All Things Garden,  Beginner Basics

Garden Irrigation Solutions: DIY, Efficient, & Toxin-Free Watering Options

Water. The key to life, and arguably one of the most essential parts of any garden. It also can be one of the most frustrating and time-consuming aspects of gardening! But maybe it doesn’t need to be… Just because gardens can suck up water, doesn’t mean watering has to suck up your time! There are many ways to improve garden irrigation that save time, energy, and water.

“How do you water your garden?” This is a very common question that we receive, so I will try my best to answer! It won’t be an extremely straightforward, one-method-suits-all type of thing though! Each climate, garden space, and even plant type may have different irrigation needs. And for the record, I am not a professional landscape irrigation specialist. Yet we have experimented with a variety of garden irrigation solutions here on this homestead! I will share some information on what has worked well for us, and for our plants. Hopefully you can take away some helpful tips to try at home too!


This article will discuss various garden irrigation methods, including: soaker hoses, drip irrigation, ways to convert traditional sprinklers to drip, clay ollas, hand-watering, and rainwater capture.


We will explore the least toxic, DIY-friendly, and efficient methods for watering, including benefits and drawbacks of each option. I’ll show you the garden irrigation methods we are using in our garden with the aid of a video at the end of this post!

Upgrading Our Garden Irrigation

Over the past several years, there has always been other projects demanding our time, attention, and resources. Upgrading our garden irrigation system has been on the back burner. Until this point we have sort of limped along, mostly hand-watering, creating semi-automated DIY drip systems, and experimenting with various soaker hoses. We’ve worked our way through many, many watering cans and wands!

However, this year we made it our mission to improve our garden irrigation methods! Our goal is to be more time-and-water-efficient, easy, and most importantly, effective. With the blog and other commitments pulling us away from the garden more than ever, we want to spend our time in the garden tending to it, and playing in it, not spending hours and hours watering.

Some people love watering by hand! I do find it therapeutic and enjoyable, when I have the time to enjoy it! But that is rare these days. Plus, our garden space has more than tripled in size over the past few years!
In all, our old methods just weren’t cutting it. But we have found some great solutions I’m excited to share with you today!

Here is a quick summary of how our garden is currently watered:  

  • The majority of our raised garden beds have soaker hoses or DIY drip systems, which a hose attaches to. Combine with a timer for added convenience!
  • Several of our raised beds are outfitted with olla pots, which help reduce other water needs in terms of frequency and amount.
  • Some smaller raised beds, containers (pots, wine barrels, and grow bags), and the greenhouse are watered by hand.
  • Much of our hand watering is done using reclaimed rainwater.
  • The remainder of the garden, including the pollinator zones, fruit trees, and shrubs around the perimeters are on automatic drip. One system was in place when we moved in, and another we created by converting traditional sprinkler heads to drip manifolds.


A photo of a front yard garden, as shown from the roof. It has a yellow line drawn around the outside perimeter of the yard, labelled "auto drip system". There are pink dots in other areas with plants, labelled "converted sprinkler heads to drip manifold". A label that reads "soaker hoses" is placed over the raised beds in the photo.
An irrigation map of our front yard garden. This photo is outdated and we now have two more small raised beds on either side of the raised beds shown. Those still get watered by hand, along with the wine barrels and miscellaneous pots. Clay ollas are also in the raised beds, which I forgot to note here. Read more about all these garden irrigation options below.


Fun Tidbit: People often see our garden and say or think: “Oh, that must take a ton of water!” Sure, maybe it isn’t as water-wise as a xeriscaped yard, but guess what? According to historical use on our water bills, we use just about the same amount of water now as the family of four who lived here before we did! They maintained a green lawn in both the front and back yard.

By removing all of the lawn and the majority of the traditional sprinklers, our current garden irrigation methods are efficient enough to grow exponentially more plants (and exponentially more useful plants!) than the previous owners did – without increasing our consumption.


We’ll discuss each of these types of garden irrigation systems, but before we dive into the details, let’s lay some groundwork. How much water do plants like? How often should I water? What type of watering is best?


WATERING NEEDS


Consider the Plant

Water requirements will vary from plant to plant, so read up on what it is you’re growing and what they prefer. Generally speaking, most plants like moist soil, but not soggy, flooded, or in standing water. Plants breathe through all of their tissues, including their roots. If the roots are overly wet for an extended period of time, it essentially suffocates them. It also increases their chance of rotting, or developing disease. Certain plants – like succulents, cacti, or even chili peppers – prefer to be more on the dry side of things. Every pot, bed, or container needs adequate drainage!

