Increasingly serious shortages of water make it imperative to improve the efficiency of irrigation in agriculture, horticulture and in the maintenance of urban landscapes. The main aim of the current review is to identify ways of meeting this objective. After reviewing current irrigation practices, discussion is centred on the sensitivity of crops to water deficit, the finding that growth of many crops is unaffected by considerable lowering of soil water content and, on this basis, the creation of improved means of irrigation scheduling. Subsequently, attention is focused on irrigation problems associated with spatial variability in soil water and the often slow infiltration of water into soil, especially the subsoil. As monitoring of soil water is important for estimating irrigation requirements, the attributes of the two main types of soil water sensors and their most appropriate uses are described. Attention is also drawn to the contribution of wireless technology to the transmission of sensor outputs. Rapid progress is being made in transmitting sensor data, obtained from different depths down the soil profile across irrigated areas, to a PC that processes the data and on this basis automatically commands irrigation equipment to deliver amounts of water, according to need, across the field. To help interpret sensor outputs, and for many other reasons, principles of water processes in the soil–plant system are incorporated into simulation models that are calibrated and tested in field experiments. Finally, it is emphasized that the relative importance of the factors discussed in this review to any particular situation varies enormously.