Interesting Ersatz Drip Irrigation

In February Tips pages, Larry Ledwick left this link:

It is an interesting idea, but a bit short on details. The basic idea is a bucket with small holes at just above bottom level, and another row at 10 inches up, then buried to that 10 inch line. Compost added to about dirt surface level. Once a week (or so…) fill with water. It slowly both irrigates via a drip like method (at surface and at depth of bottom of root zone) and can slowly leach in that compost fertilizer material. Nice.

For me, it would solve one of my problems. In California, the dirt can be very dry. Watering on the surface to wetness sometimes only dampens the soil to an inch (or even less!). There are ways around it, but it’s an ongoing pain. Surfactants can help, but putting dish soap on my food plants isn’t really my idea of ‘elegant’. Keeping it watered from the end of rainy season works well (as it never develops that dry dust hard to penetrate nature) but takes a lot more water. Usually I just water right next to the plant stem to excess when starting out and hope that enough damp column develops along the root ball to be effective. Usually it works… Yes, I ought to buy and install a real drip system, but my garden is ‘ersatz’ enough that it would be in constant flux and a maintenance load. I’d rather not “go there”. Well, in truth, I did “go there” about 20 years back and it was no fun.

But this idea I can get into.

My garden is in 4 x 4 foot squares with 2 foot wide rows of “paver stones” between them. This gives access everywhere, along with assuring each block has sun access even to the sides. (A 4 foot wide row aligned N-S would do the same, but with a bit more walking to get from one middle to the other). This layout means I already have a fair amount of dirt covered and not used for plantings (but roots can adventure there). Covering the middle of each square with a bucket would impact growing space. Yet for some squares that “middle foot” is not all that productive, being fairly heavily shaded. (Tomatoes, Beans, most any tall climber). I could also see putting small drip tubes into the bucket and just laying them next to the plants. Then the bucket could just sit on the pavers next to “its square”. (Note to self, check into systems for inserting small tubing connectors into 5 gallon buckets and find a friend at a fast food place that uses such buckets for mayo…)


They don’t mention the size of the holes. I’d likely start with 1/16 inch and if they clog up too badly, move up to 1/8 inch. At 1/4 inch (about 6 mm) you will have that water leaving pretty fast and I’d not call it “drip” any longer. Number of holes isn’t stated either. I think I’d point one at each intended planting location. So 4 or 8 most likely. For me, one of the major benefits would be that the quantity of water put on each square would be easily measured (instead of my present ‘by guess and by golly’ method ;-) and in the present drought, that will matter. It also would get water off the leaves. Important for both beans and tomatoes. The slow release and potential sub surface release would help greatly with depth of penetration and maintaining a suitably wet root zone in this dry soil area. Not so much in wet places.

I already use sections of fence material for ‘ersatz cages’. I’ve done it for years. It’s not hard. Buy roll of fence. Use wire cutters to cut out chunk size of cage. Bend ends of cuts over verticals on other side. I’ve also already got a couple of buckets, so doing a first test bucket would not be hard. (Put in one 1/6 inch hole. Fill with water. Start timer. Get beverage if you don’t have one. Check bucket. Loop to Get Beverage until bucket empty. Record timer. Calculate number of such holes to drain in the time desired. Call it a day.)

I think I’ll go price small square plastic trash cans while I’m at it. Their profile might work better in my square oriented garden. White would reflect sun back to the plants well.

Depth of the bottom holes ought to be matched to the given crop root zone depth. Some, like horseradish, go down a few feet. Others, like regular radish, just a few inches.


I could also see using a small pipe like, say, 1/2 inch PVC, next to a row of short crops (like regular radishes). Then have that connected to a larger “stand pipe” like section at the side (call it the 6 inch or 8 inch used for septic tank connections). Now you can just fill the stand pipe, and the water more slowly is given to all that row. I have made my own ersatz sprinklers using 1/2 inch PVC. Long section, T at the end, end caps on the T. Hose fitting on the near end. Row of holes drilled along the length at the 45 degree angle. I used 1/16 inch about 1 foot apart (total area matched to cross section of pipe). This is the same idea, but at much lower pressure, and with a “fill tank” instead of a hose connection. I’d likely just point the holes down on the 45 toward the plants.

At that point, watering becomes the process of walking around the garden filling the buckets and standpipes while you inspect each square for pests, things ready to harvest, plants needing help, etc.

At one time I’d made a sprinkler cross for a couple of squares to test having a hose fitted to the square and just ‘turn it on’ but they were the sprinkler orientation and not drip orientation (as high pressure water supply sprinkles better than drips…) Wonder where those went ;-) Between the clutter of hoses and the cost of all the hose fittings and all, it wasn’t really that helpful. Easier to just turn on one big sprinkler… But now that water is much more dear, the hand water each square is starting to be a drag. Self Drip seems like a nice approach. Filling a dozen “stand pipes and buckets” far less tedious and less prone to leaves molding…

In Conclusion

For ‘tall stuff’ like beans and tomatoes and maybe even corn and tall collards, this is a very interesting idea. For “short stuff” like radishes and carrots, it would need modification, but serves as a good jumping off point.