The average plant is most happy when it gets a nice deep drink, but can then have the chance to slightly dry out before the next watering. I don’t mean completely dry out though! It’s all about balance. It is also usually best to provide a deep watering less often (e.g. once or twice per week, depending on the climate) over a light, shallow watering every single day – unless you’re dealing with very hot and dry summers.

Consider the season and weather

Before you start to water, poke around under the soil surface a little bit. Is it still quite wet down there? Or super dry, even several inches deep? Then think about how much you last watered, when, and what the weather has been like. Adjust as needed.

Our watering needs here, with our temperate winters and cooler foggy summers, will be markedly different than those who live somewhere hot and arid like Arizona. The schedule will also vary from week to week, with natural swings in weather. Even in our hottest times of year (in the 80’s) we don’t find the need to water more than twice per week. If it has been overcast and cooler, one deep water per week may do just fine. If we’re having a rainy winter, we are able to shut down all of our garden irrigation for a few months.

You’ll start to notice a pattern and get your own schedule down, suited for your climate, season, sun exposure, mulching practices, and type of garden you have.


Consider your garden style

In-ground gardens and deep raised beds like ours (18-24 inches deep) will stay moist longer than shallower raised beds, or most containers. Every type of container varies as well. Solid pots and clay pots usually stay more wet than something like fabric grow bags. We love using fabric grow bags for many reasons, including improved drainage and their ability to air-prune roots. Yet they usually require more frequent water than other types of containers.

In raised beds, our personal preference is to keep the whole bed evenly moist. The alternative would be using drip just along the base of the plants. By watering between plants too, it encourages the roots to spread out further. It also keeps all of the soil and its inhabitants alive and happy, including beneficial microbes, fungi, and worms.

Improving moisture retention: Mulch!

An important concept when it comes to gardening and irrigation is mulch! Mulch is a layer of material added on top of the soils surface, increasing its ability to retain moisture and reduce evaporation. As a best practice, try to use mulch in your garden as much as possible! A variety of organic materials can be used as mulch. Some examples include compost, straw, hay, pine needles, leaf litter, wood chips, grain hulls, grass clippings, or even newspaper.

In our raised garden beds, we use compost as mulch. We mix some homemade compost with a semi-woody soil conditioner product, topping the beds off with this a few times per year, to about 1-2 inches deep. Around the perimeter of the yard, such as around our fruit trees and other shrubs, we use a redwood bark (in the front yard). In the backyard where the chickens free-range, we use a softer shredded redwood bark known as “gorilla hair”. The spaces between our raised beds are mulched with green rock gravel.

Now that we’ve gotten those concepts out of the way, let’s dive into the various options to consider for watering your garden.

HAND-WATERING

While this method of garden irrigation can be the most time-consuming and labor intensive, manual hand watering does have its benefits! Hand watering gives you the ultimate control over the amount of water, and timing. It also makes it easy to distribute water evenly over the surface area.

Though we are trying to get more and more automated in our garden irrigation systems, we do still use hand watering for many situations! For example, watering a tree that is off in a corner by itself without any permanent irrigation lines nearby. In this instance, we just drag a hose out once in a while (weekly for young trees, monthly for established trees) and set it on there for a good drink. We also hand water our smaller raised beds, the greenhouse, and plants in containers that aren’t near a drip line.

For folks with just one or two raised beds, or a handful of potted plants, hand-watering is often times still a very manageable and the most affordable option! I do suggest investing in a good adjustable, multi-function watering wand for ease and comfort, as well as more controlled watering – easily avoiding wetting foliage.

An image of a watering wand hovering over a raised bed, spraying it. The bed is empty with no plants - it was brand new. The bed is made of redwood, and is about 5 feet by 3 feet and 18 inches tall. Water is running down the sides of the bed, wetting the pink wood.
Wetting down the newest raised bed, just filled with soil. We don’t have a soaker hose for this bed yet, so we added a large GrowOya to the middle and will continue to water by hand. Obviously, if plants were in this bed, I wouldn’t be spraying from so high above. Using a watering wand enables us to tuck it low between plants to water the soil, avoiding spraying the foliage of the plants.


