The key roll rain barrels play in gardens

Bonnie H. Duggan
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

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Even with normal to above normal precipitation following last year’s drought, supply and demand issues continue to be debated among planners, developers, municipal officials and scientists. Just this past week, the Frederick News-Post ran a series of very informative articles about how both the lack and abundance of water affect our region.

Last summer’s drought, the most pronounced drought year in a string of several dry years, caused all of us to rethink our water usage. Well owners got moving early with conservation plans as they feared their wells would fail. According to Health Department estimates, two to three times more wells failed in Frederick County between May and September last year as compared with more typical years. Residents connected to County and City water saw use restrictions tighten quickly until outside water use was banned altogether. Facing such dire circumstances brought a huge response from the gardening community who, instead of putting aside their trowels, found a way to have their plants and water them too!

Throughout Frederick County, hundreds of gardeners installed their own personal water tanks in the form of rain barrels. Though infrequent, the passing showers and occasional downpours filled the barrels and provided a reserve of water that the plants otherwise would not have had.

Between April and October 2002, about 23 inches of rain fell on Frederick County. That is about 10 inches below normal. Even then, if a homeowner with just 750 square feet of roof had been able to collect and save this rainfall, they would have had a whopping 10,746 gallons of water to use in their landscape! Considering the ban on outdoor watering, this amount would have certainly come in handy. And this is the water from just one medium-sized roof!

Last summer, our combined conservation efforts, coupled with bans on outdoor watering and local moratoriums on building, allowed us to squeak by without having to truck water in to serve our basic needs. Many of us who attend the Great Frederick Fair know how hard everyone associated with that event worked to bring water to the fairgrounds so that the fair could go on as usual.

Then in the fall, it began to rain, followed by a snowy winter and so far, a very wet spring. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Frederick County’s drought status has now been upgraded to “recovery,” which means that great care must be taken to ensure that we don’t slip back into parched circumstances.

Unlike Moses who during Biblical times struck a rock with his staff and produced water, we cannot “make” water. Adam and Eve steeped herbal tea in the same water the dinosaurs drank, which you now use to shower in every morning. Water really isn’t local, it is global, so management of water resources is critical for all creatures near and far. Only 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh, most of which is locked up in glaciers and ice caps. That leaves three-tenths of 1 percent serving our needs through lakes, rivers and streams. Regrettably, much of this tiny fresh water supply is now in danger of drying up or becoming contaminated beyond use.

Increasing urbanization has meant that our limited water resources are stretched farther and farther all the time. In the very delicate world of water, all it takes is for some climatologic or demographic event to upset the scale. In reality, we are only just a few rainfalls shy of drought all the time.

The Drought of 2002 raised awareness that water should never again be taken for granted. Water usage in the U.S. is well-studied, and municipal suppliers know what to expect. According to the American Water Works Association, outside watering creates a 40% spike during summer months. Even if rainfall patterns continue at more normal levels, our usage patterns will make a huge difference on whether or not there is enough water to go around.

Since 1982, an increasing number of states have been drafting formal drought plans. Currently 33 states have them, with about seven more states actively working on the issue. Most of these plans are reactive in nature, which does little to help avoid drought. The state of Georgia, however, is emerging with a model that reforms water use in a pro-active way. A key component of Georgia’s risk management plan is to regulate outdoor watering all the time---not just during droughts. Under the plan, homeowners can water landscape plants three times per week, which is quite adequate. By watering thoroughly and then allowing a time of drying, plants develop better, deeper root systems. The result is a healthier landscape that can better manage during droughts. Modest restrictions also benefit the water supply by stretching the resource further.

One comment I heard over and over last summer was how well plants responded to rainwater when compared with well or treated water. It isn’t surprising since rainwater contains no dissolved minerals, chlorine or fluoride. It is nature’s ideal water source for all landscape needs. I used four rain barrels last summer and managed to keep my garden quite happy. Since I also have a small ornamental pond, I was able to keep the fish swimming as well. Except for the grass, which I allowed to go dormant, the effects of drought were minimal in my yard.

