Choosing the best types of sprinkler heads for your gardens’ water management can feel impossible. There are so many different kinds, and some stores have dedicated aisle upon aisle to stocking every sprinkler ever made. But just because options exist doesn’t mean they’re viable or worth considering. In fact, we’re going to skip right over most of them and immediately zero in on the best, most efficient and conservation-friendly types of sprinkler heads for each part of your garden.
As far as how long to run each of these methods, check out Ewing’s 3 Steps to Understanding and Applying Plant-Water Requirements in Irrigation Systems. Always, always go deep and infrequent, as opposed to light and daily.
For purposes of this article, the home garden is broken out into the following areas:
- shrubs and trees
- flower beds
- contained receptacles (containers/pots, planter boxes, hanging baskets, etc.)
- balcony/indoor gardens
A note about sprinkler efficiency: when we talk about sprinklers being “efficient”, we’re referring to a real metric within the industry that indicates how much of the water that travels through the sprinkler actually hits its intended target (the roots of the plant). Different methods have different efficiency ratings (1 to 100%).
Our planet’s water is a beautiful, necessary, and wasted resource. Conservation efforts must be stepped up, and the right sprinklers can help.
In-Ground vs. Above-Ground Systems
Trenching and digging for an in-ground irrigation system is undoubtedly hard work, but for many gardeners it’s worth it because it’s less of an eye sore, does not present trip hazards, and doesn’t suffer the same wear and tear as above-ground varieties.
Right off the bat, you’ll need to determine if you want new or future components of your irrigation to live in the ground or above it. These days, virtually every type of in-ground irrigation now has an above-ground adaptation, and these adaptations are so good, they’re definitely worth considering.
There are distinct pros and cons to each so it’s important to evaluate your needs against those pros and cons. When in doubt, or even in the absence of preference one way or another, take the environmental approach and always err on the side of whatever is most conservation-friendly.
In-ground irrigation system advantages:
- In the long run, can save a homeowner time, water and money
- Can eliminate water waste via run-off
- Add-ons available such as rain detectors – these will automatically shut off your system when it detects that you have had sufficient water
- Can add up to 15% increased value to your home
- Eliminates nutrient loss due to leaching
- Less of a tripping hazard than above ground irrigation
- Irrigation lines are safe from strikes of a lawnmower, and safe from the sun which causes premature breakdown
In-ground irrigation system disadvantages:
- Installation causes damage to your lawn by tearing up existing grass; will likely need to re-soil and re-sod in those areas
- Seasonal maintenance is required
- Installation is the more costly option up front
- A stable water supply is needed (like a city mainline)
- The tubing is prone to insect and rodent chewing, causing leaks that require repair
- Could result in over watering if you are not careful, which leads to a higher risk of lawn disease
- Sprinkler heads often damaged during mowing
This is typical of what an above-ground drip configuration might look like, and if you have long, straight rows of vegetation to water, it may work better for you than an in-ground system.
Above-ground irrigation system advantages:
- Level of mobility and subsequent ability to choose where exactly to water (much more customizable)
- Level of simplicity – all you need to do is hook it up to your hose and turn it on
Above-ground irrigation system disadvantages:
- Requires more time and effort – you must actually be there to set it up and get it going, causing you to water when it’s good for you, not necessarily when it’s best for your garden
- Poses a trip hazard
- Irrigation tubing constantly exposed – breaks down faster plus unsightly
- Makes it difficult to evenly water the lawn
Keep in mind it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other; you can have both in- and above-ground irrigation. Once you have that sorted, you can move on to determining the types of sprinkler heads best for each area.
Best Types of Sprinkler Heads for Lawns
When it comes to watering the grass areas of your garden, you have five available options: impact sprinklers, fixed spray heads, gear-driven rotors, impact rotors, and manual watering with hose attachments.
Notice the walkway behind this spray head, opposite the water’s trajectory, is completely saturated from overspray.
