June 21, 2007

catching rain

We have a thirsty garden.

beets and lettuce

Growing our own veggies has saved us a lot of money at the grocery store this spring. Between the big bag of goodies from the CSA farm every week, and all the lettuce, carrots, beets, broccoli and mixed greens in our garden, we've hardly bought any fresh produce since March.

But the big savings on the grocery bill are being eaten into by the rather obscene city water bill. It's been a dry, dry spring here in North Carolina (USA). We've only received about half our normal rainfall, and are experiencing "moderate" drought conditions. As a result, we've been watering the garden just about every day.

We've done a lot of things to make the garden water-efficient: it's laid out in small, square blocks rather than rows, so no water or nutrients are wasted in the rows between plants. The soil is loaded with compost, because healthy soil high in organic matter retains more moisture, and we've even mixed in a bag of vermiculite to further stretch the water resources. But all that hasn't been enough in times of drought to keep us from needing to water daily.

Enter the rain barrel. We've known for a while that this would be a good idea, but it was just an abstract idea until we got the last water bill. Ugh! One water bill would easily cover the cost of a rain barrel, so off we went to the garden store.

For those who've never used one of these things, it's quite simple. You just detatch the bottom part of your gutter down-spout and route it into the top of the rain barrel. It then catches the water spilling off your roof in a rainstorm -- rather than running into the storm drains and the local creek, it runs into your rain barrel.


This barrel holds 60 gallons of water, and is made of an old pickle barrel. The screen on top keeps out mosquitoes, flotsam and jetsam, and a spout at the bottom lets you attach a hose or fill up a watering can.

My partner, HWWLLB, installed the barrel and we hopefully looked up into a hot, blue, cloudless sky, wondering when we'd get a chance to use it. Not a drop in sight, but a thirsty garden shimmered in the heat behind us. Later that night, we were awakened by the sound of thunder. HWWLLB ran around the house peering out the windows. It's raining! It's raining!

Normally the little splatter of rain that accompanies a chance thunderstorm does little more for the garden than a quick perk-up. But when we went outside the next morning, the barrel was running over. From our little roof, it took just slightly more than 1/4 inch of rain to fill the 60-gallon barrel. In general, 1 inch of rain on a 1000 sq ft roof yields 625 gallons of water. To calculate the yield of a roof, multiply the square footage of the roof by 625, then divide by 1,000. That's how much water runs off your roof in a rainstorm that generates one inch of rain.

Hm... looking around, we have 5 more downspouts - 3 more on the house and 2 on the shed. I think we need a few more rain barrels! I'm thinking of making the rest of them myself. I did build one once from directions in a back-issue of Mother Earth News (using a trash can), but we had to dismantle it at the request of our nutty former land-lady. If you know of good instructions for making your own rain barrel, please post a link!

And there's good news... a passing thunderstorm in the forecast. My barrel runneth over.


lexi said...

Your garden looks delicious! If only something like this were possible where I live (Arizona). We've had an usually dry summer (we often have monsoons, but we've only had one rainfall, which lasted about 45 minutes, that I remember this summer so far.) It is going to be 114 today and my poor tomatoes are so wilty and sad. :( I try to water them only ever other day.. but in this heat even everyday is almost not good enough.

Dutch Girl said...

What an amazing idea - why didn't I think of that? I'm going to put rain barrels in my house too!

I wonder if one could rig something to catch grey water in a barrel... thinking...

equisetaceae said...

Hi there,
my partner and I just bought our first home and we are ALL about the rain barrels. We got ours from an asphalt supply/chemical company (eek! sounds scary- but wait-) that a friend works for. These barrels were used as secondary shipping containers for already contained chemicals. Meaning nothing icky and scary was ever touching them. The company has to get rid of them on a regular basis (old= unsafe for containment in case of spills) and they have heaps of them around. ours is almost 200L. Call around to your local industrial park and i'm sure you could find more for cheap cheap cheap.

Anonymous said...