SOAKER HOSES


Common Soaker Hoses

I’ll admit, I poo-pooed soaker hoses in the past. The types we have previously tried for our raised beds were not my favorite, and not something I would recommend. I don’t remember the brand, but they were just the typical black rubbery ones you can pick up at your local garden center or hardware store. First of all, the water pressure and output was not evenly distributed throughout the hose. It would readily seep out water near the start, but by the end of a long hose with many turns throughout the bed, it was hardly seeping at all.

Additionally, I wasn’t a fan of the material. Most standard soaker hoses are made from recycled tire rubber. They’re full of heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxins that can leach through the hose and into your soil. Furthermore, a lot of crops are excellent at taking up toxins from soil. For example, kale can bio-remediate heavy metals from soil! This all increases as they bake in the hot sun. The sun also degrades the rubber and can make it brittle. This often leads to cracking and leaking after a couple years of use. They’re also usually not certified lead-free.

If you have soaker hoses like this already, I don’t want you to freak out. I apologize for being such a Debbie Downer here! They’ll probably only last a couple years anyways, so when they’ve reached the end of their life, you can consider what you want to replace them with…


Solution: Safe soaker hoses!

I cannot adequately express my joy in recently finding these premium soaker hoses from Gardener’s Supply Company. Seriously. They’re NSF-certified, drinking-water grade, non-leaching, and free of toxins including BPA, phthalates, and lead. They’re even made in the USA! We added them to four of our front yard raised beds this year. The safety and quality of these things is unparalleled.

I was skeptical at first, and didn’t want to share about them here or on Instagram until we tested them for a while. I have to say, we are extremely impressed with the even and deep distribution of water released throughout the whole hose! Additionally, the type of polyurethane that they’re made of will not degrade and get brittle in the sun. These soaker hoses have very durable connection ends, and are pretty sexy looking to boot. I love the brown color. In my humble opinion, all these attributes make them very worthy of the upfront cost!

Four images of light tan perforated soaker hoses being added to raised beds. It shows the hose weaved back and forth several times on the soil surface, between rows of plants. Also shown is a close up of the hose with the raised bed in the background, and 6" metal pins used to keep it in place.
Adding the new soaker hoses to front yard raised beds. We used the 50 ft length in the larger 4×8′ raised beds (top) and the shorter 25 foot length in our smaller 3×7′ raised beds. These lengths enabled us to cover a good amount of surface area for even saturation of the bed.


Potential drawbacks

Something to note about these hoses: if you crank your water up really high, they can send off little errant sprays here and there. To solve that, we covered them with a light layer of compost mulch. Now we don’t even have to look at them, and the mulch gets nice and saturated around them too! This blocks the little sprays and keeps our plant’s foliage 100% dry, which is important in preventing fungal disease like powdery mildew.

One last thing to mention about soaker hoses is hard water. If your water is really “hard”, meaning it contains a lot of minerals and is prone to causing build-up, it could eventually lead to build-up in your soaker hoses too. Our water is pretty hard here. Therefore, we add a simple hose carbon filter that will remove minerals at the start of the system, attached to the hose bib. Keep in mind that hard water can cause clogging issues with any drip irrigation system. We also use this filter when filling our fountain, to avoid staining and clogging of the pump.

Two raised beds at sundown. The soaker hoses are no longer showing because they've been lightly buried in mulch. A man (Aaron) is in the photo with a watering can, filling up a clay olla that is buried in one of the beds. The raised beds have small plants in them. Rows of greens, and some tomatoes and peppers.
The soaker hoses were installed, then lightly covered in compost mulch. This further improves moisture retention.


Using soaker hoses in garden beds

Soaker hoses are probably one of the most water-efficient ways to irrigate a bed. They are also very flexible, allowing you to water as little or as much surface area as you desire. You can see in the photos how we evenly weaved them around the beds and plants, to cover as much surface area as possible. Our soaker hoses are run close to plants to ensure their immediate root zone gets watered, and also between the plants – to keep the rest of the soil happy and encourage their roots to spread. Heavy-duty 6” long contractor landscape staples were used to pin the hose into place as needed.

To use the soaker hoses, Aaron brings out our garden hose and connects it to one raised bed at a time. He turns it on, sets an alarm, walks away for a bit, then comes back to switch the hose to the next raised bed. However, multiple soaker hoses could be connected together with a joining section of hose, enabling you to water many beds at once time. We leave the main feeder hose out and connected during the week, and reel it in with the aid of a good hose cart on the weekends – so it is out of the way when we are outside most.