Of those five, three are viable and worth considering: spray heads (only with a modification), gear-driven rotors, and manual hose attachments. Impact sprinklers are loud, jerky, and inconsistent with output and placement; impact rotors do better, but are still less efficient than their gear-driven counterparts.
Spray Heads (Modified)
Fixed spray heads – often just called “pop-ups” – pop up out of the ground (or can be affixed to a stationary riser above-ground) and blast out a fixed, cone-shape mist of water that rains down onto the circle of grass below. These heads have a typical range of about 15-feet and are the sprinkler head of choice for small (less than 30’ x 30’, or 900 SF) lawn areas.
Unfortunately, these types of sprinkler heads come with some inherent and significant inefficiencies. This remained an across-the-board issue with all fixed spray heads until the Hunter Industries MP Rotator, the first-of-its-kind rotary nozzle designed specifically to fit the smaller spray head bodies, was introduced to market. This nozzle was designed specifically to correct the wasted water problem created by fixed spray heads. It was a game-changer when it came out and it remains the gold standard in efficient rotary nozzles today.
Rotary nozzles convert the fixed cone of water emitted by a spray head into low-profile and clearly defined streams of water that rotate over the ground in a circular pattern, going from this…
Traditional spray heads diffuse the water so much, as much as 60% of what they put out is lost to evaporation.
For about $7 per head, you can increase the efficiency of your fixed spray heads by 35% simply by swapping out the standard spray head nozzles for rotary nozzles.
Here are just a few reasons why fixed spray head nozzles should be swapped out for the rotary style nozzles:
- Spray heads aren’t very tough – they are susceptible to damage and breaks caused by debris and clogs. This is easily remedied by using more durable nozzles. Hunter’s MP Rotators have a patented double-popup action specifically engineered to eliminate clogs. They’re also made from tough plastic to prevent damage.
- Spray heads use more water than needed, causing runoff problems every time they kick on. Rotary nozzles put down water at a much slower rate of application, giving the ground time to absorb it. This eliminates runoff and results in substantial water savings.
- Fixed spray head systems have a tendency to lose water pressure over time, which means you have to remove heads while still trying to get the same coverage. The MP Rotators are actually designed so that a smaller quantity can be used. Spray head coverage has a diameter of about 15’ while rotary nozzles can cover more than double that.
- The droplet size of the water emitted by spray heads is quite small, so the water is too lightweight and often wasted to overspray by even the slightest wind. The streams of water put out by rotary nozzles have a much larger droplet size, meaning the water is heavier and unaffected by light to moderate winds. Being lower to the ground, it also has less distance to travel (fall).
The MP Rotator is one of the most popular products in the entire irrigation industry, due in large part to the patented double popup action. The nozzle doesn’t rise from its protected position until the riser is fully extended, providing the ultimate resistance to dirt, debris, clogs, and breaks.
Hunter’s MP Rotator is the often-imitated, never-duplicated original, a favorite of professionals and home gardeners alike. But a switch to any type of rotary nozzle, regardless of manufacturer, is going to increase efficiency exponentially.
Note: rotary nozzles are optimized for use with 40 PSI water pressure. Be sure to use a pressure regulator if needed.
Must-try rotary nozzles:
The impact rotor is one of two types of rotor sprinkler heads – it’s the mechanics of an impact sprinkler combined with the retractable action of a pop-up.
Rotor style sprinkler heads are a contrast to spray heads in every way: they emit a stream of water that moves over the grass; the droplet size is much larger and therefore heavier, reducing loss to overspray; the profile of the stream is lower to the ground; the range is much longer, with rotors able to throw consistently in the 25 to 40 foot range; and they are far more efficient, at 65 to 70%.
There are two types of rotor sprinkler heads: gear-driven and impact. Both types can be in either the pop-up style or fixed to a riser above ground at a set height, and they both use the same concept of rotating streams of water. The main difference is in the placement of their movement mechanisms – impact rotors are moved by external parts (just like a regular impact sprinkler) and gear-driven rotors are moved by internal parts.