A rain barrel has been on my to-do list forever! I need to get that done. Awesome blog BTW.

Unknown said...

i want one! but...colorado has very strange water rights laws and capturing rain water is illegal here!!! can you believe it? and in this semi-arid region at that. somehow we've gotten enough rain so far to allow me do 3 deep waterings per week for the veggies.
i'm originally also from NC (the extreme south western edge) and my mom's poor gardens are hurting. so i send lots of rainy thoughts each day.
thanks for the inspirations!

nikkishell said...

Great idea Ms Pea! I totally forgot about rain barrels, my Dad used to have them in his allotment when i was little. I'll be interested in any links for making my own too and i should get onto it soon as we're getting a fair bit of rain at the moment.

Octopus Knits said...

Rain barrels are a great idea! When I live in a place where I can have a garden again, I will definitely be using rain barrels.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness - watering once a day? I can't recall what it was like to be able to water in the late evenings whenever the garden looked wilted and the tomato leaves were brown and crisp.

Here, in the height of summer (in the inner city) you can only water twice a week for a limited time. Personally I think that is still too much and people in the city have little understanding of how hard people in the bush are doing.

For our veggie garden, placement is everything, and mulch is essential; assisting with water retention in the soil and helping to stabilise soil temperatures in the root zone. Homemade fabric sails put up in your garden will also help shield them from too much sun.

Your veggie garden looks delicious... and I'm sure it tastes good too! Have fun installing more water barrels... g

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this! I've been interested in rain barrels, but I wonder how many I'll need here in the Pacific Northwest?? Yeesh. Your garden looks lovely!

Wolfie and the Sneak said...

there are a couple sets of instructions over on You Grow Girl
here's one,
and here's another
a brief search on the site will give plenty more ideas!

Kerstin Svendsen said...

neat-o rain barrels are new to me. great post fawn!

Lamzeydievey said...

Hey your garden looks wonderful!!! We are also doing the square foot gardening method and it is amazing how much food you can actually fit into a 4X4 ft. square! Here we are in the high desert though and drought conditions are pretty constant. Even though we planted in May our little lettuce plants are only about 1/3 the size of yours!!!A rain barrel would help relieve some of the problem but I have read warnings that roof water should not be used on vegetables or anything you intend to eat, due to chemicals used in the roofing process. Have you heard anything about this and/or taken steps to prevent it? I'd be interested to know what others knew of this as well.

Cally said...

I was enjoying the post with your lovely veg, but the MOST interesting thing has been reading the comments, I had no idea so few people had rain barrels (or water butts as they are called in the UK).

I couldn't manage without them (as I won't use tap water) and whenever I see an abandoned wheelie bin, which is surprisingly often, I grab it and wheel it home to add to my collection.

As soon as my big shop bought water butt is full I syphon water into the wheelie bins for additional storage. It means I can give my plants good deep watering rather than inefficient regular shallow waterings.

You can buy water butt taps online to fit to the containers you use. On one of them I have a seeper hose attached for my strawberries which don't root as deeply. I turn it on for 15mins a day and it gives them a very slow gradual watering that doesn't wash away the nutrients.

Seeper hoses are excellent for many areas because you can lay them beneath the soil, so no water is wasted through evaporation, particularly if you have a good mulch over the plot.

In your climate, layers of newspaper would be a good mulch because they reflect the sun away from the soil so it retains it's moisture better. They also reflect the light to the underside of the plants which is handy for ripening tomatoes, courgettes (zucchinni) etc.

Cally said...

I forgot to say, if anyone works somewhere with coffee machines you can use the waste coffee grounds as a mulch around your plants which also helps deter slugs.

Anonymous said...

Water butts rule. Plus it gives people the opportunity to come round and admire your butt.

Geek+Nerd said...

Great post! It's nice to see that the barrel comes with a little screen to keep the nasties out.

Unknown said...

here is a link to a great downspout filter and downspout diverter - www.aquabarrel.com