Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
May, 2009
Regional Report

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Using rain barrels is a winning triptych -- providing plants with untreated water, saving you $, diverting water from the waste stream.

Make More of That Drop in the Bucket

Some of my sweetest moments include walking in a light rain on a warm day. On the practical side, conserving water is a high priority. Gardening sustainably is equally important. Saving money on water bills is appealing. Plus I feel thirsty empathy for every parched plant I see. So the urge to harvest rainwater for gardening is an easy step.

Fortunately friend Lucy in Bala Cynwyd is game. So we'll be installing a 58-gallon rainbarrel in a new bed outside her kitchen window. With two downspouts to choose from, this seems an ideal location. There's no spigot on that side of the house and fence, so dragging -- even storing -- the garden hose here is a chore. You have to walk all the way around the house to turn on the spigot -- a disincentive to water regularly.

Centering the rainbarrel at the middle downspout would allow easy watering of the climbing roses beside the house and the festive perennials, azaleas, and oakleaf hydrangeas in the facing bed. We'll be learning a new dance all summer -- collecting and distributing water to the plants most in need. Rationing it weeks after the last rain. Now though, we're still in the researching/planning/construction phase.

Rainwater Pros and Cons
On the plus side, rainwater is naturally soft; contains little if any dissolved minerals, metals or salts; and is free of chemical treatment.

It's not without hazards. Rainwater is exposed to air pollution and comes in contact with roofing materials, shingles, tar, zinc, gutters, and downspouts, and miscellaneous debris in its way down. Some studies indicate it can contain fecal coli form. That's why the strong warnings against human consumption, bathing, or cooking. With this in mind, my thought is to err on the side of caution and not use rainwater for vegetable gardens. Our use is for ornamental annuals, perennials, shrubs.

How To
Will the barrel capture enough water often enough to justify the labor and cost installing it? According to the City of Bremerton Rainbarrel facts, a rainfall of only 0.3 inches will fill a 55-gallon rain barrel. That's based on a typical home with a roof area of 1,200 sq. ft. and four downspouts, each collecting from an area of 300 sq. ft.

The Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington, Delaware has a simple, two-rainbarrel setup. Having two connected barrels is the preferred method -- one attached at the downspout, the second configured to catch the neighboring barrel's overflow. They can fill up fast, even with limited rainfall. Each has a faucet at the bottom -- where faucet and distribution hoses connect. Each has an overflow hole at the top for a pipe, connector, and hose to divert water before the barrel overflows.

Until we actually do it, I'm reluctant to repeat the standard instructions about connecting the rainbarrel to the downspout. I've learned everything's more complicated than it looks. There's also measuring, leveling, and fitting pipes and hoses to properly site and connect two barrels. I'll report back about the (good and bad) installation process.

The Northwest United States leads in rainharvesting. The Bremerton Web site ( and look quite helpful and extensive.

Harvest has a list of many rainwater harvesting workshops and government rebate programs in the United States and Canada at:

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