It is this internalization of parts that gives gear-driven rotors the characteristics that home gardeners prefer over the impact rotors: they are quieter, have a smoother and more consistent movement and delivery, are easier to maintain, and are smaller in size while still being able to cover the same distance. Both types of rotors are far more efficient-65 to 70%-than unaltered spray heads, though slightly less efficient than spray heads with the rotary nozzles.
One downside to gear-driven rotors is that they aren’t as fast or easy to install as spray heads. Another is their tendency to be on the expensive side, comparatively speaking. If you’re looking for the cheapest option, then a gear-driven rotor may not be for you, especially if you have a small lawn. Rotors are typically recommended for medium to large sized lawns – somewhere around 30’ x 30’ and up. That said, they can be adjusted down to cover smaller areas, but sacrifice some consistency in the process.
All the parts of a gear-driven rotor are internal, housed within and protected by the canister. This makes them quieter, smoother, and sleeker than their externally-parted impact rotor cousin.
It’s worth noting that rotor-style sprinkler heads and rotary nozzles, though similar, are two totally different things. A gear-driven rotor is an entire sprinkler head assembly. It has a gear-driven body and changeable nozzles that emit a single stream over an adjustable arc. Rotary nozzles, on the other hand, are just the nozzle. They are installed on top of stationary spray bodies and put out multiple streams of water as they turn.
Recommended gear-driven rotors to try:
Hose Attachments for Manual Watering of Lawns
A heavy-duty brass nozzle can be a good option for hand watering when long throws are needed, as long as you’re prepared to invest the time to ensure a thorough watering to proper depths.
Whether it’s out of necessity or preference, manual watering with a hose and sprinkler attachment is still very popular with many home gardeners. There is a wide range of types and brands available, including both handheld and ground-placement options.
Handheld Types of Sprinkler Heads for Lawn
Handheld sprinkler attachments for small lawn areas are those with gentle sprays at short distances. Fan sprayers and low pressure nozzles are good choices for small grass areas because even at close range they’re gentle enough to keep from damaging petals or leaves, or causing harmful damage to the soil’s microbial ecosystem.
If you need to cover some distance, you’ll want higher pressure options with longer throws, such as spray guns or heavy duty brass nozzles. These are powerful jet streams that will cause damage if held too close but work well for distance watering.
Ground Placement Types of Sprinkler Heads for Lawn
Oscillators are the long-time reigning king of ground-placement manual sprinkler attachments, and work best on medium to larger sized lawns. The old aluminum tube styles have evolved into sleeker yet tougher adaptations with more features and movement patterns. Newer options include adjustable, angled heads and gear-driven oscillators that can cover up to 4,500 SF.
While great for uniformly shaped lawns, oscillating types of sprinkler heads don’t cover irregularly shaped areas as well, and brown spots could show up as a result.
Today’s oscillating sprinklers have optional features such as gear drives, angled and adjustable heads, and heavy duty sled bases, enabling some models to cover up to 4,500 SF.
Staked or spike sprinkler heads are a good all-around solution for medium to large size lawns, and can handle the irregularly shaped areas that oscillators cannot. Impact sprinkler heads, rotors, and even fixed spray heads with the rotary nozzle upgrade – all the same heads that are typically part of an in-ground system – are all available in manual, above-ground adaptations. They are affixed to long stakes that drive easily into the ground and come with a standard hose size connection. The set-up can be moved around the yard as needed to ensure proper coverage.
If you have a smaller lawn area (30’ x 30’ and less) and prefer a ground-placement type of sprinkler head over handheld, your best bet is a spot sprayer turned to a low setting.
Close-up picture of manual spot sprayer output. Spot sprayers on a low setting, such as the one shown, work well in small turf areas.
Manual watering is trickier than people think, and areas are often under- or over-watered. Larry Stein and Doug Welsh, Extension Horticulturalists for Texas A & M, have put together an extremely comprehensive breakdown of how to determine proper watering times to ensure the proper depths are reached without drowning the roots.
Best Types of Sprinkler Heads for Shrubs and Trees
Shrubs and trees can both be (and often are) effectively irrigated using the same method(s), or you can separate them and use different types of sprinklers for each.
