Creating a thriving garden means keeping your plant’s roots well-watered. However, there are several watering systems and methods to choose from. Two of the most common are drip irrigation and hand watering—so which is the better option?
Drip irrigation is the best option for expansive outdoor gardens and experienced gardeners. It is initially a more expensive option but could reduce water usage over time.
Hand watering is the better choice for container gardens and beginner-level gardeners. It is also more budget-friendly.
In this article, I’ll compare drip irrigation and hand watering — specifically, how they work and why they’re beneficial. I’ll also discuss each watering method’s drawbacks, helping you choose an option that suits your needs and budget.
Understanding Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation is a watering method that utilizes slow-moving, dripping water to keep plants watered and healthy. It is typically used in large outdoor gardens, plant nurseries, and small farms.
Unlike hand watering, drip irrigation systems funnel slow-moving water through a series of hoses and tubes. The water drips out of small openings in these tubes or flows from sprayer-like nozzles attached to the hoses.
A drip irrigation system keeps plant roots well-watered by slowly depositing water into the soil above the roots. This watering method helps reduce wasted water and may help prevent root rot.
There are several types of drip irrigation devices, but the primary purpose of drip irrigation is the same, no matter the tools used.
Two Main Devices: Kits and Customized Systems
Generally, there are two main types of drip irrigation devices:
- Drip irrigation kits
- Custom drip irrigation systems
Both types provide slow-moving water to garden soil, but they differ significantly in terms of price and complexity:
Drip irrigation kits are pre-made systems that contain a set number of stakes and hoses. These are ideal for small outdoor gardens and relatively experienced gardeners.
Many of these kits are incredibly affordable and can cover larger areas up to 150 feet (46 m) of soil. They usually come with different types of nozzles, faucet connectors, and tubing to create an efficient small-scale drip irrigation system, making it an excellent option for compact outdoor gardens.
If you have a much more expansive outdoor garden, I’d recommend investing in a customized drip irrigation system, as important factors such as water pressure and area coverage will significantly differ.
Customized drip irrigation systems can cover spaces of any size, making them an ideal option for gardeners with multiple beds and extensive properties. However, these systems are often more complicated and expensive, as they don’t come in pre-made kits.
Instead, gardeners hoping to create custom drip irrigation systems need to purchase individual components and put them together. Of course, you can also hire drip irrigation installation specialists to build your system.
However, hiring installation technicians will add to the final cost of a custom system. You can expect to spend between $500 and $4,000 per acre to build a customized drip irrigation system for your garden.
Notably, subsurface systems (those that sit below the soil surface) are pricier than above-soil systems.
Drip irrigation systems cost between $30 and $1,200, depending on the type of system and the size of your garden. As such, drip irrigation is often far costlier than a watering can or spray bottle (both used for hand watering).
But this watering method may be the superior choice, as there are several benefits of using a drip irrigation system, including:
- Reduced weed growth in garden beds
- Decreased water use and waste
- Reduced labor required to water plants
- Lowered risk of plant disease
Let’s explore these benefits to determine whether the higher initial cost of a drip irrigation system might be worth it:
Reduced Weed Growth
Using garden hoses to keep expansive gardens well-watered is common, but it can lead to excessive weed growth. After all, garden hoses spray water across a wide area, wetting soil between plants. This moisture nourishes weeds, often resulting in widespread weed growth throughout outdoor beds.
The excess water can also negatively impact mulch covering the soil, as it may promote subsurface mold growth that eventually makes its way to plant roots, stems, and leaves.
Drip irrigation systems only provide water to your plants, keeping the spaces between them dry. As such, drip irrigation can reduce weed growth in outdoor gardens, decreasing the amount of weed pulling you need to do each week.
A drip irrigation system can also reduce the water needed to keep your plants healthy.
Decreased Water Waste
The average watering can has a one-gallon capacity. But you might only be able to water a handful of plants with a full can, necessitating several gallons (7.57+ L) to keep a medium-sized or large-sized outdoor garden watered.
Drip irrigation systems significantly decrease the water needed to keep plants well-watered, as they deliver moisture directly to the soil surrounding a plant’s roots.
