Bucket brigade!

The ongoing drought in Cascadia has been punishing. We are so used to the rainy season lasting into June, that most of us have learned to compensate by planting warm season crops later in the year, and cool season crops nearly year round. 

Wildfires in BC wreak havoc on air quality.
Wildfires in BC wreak havoc on air quality.
Too much smoke in the air makes for spectacular summer sunsets.

But not anymore. For much of the Pacific Northwest 2015 has been the warmest and driest on record, so instead of bemoaning the slug attacks, we’re dealing with severe water restrictions. Our water comes from a community water system – a few large wells supplying a small geographic area with limited connections permitted. These small systems take the place of individual wells, allowing greater population density (relatively speaking) and puts the burden of maintaining adequate quality levels onto the governing body of the system. The down side is that homeowners had to “abandon” their residential wells as part of the transition. Commercial farms and people with larger acreage are able to keep their wells as use water as they see fit.

But the rest of us are on notice to restrict all watering, including food-producing gardens, to the hours of 9pm to 6am, and only using hand-held devices or soaker hoses. No sprinklers! Not only is this almost impossible for people working full time, it also lumps ornamental landscaping in with food plants. Adding another layer of pain to the mix are the surrounding berry farms, pumping thousands of gallons of water into the air to keep the raspberries coming.

But as everyone’s mom always says – life isn’t fair.

Hildegard supervises the initial test run.
Hildegard supervises the initial test run.

So we have rummaged the internet for fast, easy & cheap ideas to get our garden through this summer and came up with the bucket brigade. Cheap, easy, portable, modular, reusable…and best of all, the plants love it!


Finding the right parts and making them fit together can be tricky, depending on how well-stocked your local hardware store is. We found the manifold on clearance at one store, along with a few packets of drippers and stakes. The 1/2″ male adapter was harder to locate, but a few minutes of staring at the wall of drip irrigation parts yielded a few options. The key is that it has to poke through the bucket just enough to allow the manifold to screw down completely. Test the fittings at the store if possible. BucketTest

  1. Drill a hole near the bottom of the bucket. We used a 1/2″ paddle bit and had to rough the hole a bit wider to fit the adapter through. A 5/8″ bit would probably work better, but ours was hiding that day.
  2. Wrap the 1/2″ side of the adapter with plumber’s tape, roll on a rubber washer, and fit it through the hole, with the larger side inside the bucket and smaller side poking through.
  3. Screw the sprinkler manifold onto the adapter, making sure the washer inside is compressed enough to form a tight seal without cracking the plastic.
  4. Cut lengths of 1/4″ tubing to reach from the bucket to the plant/s you want to water and attach a dripper to one end.
  5. Attach the other end of the tube to the manifold, shoving it all the way on the barbed end if you think you won’t be removing it anytime soon. Otherwise put it on just to the barb, but be sure to check for leaks later, and the tubes are easier to take off if you want to change the watering layout.
  6. Tote the whole thing out to the garden (or cut and attach tubing ‘in the field’) and place the bucket on some kind of riser. We use concrete blocks because we have a lot on hand.
  7. Put a tubing stake on near the dripper and stick in the ground near the plant base.
  8. Fill the bucket, check for leaks, and check that water is actually flowing from the dripper. Put the lid on to keep out cooties and such.

Some notes:

We found two kinds of manifolds, one with little screw caps to close unused ports, and one without. We made plugs for the one without from a scrap of tubing and ‘goof plugs’. The little screw caps are stored in a ziploc with all the drip parts, but I assume they will be lost someday. ManifoldOur next little project is to build a permanent raised bed from locally-milled rough cedar, complete with set of layering pieces (metal mini-hoops to hold shade cloth/bird mesh/visqueen as needed). We’ll use this for our overwintering greens, and instead of one drip line per plant, we’ll use in-line drippers in two rows of tubing per bed, spaced about 12″ apart. Dripper


We have three drip buckets going now, one each on the squash, green beans, and watermelons. The water flows fairly slowly, giving the plants time to soak up every last drop. Another option we’re pondering is adapting our 55 gallon rain barrels to drip-irrigate larger areas. Check out some of our inspiration and ideas on our sustainability pinboard.


2 thoughts on “Bucket brigade!”

  1. yes, it has been dryer here in the NW than I have ever experienced. We are lucky to be on our own well but I am thinking of installing a cistern down the driveway from the house where all the water runs from our downspouts. We are lucky that they all run to the same location and we have a metal roof so may gather most of what falls in the winter I think. \
    It will probably continue to get warmer in these parts so who knows how long our water table will be sufficient. We live on an island, after all, so I don’t think the water table is an endless supply and we don’t have mountain runoff here. Just surrounded by a lot of saltwater. A bit worrisome. Good post.

    1. We’ve been shopping for an above ground cistern to catch runoff from our metal garage roof, but it’s not on the expense list yet. We’ll pick up a few more rain barrels though, since we can get them for $15-20 from craigslist. We’re also planning to use a hand-cranked transfer pump to move water from them to the garden.
      It’s just creepy, being so dry in the PNW! I wonder what the rainy season will bring, or if Cali will get all the jet stream.

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