Watering time will vary depending on the season, maturity and type of plants, and so on. Lately we have been running them for a little over a half an hour each. To make this task even quicker and easier, we just implemented an additional time-saver: a hose timer!


GARDEN HOSE TIMERS

We finally got a garden hose timer for both the front and back yard! The main garden hose attaches to it, which in turn runs to a soaker hose. Water comes on at the time and duration we set the timer for. Aaron does still have to switch the hose between the soaker hoses. However, the timers are set so that at least one larger bed in the front and back yard are finished being watered before he even gets home from work!

The popular timer we received from Gardener’s Supply can be found here. There are many hose timer options out there, like this highly-rated timer by Orbit – at half the price! Additionally, we are planning to get a hose splitter soon. With that, the main garden hose can feed two of the raised bed soaker hoses at a time. That will cut the effort and time in half!

A garden hose timer can be used for a variety of garden irrigation applications, be it soaker hoses or other DIY drip systems.

A close up image of a garden hose timer. It is a box attached to a hose bib, with a garden hose coming out the opposite end. Buttons read "time, "water cycle", "how long", and so on.
Our new hose timer! Don’t mind the weeds…


DIY DRIP SYSTEMS

Frustrated with the use of crummy soaker hoses in the past, we created our own drip systems! Typical drip irrigation line is half-inch black tubing. You can purchase drip line that comes with pre-installed emitters at designated intervals, which is best for evenly spaced crops such as those grown in rows. Alternately, you can customize your own drip line by attaching emitters where you want them. This is what we did.


To construct a DIY drip system, we did the following:

  • Obtain a roll of 1/2 inch irrigation tubing
  • Attach a pressure-reducer and threaded hose adapter to one end. This allows you to plug your garden hose into it. The pressure reducer is helpful because then no matter how hard you turn your hose up, the pressure in your system will remain constant and even from watering session to watering session. This also prevents “blow-outs” – when you accidentally send one of your emitter attachments flying.
  • Decide on the configuration you want your tubing to run. For example, do you want one straight line running up the middle of a bed, with various emitters attached to it? Weaving through an in-ground flower bed? Or, running along the perimeter of a raised bed? There are various attachments such as 90-degree angle pieces to allow you to customize the shape.
  • At the opposite end that the hose attaches to, either fold over and tightly zip tie the end shut, or attach a dead-end cap piece.
  • Next, add emitters along the main drip line, with the assistance of micro-tubing as needed for your desired configuration.
  • The ones we make typically lay inside a garden bed. We drag a hose over and connect it – similar to how a soaker hose would be used.


Four images of a DIY drip system, showing the end attachment where a hose connects to the 1/2" black irrigation tubing, various corner pieces used to make turns, and the micro-bubbler emitter attachments placed between plants.
An example of one of the DIY drip systems we currently have in our large U-shaped “coop garden” raised bed in the back yard. It works well, but we’ve sort of fallen in love with those soaker hoses for raised beds… So we may be looking to replace this soon. We still rely on this type of system in other areas of our yard though!



Drip system emitter options:

When it comes to building your own drip system, there are dozen of emitter options out there! Each of them will come with a rating for how many gallons per hour (gph) it will emit. This could range from as little as .5 gph up to 30 gph on some of the sprinkler-type emitter attachments. The great thing is, you can mix and match emitters with various flow rates on the same drip system. This enables you to provide customized water amounts to plants that want more or less water.

Some drip irrigation emitters are simply little plugs that you can insert directly into the main black tubing. Those will emit a single drip right there along the main tube. Or, you can attach smaller pieces of ¼” irrigation micro-tubing to each emitter to enable the water to drip at a location further away. Similarly, that smaller tubing can be attached to the main garden irrigation line with an adapter piece, and then a sprinkler or bubbler type emitter at the other end of it. Those sprinkler styles can be further narrowed down by their spray pattern, such as a fan, 180”, 360”, and so on. These are what we use for our fruit trees.


Our DIY drip experience

We have created a few of these DIY systems for our largest raised beds. They are configured with half-inch black irrigation tubing running along the inner perimeter of the bed, with pieces of micro-tubing attached to little sprinklers and bubblers around the plants within the bed. See the photos above. We do not use the single-drip emitters in the raised bed, because again, we prefer to keep all of the soil moist – not just one spot here and there.