Relatively convenient, cheap, and does help put the water right where you want it and not where you don’t.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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8 Responses to Interesting Ersatz Drip Irrigation

  1. Ralph B says:

    here is a method I have been looking to use on my extra lot until I get off my lazy buns and dig my well.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    @EMSmith; I have used every kind of irrigation system from a shovel in a bare field to “Big Gun” sprinklers as well as several kinds of slowwatering drip and soakers. For your 4 square beds I would recommend a low pressure drip setup. A 15 psi pressure regulator at a faucet with screen filter, some 5/8″ drip hose with fittings and 1/4″ microtube drip line. see:
    These guys are great to work with whether you need a few parts for your window box or 200acre field. To your door delivery via UPS . out of Willits, Ca. I have used them for many years.
    OR come visit and I will give you a set up from my supplies ;-) business trip! pg

  3. Graeme No.3 says:

    I have used plastic boxes, especially the PS foam ones used for vegetable deliveries, which come very cheaply.
    Drill holes in sides above the bottom, about 1-2 inches. This gives a reserve of water in the bottom of the box for the plants. Foam insulates the roots. Water until overflow starts dripping from holes. Not suitable for deep rooted plants obviously, but tomatoes, chillies, capsicums etc.
    No need to bury boxes unless the ugliness offends she who must be obeyed, but also because foam boxes don’t last in sunshine. A layer of dark plastic film or shade cloth stops that if you care.

  4. Larry Ledwick says:

    E.M. this caught my eye because it is a similar solution to one I came up to years ago.
    In 1978 -79 I bought a piece of land out on the high plains of Colorado about 20 miles south west of Limon Co. It was far away from any municipal water supply, and I did not have the money at the time to drill a well but I wanted to establish some trees (fruit trees).

    Problem #1 how to get water out there cheaply
    Problem #2 how to make a long lasting irrigation system for the trees which prevented surface evaporation and helped the tree get established.

    Solution was as follows:
    To ship the water I bought a bunch of large cardboard boxes which were just about the same height as the side rails in the 57 Chevy pickup truck I had at the time. I filled the bed with them,and put double trash bags in each box. Then got the garden hose and filled each 30 gallon bag about 2/3 – 3/4 full. and Tied the bags off with heavy duty twist ties. Result about 12 20 gallon bladders full of water for just pocket change. Drove the truck out there and these expedient water bladders survived just fine.

    Then to set the trees I set them as normal except for a couple minor changes. I dug the hole for the root ball about 8-10 inches deeper than you normally would, and put about 6 inches of sand in the bottom then soaked it with water, and stuck a 3 ft long piece of cheap garden hose in the sand and set the root ball of the tree as normal.

    I also dug a post hole about 3 ft deep and filled the bottom 2/3 of the hole with sand and another piece of plastic garden hose going into the bottom of the hole and topped it off with local soil.

    To water the plants I would pour all the water that each hose would accept into that mini artificial aquifer I had created. The trees fared quite well but unfortunately my job prospects and wallet did not so I had to give up on the land but when I quit going out there I told a neighbor he could dig up the trees and he replanted them on his farm a mile away.

    The extra water was sufficient to keep the trees alive in dry spells. I also arraigned the local terrain with a couple small furrows and a small 2 inch dam so that water from local rain storms would run off and pool near the trees.

    While I was typing this, I got a call from my apartment management that I was approved to get one of their little 3×3 ft garden plots for this year so I actually have a place to plant something in the ground. Now I need to figure out what to stick in the ground as soon as the rain stops. (we are getting a very wet spring — sorry California I think we got your water)

  5. Steve C says:

    Or, move to western Scotland. You will never, ever be short of water again! ;-)

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    @Steve C:

    I think Florida does nicely too, but “thanks for the offer”… ;-)

    @Larry Ledwick:

    3 x 3 foot, eh… Well, I’d put up a trellis on the N side and send beans up that, have a patch of herbs in the very front, and maybe a vine type squash on a trellis on the West side (depending on heat load, a morning sun, afternoon shaded some can help prevent heat stress… ) In the couple of feet left, I’d likely have something like Kale, Chard, or Collards (cold, medium, warm) that seem to produce a lot of greens easily.and don’t mind partial shade. Now you have two vegetables, a greens that varies by season, and herbs. During the autumn / winter put in turnips and beets. Fava Beans in the bean back row. Leave the West trellis empty as you need all the winter sun you can get… Occasionally, rotate in a bit of radishes ( 25 to 50 days, so fast and easy) or carrots. If in a cooler climate, put Snow Peas up the bean trellis…

  7. Larry Ledwick says:

    Pretty much what I am thinking about. I picked out the plot today on the west side of the group close to the water faucet. Soil needs some help (lots of clay) added 3 cu ft of Miracle grow potting soil which brought the soil level up to the top of the side boards. Asking permission from the management to place an elevated “window box” type planter on one side of the square, and was intending to put a climbing trellis of some sort for the beans. A solid wall below the window box as a light reflector (white). Thinking of bell peppers (near that white reflecting wall — they should like the heat and sun exposure), carrots, radish, and experiment with both chard and kale to see if I like them, some green onions, and climbing beans. Just started some sprout tests this morning on radish, leaf lettuce, beans and green onions before I came into work (similar to your setup, small tupper ware type containers with 4 layers or paper towel for the sprouting).

