often as necessary, sparing you the aggravation (and expense) if the temperatures soar.
Since systems are low-flow, almost any hose bib can be used as a water source. Drip systems operate the best when a filter and a pressure regulator are installed. Poly tubing can be used to deliver the water to the containers; various emitters and delivery devices are available. “You can use either inline drip emitters, or there are multi-bug drip emitters where you have a hub and add distribution tubing,” says Bruce.
“Spaghetti” tubing can be installed from the poly tubing into one of the container’s drainage holes in the bottom of the pot to help hide the mechanics of your system. “We’ll typically feed through the bottom,” says Bruce.
The tubing can run to the surface of the soil, with drip or mini-sprays installed. The tubing can also be used alone, but will be more prone to clogging than standard drip emitters.
“We tend to use the micro-sprays,” says Bruce. “I like them because we get some foliage washing. We used them for the large containers on the River Walk at Trump Towers.”
When first programming a system, it is critical to monitor the cycle carefully to avoid both under- and over-watering. You might need multiple emitters on some plants or trees in very large containers in roof gardens and other intensely landscaped areas.
Don’t think you can just “set and forget” drip systems. It should be run every time you visit a site, with emitters checked carefully. Sometimes they can miss the target; other times they can mysteriously clog. Just a quick run through the system can save headaches, replacement dollars and your reputation.
Mulch is a container’s friend
As with landscape plantings, mulch can also help slow water loss. Your choice of materials will depend on the design, but ground or shredded bark is a good choice. Interior plantscape professionals often use Spanish moss; its silvery color and great coverage adds a touch of class to any installation.
Other materials can be used as well. Gravels and large cobblestones can be used as design elements and provide added interest.
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How To Install A DIY Drip Irrigation System For Potted Plants
An automatic watering system for outdoor plants makes life easier, and saves you tons of time. It’s also very easy to install your own, and doesn’t take much time (it’s totally worth every second!). Follow these easy step-by-step instructions to install a DIY drip irrigation system for potted plants.
We have an area behind our house that gets full sun that I always thought would be perfect for growing, but it’s under the eaves of the house so it doesn’t get much rain.
My husband put a few pots of peppers there last year, but hand-watering all of those pots became a major chore in the heat of the summer. We were in a drought last year, so we had to manually water these pots a few times a day. Not fun!
My husband told me he wanted to line the area with pots of peppers this year, so we decided to add a drip irrigation system to make watering our container plants easy.
It turns out, putting in a DIY drip system for potted plants is just as simple as it was to add overhead sprinklers to our greenhouse.
Plus we had some of the poly tubing left over from that project, so we were able to use that for this project – bonus!
Installing drip irrigation system for potted plants
Table of Contents
What Is A Drip Irrigation System?
Think of a drip irrigation system as an automatic watering system for pots and containers. It hooks right into your garden hose or spigot so when it turns on, all of your pots will get watered at the same time.
You could turn the water on manually, or set it up on an automatic timer to create a self-watering system for potted plants (trust me, a timer is totally worth it, and it’s not very expensive to buy yourself one!).
Benefits Of Installing DIY Drip Irrigation For Containers
Installing a drip water system for potted plants has lots of benefits to you, and to your plants. The main benefit is convenience, and let me tell you, an automatic drip irrigation system makes container gardening SO MUCH easier!
Not only do self-watering pots make your life easier, but it’s better for your plants too, and ensures they’re getting exactly the right amount of moisture.
Consistent watering not only keeps your potted plants happy and healthy, it also helps to prevent problems like blossom end rot.
Healthy plants have less problems with pests and diseases, and produce TONS more yummy food for us? What’s not to love?
Drip Irrigation Kit For Potted Plants
Depending on how many potted plants you have, a drip irrigation kit might be all you’ll need in order to install your entire system.
You can buy a smaller kit if you have 8 pots or less, or you can get a larger kit like this one that will work to automatically water up to 20 containers.
Drip irrigation kits are a great way to get started, and will include full instructions for setting everything up. Some kits even come with a timer.
But keep in mind that even when you start with a drip irrigation kit, you might still need to buy a few additional parts (for example, most don’t come with a pressure regulator). So be sure to read the details of what’s included in the kit.
Some contents of a drip irrigation kit for potted plants
Of course, you can also make your own custom drip irrigation system design, which is what we did for our setup since we already had the mainline tubing and a few other parts to get us started.
