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Rain barrels - photo by Stibolt

Rain barrels next to Ginny's potting bench

Climb up my rain barrels
by Ginny Stibolt

Remember that old song that asked you to: "Climb up my rain barrel, Slide down my cellar door, And we'll be jolly friends forever more"? Well, you don't see those sloping (or slidable) cellar doors in this part of the country and for a long time, you didn't see rain barrels either, but thankfully that's beginning to change.

What can rain barrels do for you?

1) Provide free*, soft water** for all of your inside and porch plants. Your plants will thank you. During the dry fall months, I used rain barrel water to provide extra water for all those trees I transplanted.

2) Provide a source of water in areas that have no spigots. (Our three tandem rain barrels in the photo are next to our potting bench at the spigot-less side of the detached garage.)

3) Could save you money on your water bill depending on how well you use your rainwater.

4) Slow down run-off into streams and storm drains to reduce erosion, sedimentation, and pollution. Environmentalists worry most about the initial surge of storm water after a downpour because it causes the most erosion of the previously dry soil and carries the most pollutants. Civil engineers worry most about the initial surge because it's most likely to overwhelm the storm water drainage system.

Forward-thinking towns and communities encourage rain barrel use and some communities even provide discounted rain barrels to their citizens. Just think how much the initial storm water runoff would be reduced, if just half of a town's citizens used a rain barrel or two.

Other ways to reduce runoff and pollution from your property include installing rain gardens, reducing the amount of lawn especially on sloping areas, and reducing the fertilizer and poison applications to your lawn. I'm about to install some rain gardens so watch for this adventure in an upcoming column.

* Free-after the initial cost of the rain barrel(s).

** Some roofing materials have been treated with chemicals to reduce moss growth or to preserve wood. Bird droppings add to the mix, so rain barrel water is not for human consumption.

Getting started

The easiest but more expensive method is to buy already configured rain barrels . But you can also make a rain barrel or a rain barrel system with a few common tools and a moderate amount of effort. Previous experience working with PVC plumbing fixtures is helpful. The three tandem barrels shown above include one barrel purchased in Maryland and two my husband put together. 55-gallon barrels are often available from bottling plants or food processing plants for free or for a small fee.

You must make sure that the barrels have been used for food-grade products. We were surprised to see the explosive and caustic warnings on the syrup barrels, but the guy we talked to said that all soft drink syrup is explosive and caustic. I knew there was a reason why we don't drink the stuff. This is still a food grade barrel: stay away from barrels used for poisons or petroleum products.

There are links to sites with specific instructions, lists of tools, and everything you need to make a rain barrel below.

We have two separate rain barrel systems:

1) The three tandem rain barrels next to the potting bench have the downspout from the garage gutter emptying into the first barrel, overflow hoses flowing into the other two barrels and a final overflow hose emptying onto the driveway pavement. The first barrel has a plastic catch-basket with a screen to filter out the sticks and stuff from the roof and to reduce the risk of mosquito eggs in the standing water.

The downspout originally just emptied all the water onto the pavement, but now 165 gallons is stored in the barrels. In a good rainstorm all the barrels fill up and the rest of the water runs into an area where I've transplanted a water-loving Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana).

Single rain barrel near vegetable garden

Closed rain barrel system with no outflow.

2) The second system is a single, closed-system barrel near our vegetable garden-to-be at the back of our house. The downspout has been interrupted with a sacrificed (gasp!) Tupperware container modified with PVC plumbing fittings that acts as a diverter. A pipe to the barrel drains the container, but above the pipe opening is collar that opens back into the downspout. When the barrel fills, the container fills and the rest of the rainwater continues down the downspout into the French drain system.

Overflow diverter - photo by Stibolt

Overflow container directs water backinto downspout .

This type of diverter is available for sale, if you don't have the Tupperware to use.

We could have added more rain barrels, but for now, these serve our needs quite well, and with our rain gardens that further slow down and absorb stormwater runoff, I'm happy with the minimal impact our household will have on our pond, Lake Asbury, Black Creek and eventually the St. Johns River. (Update: see two more rain barrel articles Rain Barrels Revisited and Three More Rain Barrels)

Rain Barrel Resources:

Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's written a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida in 2009.

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