This extremely warm spring could well lead to drought this summer, so it’s worth thinking about how to keep your garden happy in dry periods. Which brings us to one of our favorite gardener’s aides: the rain barrel.
Why bother with a rain barrel? Well, for one thing, the water in it is free. It’s also rainwater, which means it has bypassed chemical treatments. Rainwater is good for your plants, because it doesn’t contain the chlorine found in regular tap water.
Rain barrels can also help mitigate stormwater run off. During a big rain, loads of water rushes over hard surfaces into the sewers instead of sinking into the ground. That stormwater runoff overloads the storm system, which in Indianapolis floods into the sanitary sewers, making one unholy mess. Rain barrels can hold water until you need it later, preferably before the next storm event. The Indianapolis Department of Public Works has a nifty handout about how rain barrels fit into stormwater mitigation here.
You can purchase a rain barrel ready-made, or you can make your own. Either way, make sure it has a tight-fitting lid and that the spot where water runs in has a fine screen to keep debris and egg-laying mosquitoes out. You’ll most often see homemade barrels made from large, food-grade drums, but you can repurpose a plastic garbage can, too.
A couple of tricks for using your rain barrel:
Set the barrel under a collection device. Either run a downspout into it, or use a rain chain to guide water from the gutter to the barrel.
Set the spigot as close to the bottom of the barrel as you can. A low spigot means you have more emptying capability. But you might want to leave the spigot at least two inches above the bottom of the barrel; that bottom space traps sediment and keeps the barrel stable.
You can screw a hose to the spigot to water your garden, or you can fill your watering can directly from the spigot.
Make sure your barrel has an overflow hose or spout near the top. Once your barrel fills, the overflow should divert back into the downspout, or at least to a spot nearby that’s not like to erode.
We like to place rain barrels on a gravel surface (the better to catch overflow), and we set them on cinderblocks. That extra bit of height gives you more water pressure when you empty the barrel. Amy F’s rain barrel is set near her pond, so the overflow hose can empty into the pond, and so can any drips that the watering can misses.
You can hook several rain barrels together by using tubing to set the overflow spigot of one barrel to empty into another barrel. The overflow hose from the last barrel in the sequence should empty onto a not-likely-to-erode spot on the ground.
Try to use at least some of the water in your barrel every three to four days. That way, you make room for water from the next rain storm.
If the rain barrel’s noble purpose isn’t quite enough to overcome your dislike of its appearance, you have a couple of options: paint it, grow plants around it, or screen it from view using a shrub.