Eddie, success stories have come in from all over the County as gardeners share their tales of beating the drought. One of your neighbors in Walkersville called to tell me that she saved 70% on her water bill---about 5,000 gallons---when comparing last summer’s usage to the summer before. Another man from Woodsboro connected six barrels to the back of his home to collect water for his swimming pool. In Frederick, Evangelical Lutheran Church placed rain barrels under the downspouts and window air conditioners on their buildings to catch every drop of water for their beautiful gardens. A man in Brunswick used collected rainwater to wash his truck all summer. With results like these, it makes sense to keep collecting rainwater, drought or not! Besides, why should we use drinking water for these purposes?

Just think about what could happen in Frederick County alone if all residents used collected rainwater for their outside water needs. Last summer, hundreds of us did. My hope is that hundreds more will follow.

It is clear to see how rain barrels have a place as a drought management tool, but it may be surprising that rain barrels are critically important during times of excessive rain fall. In many homes, at least one or two downspouts empty out onto a paved driveway, which then carries the water to the street. When multiplied by thousands of homes, there is a great deal of storm water flow that needs to be managed. Some of it finds its way into holding ponds where the water can more slowly seep into the ground. The rest ends up overwhelming municipal sewer systems or pouring into creeks and rivers where the torrential currents erode stream beds, carrying silt and pollutants into area lakes and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. Lake Linganore is losing significant amounts of its capacity to silt infiltration from runoff. When a homeowner channels downspouts into rain barrels, the diverted water can be managed on the homeowner’s property without contributing to the storm water problem. Effective Downspout Disconnection programs have been implemented all over the U.S. from Boston to Portland and in Canada as well. Many of these programs will pay homeowners up to $50 per downspout that they redirect onto their property to keep water from entering the storm flow. Homeowners are then encouraged to create “rain gardens” to beautifully manage excess water while it slowly seeps into the ground.

In times of want or plenty, rain barrels have a key roll to play in our gardens.

While harvesting and reusing rainwater is very simple, there are safety concerns that must be addressed. First of all, no one should ever use an open, unscreened container. Both children and animals can drown in as little as a few inches of collected water. And standing water is an open invitation for breeding mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus and other diseases. Secondly, only use a food-grade container with a known usage history that was made to hold liquid. Trash cans are not designed to withstand the pressure and weight of collected water and will warp and eventually split. Finally, make sure your rainwater collection container is seated on a firm, level foundation to minimize the danger of tipping. A typical 60-gallon rain barrel weighs 500 pounds when full.

After last summer, many home owners associations (HOAs) are developing guidelines for rain barrel use. HOAs can and should encourage rainwater collection and reuse while providing all-important safety guidelines. If there are appearance considerations, HOAs often choose to dictate material type, color or location of the barrel. Visual screens made from lattice or fencing material allow adequate coverage while providing support for annual vines like purple Hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab) and Morning Glory (Ipomoea.)

It is truly hard to predict what kind of weather patterns we will have this summer, and how they will affect our water supply. With the rain barrel you have, Eddie, you will be ready! If rainfall amounts are normal this summer, collected rain water will tide your plants over until the next rain event. If the summer turns out hot and dry, your plants will be able to thrive. Remember the Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper? The ant toiled tirelessly to stock up on food while there was abundance because he knew that times of want were not far off. The grasshopper did not prepare and continued his reckless consumption. When times became hard, the ant was prepared. And what became of the grasshopper? Well, I hope a Praying Mantis ate him!

If you want to learn how to master the art of rainwater collection and reuse, be sure to register for an upcoming workshop. The first will be held at the C. Burr Artz Library on Thursday evening, June 12 at 7 P.M. To register, call 301-694-1630. On Saturday, June 14 at 10 A.M., Community Commons is sponsoring a hands-on workshop where participants can put the finishing touches on a rain barrel to take home. Call 301-662-3000 to register. During both events, I’ll cover everything from modifying your downspout to barrel setup for efficient and safe reuse. We’ll even talk about how to calculate the amount of water coming off your roof so you’ll know how much you can expect to save (which is a whole lot more than you probably think!)

Thanks for your great question, Eddie. Last summer, you made an important step toward transitioning your garden from the use of treated water to a much better source—rain water. I hope you’ll soon be rolling out your rain barrel for another summer of good use!

As author John Steinbeck wrote of America’s “Dust Bowl” drought years, “It never failed that during the dry years people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” Hopefully we will remain vigilant and not slip into apathy as we watch the rain fall this spring. Our conservation efforts will pay off, both in our yards and in our community.

Read other articles on gardening in drought conditions

Read other articles by Bonnie Duggan

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