Because drip irrigation releases small amounts of water to specific places, gardeners can reduce their water usage by investing in these systems. Drip irrigation is also less labor-intensive than hand watering.
Less Labor Required
Watering a large garden can be a time-consuming process when you’re using a watering can. Drip irrigation systems significantly decrease the labor required to keep your garden watered, as you only need to turn your outdoor water faucet on and off.
While you can use a garden hose to expedite the hand watering process, garden hoses can displace soil and lead to overwatered plants and wasted water. They can also increase the risk of plant disease.
Diminished Risk of Plant Disease
Overwatering is one of the most common sources of plant disease, including root rot. When hand watering, it can be challenging to avoid splashing water onto a plant’s leaves and stems, and these moist conditions can attract mold, fungal spores, and pests.
But a drip irrigation system diminishes the risk of water-related disease, providing water directly to the soil above a plant’s roots. As such, a drip irrigation system can be the better choice for individuals hoping to increase their plants’ lifespan and overall health.
Though drip irrigation can be a beneficial watering method (particularly for large outdoor gardens), it’s not without its drawbacks.
Some of the most significant disadvantages of a drip irrigation system include:
- Higher initial expenses
- A general incompatibility with container plants
- Increased maintenance needs
Initially More Expensive
Small drip irrigation systems (like drip irrigation kits) are relatively affordable, but expansive systems can cost thousands of dollars. Custom drip irrigation systems are far more expensive compared to the average cost of a watering can or garden hose.
Not Ideal for Container Plants
Though it’s possible to install drip irrigation systems into outdoor container plants, doing so can be far more complicated and messy than installing drip irrigation in garden beds. Remember, drip irrigation systems rely on tubes to transport water to plants. Unfortunately, these tubes can become a tripping hazard when strung between container plants.
The higher elevation of container plants can also become problematic, as most drip irrigation hoses are kept at ground level, ensuring consistent water pressure throughout the system.
May Require More Maintenance
Drip irrigation tubes often sit on or near the soil, ensuring water drips directly onto the ground covering plant roots. But the small openings in these tubes can become clogged with dirt, requiring replacement or cleaning. Additionally, drip irrigation components can degrade over time due to harsh UV rays or mineral deposits in the water.
Hand watering devices are typically maintenance-free, but gardeners may need to work much harder to maintain drip irrigation systems, especially larger systems covering several acres.
Exploring Hand Watering
Hand watering is a method of watering plants that requires you to use your hands to direct a watering device to the soil. Overall, hand watering is the most traditional form of keeping gardens watered.
Hand watering tools are readily accessible from garden nurseries, home improvement garden centers, and most major department stores.
Types of Devices
There are three primary devices used for hand watering gardens:
- Garden hoses
- Watering cans
- Spray bottles
These differ significantly in terms of their coverage, water pressure, and capacity. The best option for your garden depends on your garden’s size and the moisture needs of your plants.
Garden hoses are a popular hand watering device for more extensive gardens. These attach to outdoor or indoor faucets, providing a constant flow of water that allows gardeners to water their plants quickly.
Many garden hoses also come with adjustable nozzles, allowing you to choose between a wide spray or a direct, high-pressure stream. Expandable hoses are an excellent choice, as they consume less space than traditional rubber hoses. Just like regular hoses, they can last up to five to ten years.
Still, these tools aren’t the best option for smaller gardens or container plants.
Watering cans come in several sizes, though one-gallon (3.8 L) options are the most common. These devices are typically made of hardened plastic or stainless steel. They feature an opening at their top and a long neck with a cap that allows water to spill out onto garden soil.
This hand watering device may be ideal for container plants and small gardens due to its minimal water capacity. However, watering cans don’t offer as much control as spray bottles, so they may not be the best choice for tiny container plants or plants with minimal water needs.
Spray bottles are a fantastic hand watering tool for indoor plants, as they emit a fine spray of water to keep the soil moist. Plants with minimal water needs can also benefit from being watered with spray bottles.
This tool is often more affordable than garden hoses and watering cans, making it a budget-friendly option for those with small gardens.
Opting to hand-water your plants may be more labor-intensive than using a drip irrigation system, but it could also be the better, more beneficial choice.