DIY Drip Irrigation Supplies Needed
- Drip irrigation kit (optional – but if you want to use it to get you started)
- Mainline drip irrigation hose (1/2″ poly drip irrigation tubing)
- Drip irrigation backflow preventer
- Garden hose connector (1/2″ faucet fitting)
- Pressure regulator
- Poly tubing end cap
- Irrigation micro tubing (1/4″ vinyl)
- Irrigation drippers with spikes, one for each pot (we used these 360 degree adjustable drippers)
- Drip irrigation hole punch
- Drip line connectors
- Drip irrigation spikes (1/2″ tubing stakes)
- Drip hose goof plugs (just in case)
- Garden watering timer for drip irrigation
- Garden hose splitter (optional, comes in handy if you want to hook up another hose to the same spigot)
- PVC pipe cutting saw or a PVC cutting tool (for cutting the thicker tubing)
- Tape measure
How To Install Drip Irrigation For Potted Plants
Step 1: Attach connectors to faucet, hose or spigot – It’s easier to hook everything in if you attach the connectors to your hose or spigot first. So grab the backflow preventer, the pressure regulator, and the faucet hose fitting for this step.
Start by attaching the backflow preventer onto your hose or outdoor spigot (it simply screws on). Next, you’ll attach the pressure regulator, and last the faucet fitting (this just screws on too – no tools needed!).
Basically, you’ll end up chaining the garden hose attachments together in this exact order (backflow preventer, pressure regulator, faucet fitting).
Drip irrigation hose connectors attached to faucet
Step 2: Attach the 1/2″ poly tubing to the hose fitting – Take one end of your 1/2″ poly mainline tubing, and push it into the open end of the faucet hose fitting. Once you’ve pushed it in, pull down the collar on the hose fitting piece, and tighten it to secure the tubing.
You might want to kink the tubing and turn on the water to make sure there’s no leaking at this point, otherwise you can wait to test everything later on in step 7.
Attaching poly tubing to faucet hose fitting
Step 3: Figure out your drip irrigation system design – The next drip system installation step is to determine how far apart the drip heads will be, so you know exactly where to install the micro tubing.
Figuring out the drip irrigation design sounds hard, but it was actually really easy.
We simply spaced out the pots where we wanted them to be, and then laid down the poly tubing hose in front of them (Tip: let the tubing sit in the sun for a while to warm up first, it’s easier to lay it flat when it’s warm).
Measure spacing between irrigation drippers
Then we measured where each pot was, and marked the poly tubing where we needed to add the drip tube lines for each of the drippers.
Once we measured it all out, we cut the tubing at the very end using using our PVC cutting tool (you could use a PVC pipe saw to cut the tubing instead), and caped the tube with the end cap.
Hose end cap closes off mainline tubing
Step 4: Figure out how long the drip lines will be – Next we measured how long each piece of the micro tubing needed to be for the drip lines.
That’s simply the length from the spot you marked on the mainline tubing, up to the spot where the drip head will be inside the pot.
We added several extra inches to the length of each piece of the micro tubing so it would be loose enough to allow room for us to move the pots around a bit if we wanted to (which we have done, and it works out really well).
Measuring micro tubing for drip lines
Step 5: Install the micro tubing – It’s easy to add the drip lines and the micro sprinkler heads.
For drip line installation, you simply punch a hole in the mainline poly tubing (using the drip irrigation hole punch) where you want to add the drip lines (these are the spots you marked on the tubing in step 3).
Poke holes in drip irrigation tubing to install drippers
Don’t panic if you punch a hole in the wrong spot. I know that making a mistake isn’t ideal, but if you do end up punching a hole in the wrong spot… well, that’s why they make goof plugs! It’s good to have them on hand just in case.
Next you’ll attach the drip line connector first to the mainline tube, then attach the micro tubing drip hose onto the other end of the connector.
Drip irrigation micro tubing connected to mainline hose
Step 6: Install the irrigation drippers – Installing the dripper heads is super easy too. You basically just plug them into the open end of the micro tubing, and then put them into your container.
Our dripper micro heads came with spikes to hold them in place, so they stay where we put them.
We centered the micro heads in each of our pots, just to one side of the base of the plant(s). Be careful not to damage any tender roots or seedlings when you’re pushing the irrigation spikes into the soil though.