For trees, the efficacy of the type of sprinkler head shown here is debatable. It is not normally advisable to water trees with shrub sprayers or turf rotors, as shown, but the one possible exception to this is trees planted in grass. Many species planted in grass areas can survive just fine off the water the grass receives.
The types of sprinkler heads best for shrubs and trees are micro-irrigation sprinklers, shrub sprayers, root zone watering systems, and manual hose attachments. Of those four options, only the shrub sprayers should be scratched off the list. Like fixed spray heads, they put out a diffused, fixed stream of water highly susceptible to waste from overspray and evaporation.
Micro-irrigation Types of Sprinkler Heads for Trees & Shrubs
Micro-irrigation is the practice of irrigating with small water droplets, or ‘micro-sprays’, and the resulting output is far less than regular sprinkler heads. This reduced output allows plants to take in water at at least the same rate it’s being put out, ensuring every drop hits the intended target and is not lost to pooling or run-off.
The most common type of micro-irrigation is drip irrigation, which is the most efficient method of watering that we have available to us at over 90% efficient. Drip systems can include a variety of different applicators including drippers, “spaghetti” tubing with emitters, bubblers, and micro-jets.
Above-ground drip systems use dripper types of sprinkler heads to apply the water. These drippers are inserted directly into the ½” poly line and perform slow, sustained, close-range watering to the plants and trees that happen to
In-ground drip irrigation systems can be constructed from flexible poly tubing (black), or more rigid PVC (white), shown. You can’t pop emitters into PVC the way you can poly line, so PVC systems rely on multiports and spaghetti tubing to get the water to each plant.
be planted in the area the tube is laid out in. Typical dripper output is anywhere from a half-gallon to two gallons per hour. This method works great for areas that are planted out in straight lines and the tubing can be laid very close to the roots.
If the location of the root system you’re targeting isn’t right in the spot the ½” poly tubing lays on, or if you have an in-ground system, you’ll need to connect a length of ¼” tubing (also known as “spaghetti”) to the ½” poly line via a coupler, run the tubing to the location needing water, and then install a half-, one-, or two-gallon per hour emitter on the end. This system is ideal for any type of shrub.
It can also be applied to trees, just note that trees require more than one emitter to water their roots. The lines and emitters run to trees also need to be moved out periodically as the root system continues to grow and spread laterally.
Another type of sprinkler head effective in drip irrigation is the bubbler. Bubblers are designed to cause slow and contained “flooding”, without run-off, in the desired area. Usually a few inches off the ground, they put out a 360-degree circle- or square-shaped stream that then falls a few inches to the ground below. The output rate is just fast enough to be more than the ground’s absorption can equally match, but not so much that the collected pool runs-off.
Bubblers are great for trees. It is very common practice to have an irrigation system, either in-ground or above-ground, that uses ¼” poly tubing and emitters for all plants and bubblers for all trees. There are different types of bubblers, some of which will throw up to a few feet if needed. There are even bubbler nozzles that can be installed onto grass spray heads, just like the aforementioned rotary nozzles. The higher output and controlled flooding-then-soaking-in approach is exactly the kind of watering the root systems of trees like.
Tree rings are an above-ground option that work well. You can easily make your own by shaping laser tubing into graduating circular shapes.
Tree rings follow the same concept as a soaker hose, but they’re usually thinner, closer in size to the ¼” spaghetti. They are pre-shaped circles of laser tubing placed on the ground around the trunk; when the system kicks on, the tube emits water from strategic slits in the circle, providing a complete 360-degree deep root watering. You can also easily make your own tree rings out of perforated tubing and tie it into your existing system via spaghetti tubing. For a cool above-ground option that connects right to your garden hose, try a Waterhoop.