We still use one of these setups in our backyard raised beds. They do work quite well! However, I find this style preferable in a raised bed that has fewer and larger plants (e.g tomatoes), meaning you need fewer emitters to keep them watered. We found them less ideal for maintaining an entire bed evenly moist, or for more tightly spaced crops like carrots or rows of greens. In that scenario, we would have needed to add more and more emitters, or a lot more drip tubing – which isn’t very flexible to weave around. Things were getting a little messy, jumbled, and I believe less water-efficient as it was.

Because we used the sprinkle and bubbler type emitter attachments to water a larger area, they also sometimes sprayed the leaves of our plants. With powdery mildew rampant here, this wasn’t ideal for us. It wouldn’t have been an issue if we used single-drip emitters instead.

Considering these pros and cons, we have decided that soaker hoses better suit our needs for raised garden beds. Especially because standard drip systems are more difficult to make drinking-water grade. On the other hand, classic drip emitters (both single-drip and/or the sprinkler type) are perfect for other spaces in our yard! We rely on them for nearly everything outside of the raised beds – like for trees and perennials.


Convert Sprinkler Heads to Drip

When we took out the remainder of our front lawn and replaced it with gravel pathways and “pollinator islands”, we were faced with the question: how do we still utilize the existing irrigation lines for a different and better use? There were about 7 traditional pop-up sprinkler heads throughout the space, attached to standard ½-inch PVC running underground. It was all set up by the previous owner, including a fully automated timer system.  

Short of hiring a professional, the simplest option we discovered to convert traditional sprinkler heads to drip was using all-in-one drip manifolds. See the image below. All you do is replace the pop-up sprinkler head with a riser and a drip manifold instead. The manifolds we have contain a pressure reducer and filter system inside, to adequately transform a high-pressure irrigation system to drip! Screw them in, attach micro-tubing to each spur, and then run your micro-tubing to the desired location. At the end, attach either a single-drip emitter or mini sprinkler/bubbler as discussed above.

Manifolds come in a variety of options, with as few as 2 spurs and up to 9, the option we chose. Ensure whatever manifold you buy is capable of reducing high pressures on its own. Otherwise, prepare to add an upstream pressure regulator to your system.

A close up of a drip manifold, which replaced a traditional sprinkler head. It looks sort of like a sprinkler head, but has a serious of small drip tubing coming out the bottom and sides of it. Emitters are attached to those tubes in desired locations.
We love these things! It was such a quick and easy solution to converting sprinklers to drip!

NOTE: You MUST replace every sprinkler head in that same “zone” with these.

Meaning, you cannot leave behind one regular sprinkler and use a couple of these elsewhere in the same piping/pressure zone. The pressure differential between the two units will cause issues.  

Our existing sprinkler heads were around the perimeter of the old lawn area. However, we wanted these new drip manifolds to be in more centralized locations – one or two in each of our new stone-lined “pollinator zones” as previously shown on the front yard overview photo. Therefore, we did have to attach new piping underground to move each sprinkler riser over a few feet. This can be accomplishing using standard PVC, or a flexible screw-in irrigation tubing that is compatible with PVC and high pressure.


OTHER AUTOMATED DRIP SYSTEMS

I have found that most homes have some sort of automatic sprinkler system as shown below. A backflow preventer, pressure regulator, timer system, and/or filter are added, teeing off the house water main and then run out to the lawn or yard space. The previous homeowner here worked with a professional to set these up in both our front and back yard, though I know many handy homeowners that easily install these systems themselves! Since we haven’t done so, I am not going to attempt to give instructions on that.

On our property, most of the existing garden irrigation “zones” were traditional sprinkler systems. We still use them in the backyard for the fruit trees and pollinator island. Otherwise, we converted most of them to drip by replacing the sprinkler heads themselves, as discussed above. We got lucky – one zone in the front yard was already set up with drip irrigation tubing. It runs along the entire outer perimeter of the front yard. We have customized it over time, adding or moving various emitters, but the core system was in place.

Images of a typical household irrigation system, showing PVC pipes, filters, and timers along the side of a house. Another image shows the black irrigation tubing running in a snake pattern through a newly landscaped area.
Hey, no one said irrigation was pretty. The top shows our automated irrigation system, which ties directly into the house main water line. The one on the right has a large filter unit and backflow preventer, which tells me it feeds the black drip irrigation tubing that runs the perimeter of the front yard (as shown in the bottom image). We add various emitters to this system as needed.