    I want to see just how long it takes for these seeds to actually sprout. I can start them in small pots and move them out to the plot when conditions allow.

    This is mostly experimental. I really don’t care if I get little or nothing useful out of the plot this year, mostly just learning about what can grow in these small plots and how to fit things together and relative timing of planting/maturation of the various plants.
    I also plan on adding a few flowering plants to attract beneficial pollinators. Last frost here locally is in about a week (80% chance of rain and snow this weekend)

    It will be raining for the next few days, so too wet to plant anyway and I have some time to consider options. Would have been nice if the management allowed folks to request a plot a few weeks back so had more planning time knowing I actually have a plot to work with.

    When I was little my Mom had a garden for several years but I have not done any serious personal gardening for about 30 years.

  8. E.M.Smith says:


    I’ve been known to pick up the little sprouts from the test sprout tub and carefully place them (root down) into potting soil in a container (such as saved 6-packs or single pots from prior trips the commercial nursery..). For some, tweezers work. For very small ones, a bit of wood will get them to stick via water surface tension… Then dampen the potting soil, place it in a plastic tub (often cheap disposable food storage tubs or a tray from under a pot) with about 1/2 to 1 inch of water in it. That keeps the soil moist in the pot. Whole thing in a warm place (like a desktop or window sill) and they will usually sprout and grow to a few inches fairly quickly. Then move to out doors to ‘harden off’…

    This is especially useful for testing old seeds where maybe one in 4 or 6 actually sprouts, or I don’t know if any will sprout. It also lets you have plants at each stage in the minimal space, only committing one to the garden / dirt when it is big enough to need more than its pot.

    Overall, shorter grow times gets more turns from the garden plot. (So, for example, if a 50 day ‘greens’ takes 20 of it to get from seed to 5 inches in a pot, you then only need 30 days in the garden square…)

    When it is cold and wet, you can always plant a small row of radishes. In about 25 days you can start pulling and eating them and fill the empty spots with things from pots you started as seeds indoors at the same time. Take a screwdriver, knife, or stick and make a scratch. Sprinkle in radish seeds, Barely cover (return dirt you scratch out). Walk away…

    On one occasion, at a particularly tedious job down in the bowels of a concrete and steel building in San Francisco, I had “starts” going in Styrofoam coffee cups under my desk area lighting (overhanging bookcase light). I just HAD to have something to remind me of plants and dirt… So I’d bring in a little baggie of potting soil, and on breaks, make a coffee cup or two. Once something was a couple of inches above the rim, I’d carry it home at the end of the day. Never more than about a 1/2 dozen at one time (well, maybe once or twice ;-) and it was quite enough to fill a fair amount of garden space. It was a very odd sort of “urban jungle garden”… but proved I could garden anywhere…

    You want to work up a planting calendar ( I like one with separate ‘start in pot’ and ‘plant out’ sections…) but can start from one like this.

    (IIRC you were near Denver… if not, just web search for “{location} garden planting calender”

    Assign plant and dates to each space in your garden, and remember “short stuff on the sunny side, tall stuff in the back” ;-) There are some “companion planting” limitations that come into play in that small a space, as some plants put out chemicals the others don’t like. For example, don’t plant peas with onions (just eat them that way ;-)… Searching on “Companion plant FOO and BAR” will likely turn up any issues.

    When in doubt, figure on a legume, a summer squash, and a “leafy”. If cold, peas. Hot summers, classical Blue Lake or Kentucky Wonder green beans. Any of the bush type pepo species squash ( zucchini, yellow crook or straight neck, etc.) then kale when very cold, chard when warmer. (Or spinach if it stays cool but not cold). That’s a pretty good start. After that, you can go wild… but it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a success with green beans, summer squash, and a chard or kale.

    Also note that for “instant gratification” setting out a sage and a rosemary from a small commercial pot is hard to beat. Very hardy, and you can snip a leaf or two of each from day one. As these are perennials and eventually make a bush about 4 feet across, be prepared emotionally to keep them very pruned back, or “moved on” some day…

    BTW, bees just love bean flowers in my garden. And squash too. And both hummers and bees love sage flowers. They will be more than attracted enough by the flowers on vegetables…

    For onions, they have a complicated life cycle. Start with “green bunching”. Only advance to dry onions once you’ve done your homework ( day length sensitivity, variety for your latitude / day length, sets vs seeds-and-2-years, etc.)

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