Root zone watering systems are updated versions of the vertical perforated piping irrigation method commonly seen in large trees and palm trees. The watering systems are long and cylindrical, up to three feet long and three or four inches in diameter. Their top sits flush to grade, meaning the remaining two or three feet of cylinder is in the ground next to the tree.These systems are designed to get water, nutrients, and super-crucial oxygen directly to the root systems, at the proper depths, removing the guesswork of surface irrigation. This method encourages deep and robust root development, resulting in healthy and vibrant trees.
While both trees and shrubs can enjoy run-off-free watering with these, I only recommend them for trees. Unless you have an extremely old and large specimen shrub, or are establishing some higher-maintenance new ones, it’s overkill. Two drip emitters would more than handle a thirsty shrub, but the long-pull drinking style of trees is really well-suited to this type of sprinkler head. I’ve only ever seen great results from using these, particularly with Date and Fan Palms. Rain Bird and Hunter have the models to try but VermisTerra’s Hydrospiral is an interesting option as well.
In 2011, a drought in Texas cost the agriculture industry over $7 billion in losses. Akram Mohammad’s 7,400-acre pecan farm – and all 4,350 of his trees – survived. How? Micro-irrigation. On a flood irrigation program when he bought the farm in 2005, he worked with the government to overhaul the irrigation system, installing upwards of 25,000 feet of underground tubing feeding emitters at every single tree. This overhaul cut the water use in half.
Image: “20111209-NRCS-LSC-0007“ by U.S. Department of Agriculture is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Shrubs and trees can thrive without any sort of irrigation system as long as they are being manually watered for the appropriate amount of time, to the appropriate depth. In my professional opinion, ground-placement types of sprinkler heads aren’t efficient for this application, but there are some handheld options that work well.
An oversize aluminum bubbler attachment is a great manual alternative. They attach directly to a standard garden hose and diffuse the flow of water for direct, gentle watering right at the roots. Rain-style wands are also good choices for manual watering of shrubs and trees, and Dramm makes the best in the business. These put out gentle yet full streams for quick watering that you can control with simply the quick touch of your thumb.
Best Types of Sprinkler Heads for Flower Beds
The watering needs of flower beds are different from any other area in your garden. The soil is often light and loose, flowers with shallow root systems are easily disrupted or damaged, and the overall area has a sense of delicacy.
The best types of sprinkler heads for flower beds are either micro-irrigation applicators (laser tubing or microjets) or sprinkler attachments for manual watering.
Laser Tubing Sprinklers for Flower Beds
Laser tubing is quarter- or eighth-inch poly tubing perforated with microscopic holes (usually done with a laser) and made 4- to 6-inches apart. Sold in rolls of 25-feet, 50-feet, and more, it’s flexible and easy to maneuver which makes it very easy to install. A 100′ roll of laser tubing with 6-inch spacing and a half-gallon per hour flow rate will run you about $20.
Laser tubing lays on the surface of the ground and requires no burying or covering; the installation is as simple as following the layout of your flowers, dropping a row of line between every row of flowers, as shown below:
Laser tubing – flexible ¼” tubing with incremental perforations – is a highly efficient form of micro-irrigation well-suited to flower beds.
Securing the tubing with wire loops is not required but something you can do at your discretion.
The main benefits of laser tubing types of sprinkler heads are its accurate delivery right to the root zones, and the prevention of water wasted by evaporation, both of which are due to the tube’s placement on the ground. You can also place the tubes very close to your plants without fear of damaging them.
The water pressure in these systems is so low (usually less than 15 psi) that it’s safe for even the most delicate flowers.
Microjet Sprinklers for Flower Beds
Microjets are long, skinny sprinkler heads that deliver water from above the flowers in a fine mist or spray. They’re well-liked for watering flowers with shallow root systems, as they won’t injure the delicate roots.
Micro-jets are usually set at a height just above the flower bed canopy, from which they spray an ultra-fine cone of mist. In spite of their potential for waste, they’re a popular choice.
The microjet type of sprinkler head can easily be tied into your existing irrigation system, usually on a timer to water your flowers at specific times of day. The types of microjets available vary greatly; some produce an ultrafine spray that’s barely noticeable while others shoot out a concentrated stream of water.