Not comfortable with plumbing, and no budget to hire a professional?

If you aren’t comfortable or want to avoid tapping into your main water lines, I saw something very creative and simple recently! See the video below from Weekend Honey Do List. It is as easy as adding an all-in-one adapter system that allows you to connect black drip irrigation tubing directly to a standard hose bib. If you’d like, add a timer too. Next, simply run the irrigation line where you need it.

Voila! This would essentially create the same type of automated system we have connected to our water main, but with no plumbing skills necessary! Note that it does occupy that hose bib from other use, unless you add a splitter or timer that has two outlets.

Video thanks to Weekend Honey Do List


GARDEN HOSE OPTIONS

Whether it is for hand-watering, or for hooking up to a soaker hose or other drip lines to, we have been slowly replacing all of our old garden hoses with BPA-free, drinking water quality hoses. Traditional garden hoses contain icky chemicals that can leach out into the water, particularly when exposed to heat or sun. Often times, they’re not certified as lead-free.

If you can’t afford to upgrade your hoses just yet, I have one safety tip for you: When you first turn on your hose, allow it to run for a moment somewhere else than into your garden beds or fruit trees. This will flush out the stagnant water inside the hose since you last used it, which will most certainly have icky hose junk in it. I hate to waste water, so direct it onto a non-edible plant if possible.


OLLAS

Have you guys heard of ollas yet? They’re awesome! We have several in our raised beds. Essentially, they are porous but sealed clay vessels or pots that are buried beneath the soil line, and then filled with water. Through the process of osmosis, if the surrounding soil is dry and needs water, it will seep from the olla to provide it. Ollas have been used in irrigation for centuries, dating back to 4000 years ago in both Africa and China!

Ollas aren’t necessarily intended to be the only source of water. This is particularly true if plants are young and don’t have far-reaching roots yet, or if you only have one or two ollas in your large raised bed. However, they are a wonderful supplement and greatly reduce the need for other garden irrigation!

Ollas provide deep water, helping soil stay saturated and moist below. Moist soil more readily accepts and evenly distributes new water when added. They also serve as an indicator for how wet your soil is – or, how we’ll you’re watering… If they empty rapidly after filling, your soil must be pretty dry. In contrast, if they stay full for a few days, your soil is nice and moist!

Depending on the size of olla used, the area they can water varies from a couple feet to several feet in all directions. We love and use the GrowOya brand ollas. The small ones are best for containers, like in a wine barrel or grow bag. We have medium GrowOyas in our smaller raised beds, and the large ones in our biggest raised beds, particularly around deep rooting plants like tomatoes. Unfortunately, the large size is temporarily sold out! But check out the small ones or the medium ones here.

Four images showing the process of a large clay vessel, shaped like a pear vase, being buried in a garden bed between plants. It is about 1.5 foot tall by 1 foot wide.
A large GrowOya being added between deep-rooting tomatoes.


Make your own olla?

Some thrifty gardeners get creative and make their own ollas! I have seen folks gluing two pots together, then sealing the bottom hole somehow. However, they used kind of gnarly glue adhesive. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable burying and saturating something potentially toxic like that in my garden soil. If you have made your own ollas and found a durable, effective, non-toxic way to seal them together, please let me know!


RAIN TANKS

The last garden irrigation solution that I want to talk about is rainwater capture! This is a fairly hefty topic on it’s own, so I will definitely write some dedicated posts on the subject in the near future. For the time being, I will provide at least a brief run-down of how we use rainwater along, with some best practices!

As crazy as it sounds, capturing rainwater is illegal in some places! I suggest checking with your local and state laws before investing in tanks. You also need to consider your climate before choosing tanks. If you get frequent rain throughout the year, you can get by with fewer and smaller tanks. They’ll refill more often! In contrast, we need enough capacity to catch as much as possible in the short 3 months it rains over the winter – to last until next winter. Also note that rain tanks (when connected to a roof gutter downspout) fill up WAY quicker than you’d expect them too!