The most significant benefits of hand watering include:
- Decreased initial investment
- Simplified watering experience
- More control over water levels
- The opportunity to examine plants when watering
Initially More Affordable
Hand watering tools range in price between $1 and $30, making them far more affordable than custom drip irrigation systems. As a result, hand watering may be the better option if you’re working with a tight budget.
Besides, hand watering is a simple process. If you’re maintaining a small-sized garden or a handful of container plants, hand watering could be far less complicated than using a drip irrigation system.
A Simplified Watering Experience
Installing a drip irrigation system can take hours or days (depending on the size of your garden). After all, you’ll need to measure and cut hoses, secure them to connectors, and place emitters.
But hand watering is far simpler. To hand water your garden, you’ll only need to fill a watering can, connect your garden hose to a faucet, or grab a spray bottle.
These hand watering tools also give you greater control over the amount of water your plant receives, making them ideal for gardens with diverse plants with varying moisture needs.
Increased Control Over Watering
Watering cans and spray bottles ensure that your plants only receive the water they need to flourish. Alternatively, drip irrigation systems tend to give plants a homogenous amount of water.
If you own a diverse selection of plants (succulents, vegetables, flowering plants), hand watering may be the better choice, as you can ensure that each plant type is appropriately watered.
Allows Opportunities to Examine Plants Closely
Heading out into your garden to water your plants is a fantastic opportunity to examine your plants for signs of disease. But with a drip irrigation system, you’re less likely to notice warning signs unless you’re purposely spending time checking your plants.
Hand watering may be the better option for you and your garden, but like drip irrigation, it has its disadvantages.
Some drawbacks of hand watering include:
- A higher risk of overwatering plants
- Increased potential for weed growth
- More physical labor is required to keep plants watered
- Higher chance of plants developing signs of disease
Risk of Overwatering
While a spray bottle isn’t likely to flood your soil, watering cans with large spout openings and garden hoses can quickly saturate the soil. Consequently, hand watering carries a higher risk of overwatering than drip irrigation — and as a gardener, you’re likely already aware of the dangers of waterlogging.
Increased Potential for Weed Growth
Hand watering isn’t always exact, especially when using a garden hose or watering can. Water can spread to the soil between plants, providing the perfect environment for invasive weeds. So choosing to hand-water your plants may also mean pulling more weeds each month.
More Labor Intensive
Depending on your plant’s water needs, you may need to water them daily. If you own more than a couple of plants, hand watering your garden could be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Those using watering cans may need to haul gallons (7.57+ L) of water into the garden each day and refill their watering cans several times.
Drip irrigation is far less labor-intensive, making it a better choice for larger garden spaces.
Higher Risk of Plant Disease
Garden hoses and low-cost watering cans can expel too much water, causing brief flooding. But overwatering your plants can lead to root rot, mold growth, and fungus gnat infestations. As such, hand watering may increase the risk of plant disease in your garden.
Which Watering Method Is Better?
Drip irrigation and hand watering are both suitable watering methods, but one may prove the better option for your garden and your budget.
Drip irrigation is best for expansive outdoor gardens and experienced gardeners. Conversely, hand watering is better suited to container gardens, indoor plants, and beginner-level gardeners. Those on a tight budget might also want to opt for hand watering.
To sum everything up, drip irrigation is a good choice for:
- Large outdoor spaces
- Experienced gardeners
- Those with bigger budgets
- Lowering labor demands
- Gardeners hoping to reduce water usage
But hand watering is a better choice for:
- Container plants (both indoor and outdoor)
- Beginner-level gardeners
- Those with tight budgets
- Gardeners hoping to keep a close eye on plants
Drip irrigation and hand watering are both popular watering methods. But these watering methods differ in several ways. The right choice for your garden depends on your needs, budget, and personal preferences.
Drip irrigation involves a system of hoses, stakes, pressure regulators, and backflow preventers. A drip irrigation system can be costly and complex but can also reduce garden-related water use.
Hand watering means using a watering can or spray bottle to water plants. This option is more straightforward and initially more affordable, but it can waste water. Hand watering may also increase the risk of root rot.