Microjet sprinkler heads are a decent option for watering flowers in a garden bed, and some gardeners swear by them. The conundrum with microjets is that the features they were specifically designed to have (height and a fine mist-style of output) are the very things that make them inefficient. Laser tubing is more efficient, delivering water directly to the roots of your plants with little waste.
Both types have their own benefits, so it comes down to preference when selecting which one you want to use on your flowers. I personally prefer laser tubing or hand watering.
Manual Sprinkler Head Attachments for Flower Beds
Flower beds typically lend themselves well to hand or manual watering, and even if you have a fully automated system, it’s still a good idea to hand water now and then. This gives you a perfect opportunity to perform a visual inspection and catch any potential issues, or just do some deadheading.
A great handheld option for flower beds is the Fogg-It Superfine nozzle designed for use in any application that requires great care. The Fogg-It nozzles were designed to be used on seedlings, so you know they’re going to be delicate enough on your flowers. They’re made with precision solid brass and fit any 3/4″ hose. They’re very durable and should last quite a few years.
As far as ground placement sprinklers, this is largely a matter of personal preference. Any style will work to some degree, as long as the flow is gentle enough. I personally would recommend a small spot sprinkler with the flow turned down so the water is just bubbling out. This will keep the water low to the ground and contained within the bed. It will also protect the flowers from any large and heavy overhead drops.
Best Types of Sprinkler Heads for Contained Receptacles
The go-to method of irrigating any kind of contained receptacle (containers, pots, and/or planter boxes) is micro-irrigation: more specifically, a drip system where the drip lines might have different applicators like emitters, laser tubing, and/or microjets.
Drip systems happen to have a configuration that allows for a lot of flexibility to customize as needed. Smaller pots and hanging baskets just need one drip line emitter; for larger containers, bubblers and/or laser tubing are definite, microjets are a possibility
Some containers can get pretty massive. One this size would definitely make good use of laser tubing or bubblers.
The question therefore is whether to tie your containers into an existing in-ground system, if you have one. If the water pressure is there and the controller has openings, any number of contained receptacles can be added. With their own zone on the timer, they’ll be cycled into automated watering just like everything else.
If you don’t have an in-ground system or just want them separate for whatever reason, there are fully-stocked, no-tools-needed DIY kits available for purchase. Made especially for the DIY home gardener, they’re everything you need to set up a freestanding drip system that connects to your garden hose or an exterior hose bib. You do have to turn it on and off, but once you do, you can leave it unattended for a time as the rate of flow will be controlled.
Overall, the kits are quite nice; I’d recommend them as a good project for just about anyone into gardening, but they are especially great for anyone who might want or need to learn or review very basic irrigation work. It’s a perfect time to learn the names of a dozen or so key components plus some basic repair and install skills, such as connecting lines and valves.
One of the best types of sprinkler heads for a hanging basket is a simple extended wand that attaches right to your garden hose. Hanging baskets can be deceptively thirsty, and this combines deep soaking with efficiency.
Containers and hanging baskets are perfect for those of us who love to hand-water. To me, hand-watering is a big part of what makes gardening so relaxing and peaceful. But who doesn’t love a new gadget? Here are some nice sprinkler options to attach to your hose to enhance the experience:
Best Types of Sprinkler Heads for Balcony and Indoor Gardens
A contained, vertical, balcony garden is perfect for a mini DIY drip kit, for indoor or outdoor use.
Balcony gardening takes place in containers, raised planter beds, hanging baskets and glass bowls, or any one of the various types of wall and vertical gardens; and as we’ve learned in previous sections, the best types of sprinkler heads for these applications are those attached to a drip system.
Mini DIY drip kits are available for home purchase. As long as you can supply the water for the reservoir (a bowl or container of water from any sink placed nearby), the kit has everything else you need to get your plants on an “automated” system. This model comes with a 60-day timer and LED display.
Sprinklers are not to be underestimated. Your garden relies on you to give it water to live, and the right sprinklers can help you do so with utmost efficiency.