Gardeners from the novice to the professional invest a great deal of time and effort in their blooming creations. Regular watering is one of the most important steps to a bountiful garden. So what’s a gardener to do when faced with a lack of rainfall combined with municipal water restrictions in the middle of a hot summer?
More and more gardeners are turning their attention to an age-old method of saving for a not-so-rainy day. Rain barrels were used by our thrifty pioneering forefathers for gardens and bathing. The roof gutters drained into an old barrel at the corner of the homestead. (It is estimated that the combination of lawn and garden watering make up almost 40 percent of an average North Americans household’s water consumption during the summer months.)
In addition to being good for the environment and good for your monthly utility bill, rainwater will help your plants to flourish. The chemicals and hard water from many municipal water systems create an imbalance in the soil. Watering with soft, natural rainwater is a treat for your plants, avoiding the chlorine, fluoride and salts added to the municipal water.
By simply placing a barrel under a downspout at a corner of your house, you will be able to harvest a surprisingly large amount of rainwater from your gutters. Just a small amount of rain can quickly fill a barrel, providing enough to help keep your flower beds, garden, or houseplants well watered. The quantity probably won’t be enough to enable you to water your lawn, but it will be plenty for vegetable gardens, flowers and shrubbery.
Many municipalities in Canada and the US have rain barrels available at a reduced price for homeowners looking for a green solution to watering. The problem with most commercial water collection barrels, however, is that they are rather unattractive and detract from a traditional home’s landscape.
Your first step is to find a wooden barrel. Many can be found at flea markets or in antique shops or reclamation yards. There are several manufacturers in North America of new oak barrels for use in wine making, but they are usually fairly expensive. You will note that most barrels come with a bottom but no top. This is exactly what you want. The bottom will become the top of the barrel. Cut a round or square hole approximately six inches in diameter, or six inches square, in the top of the barrel. From the inside, staple (using stainless-steel staples) a piece of mosquito netting over the hole you have just made. This will keep the mosquitoes out as well as debris from your downspout.
Find a 30 gallon plastic barrel which will fit inside a 65 gallon wooden barrel. The tricky bit is to connect some PVC fittings from the bottom of your plastic barrel and out of your wooden barrel, to a hose-bib. PVC fittings come in a wide array of threaded fittings; see the schematic above for details. When purchasing a hose-bib, look for the threaded version to make it easy to disconnect when you need to remove the wooden barrel to service the internal plastic barrel, if required.
The more barrels you have, of course, the more rain water you can harvest. Place the barrels in corners where gutter downspouts are located. Dig a square area at least 18 inches larger than the barrel, to a depth of approximately 12 inches, and backfill with 1″ diameter river rock. Build a cedar crib to support the plastic and wooden barrels on-top of the river rock. A frame of 2 inch by 4 inch cedar set at 4 inches apart will act both as a decorative pedestal for your barrels and will allow overflow to run into the stones below. The weight of the wooden barrel should ensure that children and animals will not be able to enter the plastic barrel. You may want to drive several large screws into the side of the wooden barrel through the crib as an extra precaution.
Cut your downspouts so that the outlet is just over the hole you made in the top of the wooden barrel. Now simply wait for nature to take its course. Once your rain barrel is full, you can hook a hose (or soaker hose) up to the rain barrel to water your garden, a treat for your thirsty flowers and greenery and a fitting look for your traditional home back to your pioneer roots.