In the Garden:
New England
July, 2007
Regional Report

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Multiple barrels can conserve a great deal of water for later use in the landscape.

Harvesting Rainwater

"Rain, rain, go away" could easily be this summer's mantra here in New England. With drought in parts of the south and in most of the western U.S., we are grateful for the abundance of water. But we've had more than our share, and a gardener could start to get grumpy about not getting enough time in the garden, about saturated soil, sun-starved tomatoes, opportunistic plant diseases, and, good grief, look at those weeds!

I'd gladly ship some of the water to parched regions if I could. I see the rain pouring off the roof, creating gullies in the driveway, and wish I could harness it. The least I can do is conserve some, in case El Nino does an about-face in the weeks to come. So it's time for a rain barrel.

We just had a new gutter installed along the back of the house because the rain was splashing up under the doorstep and seeping indoors, so now there will be a volume of water whooshing through the new downspout. According to one source, a rainfall of 1 inch in 24 hours can produce more than 700 gallons of water running off the roof of a typical house. Multiply that by the number of houses that are connected to a water treatment system and it's easy to see how the system can be overwhelmed by the volume of storm water, which all too often leads to pollution of nearby waterways. Rain barrels and rain gardens can make use of some of this excess H2O.

The Basics
A rain barrel can be as simple as a plastic trash can set underneath the downspout or in any spot where water pours off the roof. If you want to use the water on your garden, you can either attach a spigot to fill a watering can, or use a hose attachment. A tight-fitting cover that blocks the light will keep out debris that could clog the spigot or hose, keep mosquitoes from laying eggs in the water, and keep algae from growing.

Raising the barrel up on cinder blocks or a platform of some type will allow gravity to increase the water pressure in the hose. You can even hook up a hose to a drip irrigation system -- a mighty appealing idea: Open the spigot and tend to other things while your plants get watered. With the torrential downpours we've been having, it's likely that water will overflow even a 55-gallon barrel, so to direct it away from your foundation you can attach an overflow pipe.

Safety Concerns
Water from the rain barrel is, of course, not potable, but some experts also raise concern about possible contaminants from rooftops that can make the water unsuitable for edible gardens. According to an article in Landscape Architecture magazine, asphalt shingles and other porous or rough roofing materials can hold particulates such as bird droppings and other debris, as well as heavy metals from the air, which then wash into the rain barrel. Wood shingles that are chemically treated to resist rot and algae can leach the chemicals into the rainwater running off the roof. Zinc strips that prevent moss build-up can also be problematic. Some large-scale rainwater collection systems are even designed to allow for the first flush of water off the roof -- which carries the majority of the questionable substances -- to be diverted.

Other people dispute these risks and say washing your garden produce is all that's needed. It's a judgment call. I tend to research things to death so I think it would be interesting to have some of my rooftop runoff tested at the health department. I don't think I'll have to wait long for the next barrage.


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