Make Shuttles, Wind up and Re-use Your Drip Tape

Pam and Calvin unreel drip-irrigation hose over a garden bed.
Photo credit Luke Stovall

We are hesitant to fully embrace the use of agricultural plastics because of decreasing world stocks of oil, increasing air pollution, global warming, and problems of how to dispose of plastics responsibly. But sometimes plastics are so useful they’re irresistible! So our policy is to use plastics if they offer a significant advantage; to make them last as long as possible; to find uses for the scrap plastics where possible, and to find somewhere to recycle the final mess. Drip tape is a good example: drip irrigation reduces water use and decreases foliar diseases compared with over-head irrigation; and it enables larger areas to be irrigated well with a given amount of water, which is increasingly important as droughts become more common. We buy the thickest drip tape, 15mil, so that it will last as long as possible (10 years?). We have various tricks to get the longest life out of our drip tape, which I might write about some other time. What’s on my mind at this time of year is pulling up the drip tape and storing it, which I guess quite a few other growers are doing right now too.

We use shuttles to store the tape, and garden carts as a base to hold the shuttles while winding and unwinding. Winter is a great time to make yourself a set of shuttles. Or you could cut a set of parts and make them up on rainy days in the spring. 

At a Virginia Association of Biological Farmers field day at Glen Eco Farm some years ago, we saw a shuttle system with an A-frame shuttle holder, developed by Marlin Burkholder. Marlin’s system of raising beds, laying drip tape and plastic mulch is tractor based and involved some impressive tractor gymnastics on Marlin’s part. I got together later with another grower at the field day, Melissa Wender of Shannon Farm, to modify Marlin’s system for use without tractors. Here’s our original rough drawing of how to make a shuttle: 

Our shuttles rotate on lengths of rebar resting on the top of a garden cart. The rebar is held in place on each side of the cart by two large spring clamps. Visegrips would work, if you have enough. Or you could make permanent wood or metal additions to the sides of your cart to hold the rebar. We have 6 carts, and they stray a lot, so we could never be sure of finding the cart with the axle set-up, so it’s easier for us to find 4 spring clamps each time.

Our shuttles are made from scrap white oak stretcher bars from our hammocks business. The dimensions are 1.25” x  0.75”, but I’m sure anything similar would work. We have the larger style of garden cart (Carts Vermont, Johnny’s have them). We found that a 28” height of shuttle was the tallest workable. Melissa has the smaller style of cart, and I think she decided to go with 24” shuttles. Here’s a parts list for one large shuttle:

1.5” x 1” lumber: 2 pieces 28” long

2 pieces 13 & 5 eighths inches

2 pieces 12” long

16 screws approx  1.5” long

Drill a hole in the center of each of the 28” lengths through the flat side, wide enough to easily fit your rebar axle. Screw the 12” pieces between the 28” pieces, about 5” in from the ends of the long pieces. Screw the other pieces across the shuttle offset from each other, a little above and below the axle holes. These cross-braces strengthen the shuttles and give a handy place to tuck the starting end of the drip tape. One shuttle this size can hold 400’ of tape, maybe more. We generally wrap two lengths at once onto one shuttle.

To wind up used drip tape from the field, first open the ends of the drip tape. Then bring your cart with a shuttle on the axle and line it up between two runs of drip tape. If there is any slope at all, it will be drier work if you are at the high end of the field and the drip tape is draining as you wrap it.  Disconnect the drip tape from the supply pipe, and tug at the end of the tape nearest the cart. Sometimes it will just pull through any accumulated crop debris and weeds, sometimes it won’t. If it won’t, walk back down the line tugging the tape and looking for what is snagging it. Free it up and go back to the cart. If you have two people to work on each shuttle, two lines can be wrapped at once. Tuck the starting ends of  the drip tape around the shuttle and under one of the cross-braces. Then steadily turn the shuttle end over end, wrapping the tape around the shuttle. If you’re rolling two lengths at once, obviously the two people will need to co-operate, and stop if one length gets snagged up. When you get to the final end of the drip tape, write the length on the tape with a white china marker (grease pencil) and tuck the loose end under a couple of rounds of wrapped tape. We also write the contents of the shuttle on the side with a permanent marker, eg “ 2 @ 150’ ”. We store our shuttles of drip tape in a barn, tied by rope thrown over a beam, as if storing food safe from bears when backpacking. Another shuttle balances the weight of the first. This keeps the drip tape fairly inaccessible to mice.

To reuse the drip tape next season, use the cart and the rebar axle again. Unrolling is much quicker than wrapping it up, especially if you have two lengths of drip tape on one shuttle. Two shuttles can be put on one axle side by side, and two people can walk out with two runs of drip tape each, one in each hand.