Consider this example scenario:

  • Say you have a 2,000 square foot house.
  • The roof has a peak in the middle. If you hook up a rain barrel to a gutter downspout on one side of the house, you are capturing the rain that falls on that one half of the roof – maybe 1000 square feet. Let’s say the approximate size of the roof is 50’ x 20’.
  • A nice little storm comes through with 1 inch of rainfall. That does NOT equate to one inch in your barrel!
  • If you convert your 50’ x 20’ roof area to inches, it is 600” x 240”. Multiply that by the 1” of rain to get the volume of rainwater in cubic inches. 600” x 240” x 1” = 144,000 cubic inches of rain.
  • The standard conversion for water is 1 gallon = 231 cubic inches. Thus, if we divide 144,000 by 231, that means you could capture 623 gallons of water in just one 1-inch rainstorm!
  • As you can see, one little 50-gallon rain barrel isn’t going to get you very far. Plus, right after a storm, you don’t need to water! So the barrel will sit full, and overflow with every subsequent storm. Many folks either daisy-chain multiple smaller tanks together, have other “reserve” containers they can empty their barrel into to make more space, or simply use larger tanks.


Our Rain Tanks

We have three rainwater tanks. Two of which are these 530-gallon slimline tanks by Bushman, and one smaller 140-gallon capacity tank by Polymart. Note that our smaller one is technically a “125-gallon” but holds 140 gallons when completely full.

That means we have 1300 gallons of rainwater storage capacity on this little homestead! I suggest looking at your local farm supply or water tank supply stores. Such as those that sell tanks for rural residential or agriculture water tanks. They might sell rain tanks too, or other tanks that can easily be converted to catch rainwater. Shipping big tanks makes up the majority of the cost, so going local will save you! Even though we do not drink rainwater, it was important to us to choose tanks that were BPA-free.

Three images of rain storage tanks. Two of are very large rectangular tanks, about 6 feet tall and long, and 2 feet wide. These hold 530 gallons. Deanna is standing next to the tank for scale, and it is much taller than she is. Another is a more standard round tank, only 140 gallons.
Our rainwater systems. The top shows our two large 530-gallon slimline tanks, as shown from the roof. They’re tucked between our chicken run and the fence line, accessed via a narrow pathway from either side. Each has a hose connected to the bottom outlet. We chose this size and style tank to maximize storage with a narrow footprint. We didn’t have any other place on the small property for large tanks! The lower right shows our smaller 140-gallon tank that lives on the front porch.


Keep Your Rain Tanks Clean!


It is not safe to consume rainwater unless it is properly filtered and rapidly boiled, and even then it can be a little sketchy. There is potential bacteria from the roof runoff, such as animal droppings. Avoid semi-transparent or white tanks. The light penetration allows algae to develop inside. Ours get a tad scuzzy still, but nothing a good annual flush, disinfection, and rinse can’t solve.

To prevent junk from entering your rain tanks, it is important they have fine-mesh screens at the inlet. Furthermore, all opening should have screens to prevent mosquito breeding. Our “gutters” have an initial larger screen to catch leaves, with an additional finer screen right as the water enters the tank – sealing the tank itself.

I put gutters in quotations because our house doesn’t actually have any gutters! Instead, we installed a little section at a roof “valley” that had heavy runoff to divert into our largest tanks behind the chicken run. In the front of the house, we hooked up a large vintage copper funnel and tubing at another valley to catch runoff there. When our tanks are full and more rain is in the forecast, we pull off as much rainwater as possible to make more space, storing it in 5-gallon buckets or even in trash cans.


Using rainwater for garden irrigation

At this point in time, we do not have a pump system set up for our tanks. The height of the tanks gives us decent enough head pressure to connect and use a hose close by, especially when the tanks are full. On the other hand, there is definitely not enough pressure to full-on water the garden with. Each tank has a hose bib near the bottom to connect a hose to, or fill a watering can with.

We may get a pump one day, but for now we mostly use the rainwater for our hand-watering needs. For example, to water the cannabis plants, greenhouse seedlings, air plants, house plants, making compost tea, making big batches of fresh aloe water for transplanted trees, and other chlorine-sensitive uses. Plants LOVE rainwater, so we save it for the spoiled ones. Another way to provide chlorine-free water is to filter your tap water with carbon hose filter.

Because of the potential for bacteria, try to avoid direct contact between rain water and your edible crops. Especially leafy greens. But it is okay to water food with rainwater! Soil and compost are excellent at buffering and purifying bacteria and even toxins. Just avoid splashing and spraying it about.


