Jessica Walliser
August 8, 2013

Save water (and money) by watering your garden with rainwater harvested in a rain barrel.
Photo by Jessica Walliser

Only about 2 to 3 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh, and of that percentage, a scant 0.3 percent is available for use. With every living thing on the planet utterly dependent on it, fresh water will become more and more valuable over the coming years. While it might not seem that we gardeners can help quench the thirst of this planet, you might be surprised to know that the simple practice of harvesting rainwater can have a significant impact on the environment.

Even though rain does contain some contaminants, largely as a result of industrial activities, it is indeed the best water source for our gardenslawns and orchards. Watering plants with rainwater versus tap water has several benefits: It boosts populations of beneficial soil microbes (which can be harmed by chlorine), it prevents excessive salt buildup in the soil, and it nourishes the plants’ immune systems. Rainwater is the right pH, and if stored properly, it is clean and readily available for use.

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Collecting rainwater in a rain barrel attached to your houses’ downspout is a great way to help your garden and the planet. An inch of rainfall on a 1,000-foot impermeable surface yields about 500 gallons of water—more than enough to sustain the average garden for several weeks.

You can purchase a fancy wooden rain barrel or an inexpensive plastic model, but look for a barrel with a built-in spigot for easy hose connection. You might also appreciate models featuring overflow outlets that allow users to connect several barrels together and prevent wasting even a single drop. Gardeners on a budget can make your own rain barrel from food-grade plastic drums; large food suppliers and manufacturers can often provide empty cooking oil drums. Don’t use any container in which chemicals or petroleum products were stored or if you’re unsure of exactly what was housed inside. With any barrel, commercial or homemade, there should be a mesh screen where the water enters the barrel to filter out any debris, and it should be securely sealed to prevent access to children. Check your community’s regulations regarding rain-barrel installation before making any purchases.  

For easier emptying, site the barrel several feet higher than ground level, even if it means placing the barrel up on concrete blocks. This will enable the water to exit the spigot and run downhill, letting gravity do the work. If it isn’t possible to locate your barrel on higher ground, you might need to purchase a small pump to deliver the water. I have my barrel situated next to the back porch, an area level with the garden, so I have to drag the attached hose down hill to fill my watering cans.  

Recycling rainwater is an important aspect of responsible gardening. Just think, if you had set up that rain barrel this spring, you’d have plenty of water handy for the dog days of summer—and there would be no need to watch the water meter run away with your wallet. 

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