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Rain gardens and barrels are an easy way to conserve water and prevent environmental impacts associated with stormwater runoff. More...

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On a rainy day, water gushes out of gutters and runs off paved areas in sheets.  If this stormwater flows over the ground, it can pick up pollutants like oil or fertilizer, and erode soil or cause flooding.  There are two simple things you can make to conserve water, while reducing stormwater runoff and the problems it causes: a rain barrel or a rain garden.

A rain barrel is just a big container that collects and stores rainwater that flows off a rooftop.  It is connected to a gutter downspout. You can use the harvested water on your lawn, regular or raised bed garden or flowerpots, or wash your car with it.  It is not suitable for drinking, cooking or bathing, as it might contain pathogens or contaminants. 

Typical rain barrel set up.
Rain barrels are an easy way to harvest water for watering plants or washing cars. This drawing (source?) shows a typical set up.

Rain barrels are inexpensive, easy to make and efficient.  Depending on your roof area, a 55 gallon rain barrel can fill up with as little as 1/10th of an inch of rain.  You can buy a rain barrel or make your own.  A large, food quality, reconditioned plastic barrel is good because it is waterproof and will not rust.  Check the Yellow Pages or online under containers, barrels or water tanks. (A sturdy Rubbermaid Roughneck trash can will also work.)

Cut a hole in the top of the barrel to let water in, and connect it to your gutter downspout.  Install an overflow in the top so excess water does not spill over and cause erosion.  You can scoop out the water in a bucket (watch your back, as water weighs more than 8 lbs/gallon), or set up a spigot that hooks up to a hose.  Putting the barrel on a raised base like a concrete block will make the spigot easier to reach.  Link multiple barrels together for more capacity.  A rain barrel needs a tightly fitting lid to keep children or animals from falling in, and a mesh screen to keep mosquitoes out.  See the links below for photos, supplies needed, and instructions.  

A rain garden is basically a shallow depression in the ground with plants.  The middle part of the garden holds several inches rainwater for about six hours after a storm, giving the soil and plants time to slowly soak it up.  This mini-bioretention and filtration basin is a creative way to beautify an area while managing stormwater runoff from roofs, slopes or paved areas.  UCONN has a rain garden near the Towers Dining Hall that helps reduce runoff from a parking area. 

Rain gardens for homeowners were “invented” in 1990 by Dick Brinker, a developer who worked with the Maryland Dept. of Environmental Resources on a Low Impact Development community.  Rain gardens need less water and fertilizer than a conventional lawn. They help replenish groundwater, which is important during a drought.  They can also provide habitat for birds and butterflies.

All you need to make a rain garden are rainwater, dirt, a shovel and some plants.  A residential garden can be strategically located near a downspout.  Set up the garden at least 10 feet away from the house, with a minimum of a 1% slope to prevent water from ending up in your basement.  The surface area should be 20-30% of the size of the roof area that will drain into it.  Use a rope or hose to lay out the boundary.  Dig a hole 4-8” deep, and add a couple inches of humus or other organic material.  A combination of 20% compost, 50% sandy soil and 30% topsoil is ideal.  Garden furniture or decor can be positioned to camouflage the plastic barrel that captures the overflow of water.

Make sure the bottom of the hole is level.  Test the garden by filling it with a hose by the downspout.  Make any adjustments, like putting a berm on the lower side of the garden.  Next, attach a plastic pipe to the downspout to divert rainwater into the depression, and bury it in a shallow trench that slopes down to the garden.  You can also create a grassy swale or just lay pipe on the ground.

Then head to your local nursery or greenhouse to select plants.  Choose native plants that tolerate drought but can also stand soils that are wet for a day or so.  Examples include Royal Fern, Astilbe, Butterflyweed, Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Day Lilies, Lobelia, Hosta, or Winterberry.  A 3” layer of hardwood mulch will keep the weeds down.  After planting, periodically weed and prune.  In the winter, leave dead or dormant plants standing. Cut them back in the spring.  Then enjoy less lawn to mow.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on October 19, 2007






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