In summary…

…we do a little bit of everything here! One size doesn’t always fit all. Maybe some of these garden irrigation solutions won’t work for you – but I hope many of them do!

To make it super easy to find most of the items mentioned in this post, I put them all together in one place for you. You’ll also see we have lists made for gardening supplies, seed starting, kombucha, sourdough, books, and more!

Check out this video that shows all of the garden irrigation methods we described today, as utilized here on this homestead. Thanks for tuning in!



10 Comments

  • Hayley Grant

    Unsure if it’s an American thing, the whole “don’t drink the roof rainwater it could be toxic” but a significant percentage of Australian households have roof collected rainwater tanks as their only water source for drinking, bathing, gardening etc. I have never heard of any issues at home, and only ever hear or read it on US based blogs and podcasts. I have only rainwater at home from 3 large poly tanks and a simple filter between them and my house and it’s the best water ever, all town water tastes like chlorine to me now.

    • DeannaCat

      Interesting! What type of roof materials do you all usually have? Ours are often asphalt shingles, which can supposedly leach chemicals (though my semi-scientific brain knows this would be most extreme with prolonged contact time, which it doesn’t allow for). There are also some systems with a “first flush” diverter, so the initial rain that is going to essentially “wash” a dirty roof will be discharged elsewhere before going into your collection system. A bigger concern is bacteria like e.coli, giardia, etc from wildlife – like raccoons, birds, rats, and opossums pooping on the roof. A basic filter wouldn’t sanitize contaminated water. You’d need to boil it, use chlorine, UV, or another sterilizing system.

  • Amanda Douglas

    SO much info! Wow, thank you!!

    Do you have a suggestion for connecting your food-grade soakers bed to bed? Mine are all in-ground (not raised) and I’d love to connect them with smaller food grade hoses. I need around 3′ connections (I followed all the links but didn’t see shorter food-grade connection options).

  • Rachel Bachmeier

    What a fantastically informative blog post! Thank you! We have the typical black soaker hoses that you find at your average big box store.. and I’ve definitely experienced some of the problems you describe. Especially the uneven distribution of water. I hadn’t even thought about the toxins that may be leaching into our soil… yikes 🙁 I will definitely be looking into the higher quality ones you recommend.

    • DeannaCat

      Right? We were NOT fans of typical soaker hoses! I am glad you fond this useful, and I hope you love them as much as we do!

  • Stacey G.

    Great post, Deanna. Thank you for all the information. Have you considered connecting the soakers in the four beds together somehow so you can water all four at the same time? I’m trying to set my system up this year and want to do that but haven’t found the right connector yet. Thanks again and great job! Love your blog!

    • DeannaCat

      We’ve thought about it… There are a few complications to consider though. First, we’d need some sort of short BPA free connection pieces that are solid, to connect each bed. They’d also need to be buried below our gravel so they don’t show or we won’t trip on them. Even if we accomplished that, I am not sure it is best practice to run a hose on one end of say 4 long, weaving soaker hoses thereafter. I can’t imagine the pressure would be evenly distributed after that amount of length. I do know someone who connects both the ends of the soaker hose to a regular hose with a splitter, pushing water into the soaker from both ends – but that means the two ends would need to be in the same place…. The one thing we ARE trying to figure out, as I showed in the video, is a good hose splitter and connector to run from the hose to two soaker hoses/beds at once – feeding them in simultaneously “in parallel” rather than in succession/chain. Two large beds are the same size, and two smaller, so they would be good partners in terms of time needed to water. Does that make sense? Haha hard to explain. I point out what I meant in the video though 🙂 Good luck!

  • Michelle

    Your posts are always impeccably timed! We JUST made ollas last week. I wanted to avoid the gorilla glue/caulk combos too. I toyed with the idea of using a “cleaner” cement mix to seal the bottom of terra cotta pots and attach the two together. However, we only have a 4×4 plot, and the bag of cement was huge. I also contemplated doing a mix of beeswax and tree resin. Tree resin was harder to source, so I gave up. Ultimately, I used 6″ terra cotta pots with the thinner flair rims. I bought terra cotta pot saucers in the next size up and used beeswax to seal and attach the two pieces together. They are surprisingly sturdy! I could not separate them. To be safe, I used two zip ties over the “olla” for added stability and will probably use a cork in the top hole. We had beeswax and zip ties on hand for other projects, so our total new cost for 5 small pots was $20.

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