Installing the irrigation drippers
Step 7: Test out your irrigation setup – Before burying the mainline, test everything out to make sure it’s all working with no leaks. You definitely don’t want anything leaking.
At this point it’s also a good idea to adjust the drip heads. The tops of the heads twist so you can control the amount of water that comes out.
We adjusted each one to make sure they weren’t spraying outside the pots, and that they were all working correctly.
Micro heads for drip irrigation
Step 8: Secure the poly tubing – Once everything was installed and tested, we secured the mainline tubing into the ground with some 1/2″ drip irrigation tubing stakes.
The stakes clip onto the mainline tube, which makes securing it easy. Then we simply buried the tubing in the mulch to give it a cleaner look.
Drip irrigation spikes hold poly tubing in place
Note, you can install your poly tubing behind your pots rather than in front of them like we did here. That way, the micro tubing will run up the backs of the pots, and won’t be so obvious.
But it’ll work just fine either way. (We just installed ours in front to make it easier to take photos for you)
Buried the main irrigation tubing
Step 9: Set the timer for automatic irrigation – Last, we set our hose timer to run on a schedule so we never have to worry about watering these pots again (which is especially nice while we’re on vacation!).
Once your automated drip irrigation system is running, I recommend checking on your pots regularly to make sure they are getting the right amount of water. Then you can adjust your timer accordingly to get it just right.
We’ll turn the drip irrigation timer off when we get a lot of rain, and increase the length, or how often the drippers run during dry periods or hot spells.
Garden hose timer for drip irrigation system
Not only is this DIY drip irrigations system great so we don’t have to water these pots, but it makes it much easier to ensure our peppers and tomatoes are getting a consistent amount of water.
Hopefully this will help prevent blossom end rot, which was a problem for our container grown peppers last year. Drip irrigation systems are great for potted plants, as well as the garden.
Self-watering container garden
Installing drip irrigation for potted plants is simple, and doesn’t take much time. (It will actually end up saving you a ton of time and effort!) I know it seems like there are a lot of steps involved with drip irrigation installation, but trust me it really is very easy to do! Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can!
Products I Recommend
More Container Gardening Posts
- How To Make Potting Soil For Containers (with recipe!)
- 15 Best Container Vegetables For Pots & Planters
- Container Flower Gardening Design Tips & Ideas
- How To Fertilize Outdoor Potted Plants & Containers
- Choosing The Best Potting Soil Mix For Container Gardening
Share your tips and experiences for installing a DIY drip irrigation system in the comments section below.
About Amy Andrychowicz
I live and garden in Minneapolis, MN (zone 4b). My green thumb comes from my parents, and I’ve been gardening most of my life. IвЂ™m a passionate gardener who loves growing everything from vegetables, herbs, and flowers to succulents, tropicals, and houseplants – you name, I’ve grown it! Read More.
Is there a maximum length for doing this? I have pots that are quite far away.
Amy Andrychowicz says
As far as I know, there’s no maximum length for adding a drip irrigation system to potted plants. I ran a hose out to my garden, and that’s at least 50′ away from the spigot. I also have a 15 pot drip system set up along the back of my house, which is probably 60′ or more long, and there’s no problems with water pressure there either.
Julie Traxler says
How can one hide the hose attachments? Mine are out in the open where it will detract from my garden.
Amy Andrychowicz says
I burying the mainline under the mulch, and that works great. That way, you’ll only see the hose where it comes up to attach to the spigot. Then I run the drip lines up the back of the pots (I have them in the front of the pots in these photos for demonstration purposes). They are hardly noticeable, especially once the plants fill in.
Thank you so much for this! It really makes watering my pots so much easier. I have installed one with different zones because of various plant needs. I think IвЂ™m overwatering my plants and I have no idea how long to run the system. Do you have like a rule of thumb to share? Thanks!
Amy Andrychowicz says
You’re welcome, so glad you were able to set up your own drip irrigation system for your pots. That’s awesome! There’s not really a rule of thumb to follow for how long to run them. I only run mine for about 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at night. I will run the drippers longer during periods of drought, and turn the system off when we get a lot of rain. The best thing to do is to check your pots daily to see how damp the soil is. If it seems really dry, then run them a little longer. If it seems too wet, then run them for less time. It doesn’t take long to find that sweet spot.
An automatic plant watering system makes life easier. Follow these easy step-by-step instructions to install a DIY drip irrigation system for potted plants.