Avid gardeners spend a good part of the winter planning what they will plant in the spring. Even casual gardeners invest plenty of time and money in their plants. Regular watering is one key to a successful garden.
So what’s a gardener to do when faced with lack of rainfall combined with water restrictions in the middle of a hot summer?
More and more gardeners are turning to rain barrels to keep their gardens happy and healthy. Saving rainwater to use during dry periods is an ancient practice that is once again becoming popular. This low-tech but ingenious solution is simple and inexpensive, and provides chemical-free water that plants thrive on.
The plastic rain barrels come in a range of sizes, with 50 to 60 gallons being most common. Simply place the barrel under a downspout in an unobtrusive part of your yard and wait for rain. Instead of letting rainwater flow down your driveway and into a storm drain, it will collect in the barrel for later use.
You can harvest a surprisingly large amount of rainwater from your gutters. Just a small amount of rain -- less than half an inch -- can easily fill a 50 gallon rain barrel, so you can quickly start to collect enough to keep your flower beds, garden or houseplants well watered. “It won’t be enough o water your lawn, but it will be plenty for vegetable gardens, flowers and shrubbery,” says Lars Hundley, owner of Dallas-based CleanAirGardening.com, an online company that specializes in environmentally friendly lawn and garden supplies. To collect more water, you can connect several barrels with a pip or hose, or you can put barrels under more than one gutter downspout.
Once your rain barrel is full, you can hook a hose up to the rain barrel to water your garden (rain barrels are perfect to use with soaker hoses), or you can simply dip a watering can into the barrel. Rainwater is naturally soft and free of minerals, chlorine, fluoride and other chemicals.
“Trees and plants rely on fungus, bacteria and nematodes to help them absorb the minerals and nutrients they need,” explains Hundley. “Plants have an efficient immune system that allows them to fend off diseases and other invaders as long as they have a healthy soil environment and aren’t stressed by other factors,” he adds. Chemical fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and drought disrupt the balance and harmony of the soil, weakening trees and plants and allowing disease to take over. “The chemicals and hard water from many municipal water systems also add to the imbalance of the soil. Watering with softer, natural rainwater is a nice treat for your plants,” says Hundley.
In addition to being good for your plants, rain barrels can also save you money. Some experts estimate that lawn and garden watering make up almost 40 percent of total household water use during the summer; by utilizing collected rainwater, you can substantially reduce this amount. As an added benefit, collecting rainwater also helps control moisture levels around the foundation of your house.
Here are some tips to consider when shopping for a rain barrel:
* Make sure your barrel is child-proof. A safety grid at the top prevents children and animals from entering.
* All systems should use covered barrels that keep the water from accumulating leaves and other debris. They should also have some kind of filter to keep out silt and leaves; these can range from a funnel with mesh in the bottom that is covered by gravel to a rainwater washing apparatus that you can purchase.
* Keep mosquitoes from breeding in your barrel by keeping it tightly covered and using debris screens to filter water before it enters the barrel. Cleaning your gutters and downspouts frequently and using collected rainwater within a few days will also help control mosquito problems. You can place a nontoxic mosquito “dunk,” in the barrel for additional protection.